Thursday, August 14, 2008
Ralph Waldo Emerson said of the Parthenon, “earth wears no fairer gem upon her zone.” Even if that was going a little too far, we certainly may assert that the great temple, built 447–432 b.c., is the high point of Greek Doric architecture. The Greeks’ quest for cosmic harmony can be traced in their sculpture and their architecture, especially temples. From archaic shrines—the religious equivalent of the royal megarons—the building type underwent a refinement of form and detail until it eventually achieved the proportional balance and visual nuances of the Parthenon. Having achieved perfection in the eyes of its creators, Doric architecture then had nowhere left to go.
Scholars continue to interpret the Athenian Acropolis, differing over the location of buildings long gone. For centuries, successive shrines to the city’s patron goddess, Athena Parthenos (the Virgin Athena), were built there, including the archaic Hekatompedon, which may well have been a sacred enclosure open to the sky. Peisistratos (602–527 b.c.) encouraged the Athena cult by commissioning a temple just north of where the Parthenon would later be built. Embellished by his sons after 520, this “old temple” was for a while the only one on the Athenian Acropolis, but it was destroyed when the ragtag Persian armies sacked the abandoned city in 480. Within thirteen years Cimon and Themistokles had cleared away the debris and rebuilt the perimeter wall of the Acropolis.
The Parthenon was commissioned by Perikles, who was the effective ruler of nominally democratic Athens from 461 until 428. The temple was to house a cult statue of Athena made by his friend Pheidias, the most famous artist of the day. Pheidias was appointed general superintendent of Perikles’ comprehensive redevelopment of the Acropolis, a fifty-year plan that included the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Ionic Temple of Athena Nike, and the Erechtheion. All was funded with money collected from Athens’ allies—the Delian League—to finance a second war with Persia that never happened. The architects of the Parthenon were Iktinos and Kallikrates, although their exact roles remain uncertain. Probably the latter was responsible for site management and the technical side of construction, executing Iktinos’s design.
Overall, the rectangular gable-roofed building was 228 feet (69.5 meters) long, 101 feet (30.9 meters) wide, and 65 feet (20 meters) high. It stood on a three-tiered platform—necessary on the uneven terrain—formed of 20-inch (50-centimeter) steps; the top one formed the floor of the temple. A surrounding colonnade, known as a peristyle, had eight Doric columns at the ends and seventeen along the sides. Each had a base diameter of a little over 6 feet (1.9 meters) and was just over 34 feet (10.4 meters) high. The 22,300 tons (20,300 tonnes) of marble needed for the work was quarried at Mount Pentelicon, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Athens. The blocks for the walls and the drums that made up the columns were carefully dressed to form perfect joints, and no mortar was used in the entire building.
The subtlety of refinement that makes the Parthenon a great architectural achievement is, by definition, invisible. There is no truly straight line in the entire building, although many may appear to be straight. Minute curves and adjustments were made to create illusions that would refine the gracefulness of the temple. A number of examples will serve to make the point. To the naked eye, a straight-sided column appears narrower halfway up than at the top or bottom; those on the Parthenon had a slight swelling (entasis) so they appeared to be straight. Because corner columns were seen against the sky, they were slightly thicker than those seen against a wall; then all would appear to be the same. Even more remarkably, the axes of all the columns were inclined toward the center of the facade—projected, they would meet thousands of feet in the sky—so they would appear to be vertical. And the platform is slightly convex: on the ends it rises 2.375 inches (60 millimeters) toward the center, and about twice that on the sides, because truly horizontal surfaces would have appeared concave to the eye.
The exterior was painted in bright colors and adorned with sculpture, also painted, made under Pheidias’s direction. Ninety-two rectangular panels (metopes) above the columns were carved in deep relief with allegorical scenes from various historical and mythological battles: the Trojan War, the Athenians and their enemies, the Lapiths and centaurs, and the gods and giants. Under and peristyle, the walls of the temple were crowned by a 3.25-foot deep (1 meter) continuous frieze, 39 feet (12 meters) above the floor. It portrayed in low relief figures of 350 people and 125 horses participating in the annual Greater Panathenaia, a procession in which the youth of the city accompanied a wheeled ship carrying a new robe (peplos) for an ancient wooden statue of Athena. The sculpted procession took two directions, beginning at the southwest corner and meeting above the central eastern door. Contemporary accounts tell us that very high relief sculptures in the east pediment that decorated the gable end narrated the birth of Athena, flanked by other deities, while the west pediment depicted her battle with Poseidon. Only fragments survive.
The ordinary people were not allowed to enter the Parthenon. All religious ceremonies took place in a courtyard (temenos) to the east. Only the priests entered the inner chambers, of which there were two. The smaller (parthenos or opisthodomos), reached from the west portico, housed the temple treasury. Its marble-covered timber roof was supported by four slender Ionic columns, perhaps symbolizing the protective role that Athens then enjoyed among the city-states. At the east end was the sanctuary (naos), 98 feet long by 63 feet wide (29.8 by 19.2 meters). Its roof was supported by a two-story, superimposed Doric colonnade, creating aisles on the long sides of the room. Natural light came through the large central door in the east wall.
At the west end of the naos was the 40-foot (12-meter) standing figure of Athena Parthenos. She has long since been lost but descriptions survive. Covering a wooden and metal frame, her body-length tunic was of gold plates, and her exposed face, hands, and feet were of ivory; her eyes were made from precious stones. According to the ancient Greek writer Pausanius, her helmet was emblazoned with an image of the Sphinx, and on her breast she wore a head of Medusa carved from ivory. In one hand she held a 6-foot-high (2-meter) statue of Victory and in the other a spear; her shield lay at her feet. Perikles’s political opponents spitefully had Pheidias indicted for stealing some of the materials intended for the statue, and the artist was later forced into exile.
In 404 b.c. dominance in the Aegean passed to Sparta after the twenty-eight-year Peloponnesian War, caused in part by Perikles’ misappropriation of the Delian League’s money. Despite Athens’ brief renaissance in the fourth century, Greece came under Macedonian control in 118 b.c. Rome followed Macedon, and by the end of the fourth century Christianity was established as the state religion. Paganism was moribund, and temples, including the Parthenon (which became the Church of St. Mary), were “recycled.” Pheidias’s wonderful statue was looted and taken to Constantinople. Following the Ottoman invasion of Greece the Parthenon was again converted, this time into use as a mosque. The still intact building was next employed as an ammunition dump during the Turkish-Venetian war. In September 1687 a Venetian cannonball struck the gunpowder, causing an explosion that killed 300 men and reduced the Parthenon to ruins.
The Turks recaptured the Acropolis and following year and began selling antiquities. In 1801 the British ambassador to Turkey, Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, obtained permission to remove “a few blocks of stone with inscriptions and figures,” a euphemism that gave him license to pillage the remaining metopes, the frieze, and what remained of the Parthenon’s pediment sculptures. Fifteen years later, allegedly at a loss, he sold the “Elgin marbles” to the British Museum. In January 1999 a majority of the European Parliament, as part of a growing international campaign, unsuccessfully petitioned the museum to return the fragments to Greece. The debate continues, not without rancor. The Parthenon’s other, more destructive enemy is the atmospheric pollution that plagues Athens. That problem, too, has commanded an urgent international movement to save an outstanding piece of world architecture.