Newsletter: Vol. 12, Iss. 2
June 2014

The Lost Church: the Parthenon on the Acropolis

Jesper Tae Jensen

This short essay, the first of a two part essay, gives a quick glimpse into the first 1200 years of the history of the Parthenon. Built as a pagan temple, its Classical sculptural membra disiecta can be found today in museums such as the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Danish National Museum at Copenhagen, and the British Museum in London. Elements are also on display in the new Acropolis Musuem of Athens where the empty spaces in the reconstruction of the sculptural decoration on the museums second floor show that the Greeks want the remaining sculpture returned and put back in place. In the second part of the essay, we will look into its Christian period.

Today, on the rock of the Athenian Akropolis (Greek, akro = hill, polis = city), stands one of the most famous and fascinating temples of antiquity. On this very plateau of the city’s acropolis, three main temples for Athena, the patron goddess of the city, were erected during the 5th century BC when the Athenians had reached the height of their civilization. The temples are the Erechtheion (the city protector), the Nike temple (the goddess of victory) and the Parthenon (the maiden goddess). However, the Parthenon was the largest of all the buildings and, in fact, was the largest temple ever raised on the Greek mainland. The construction of the Parthenon can be followed very carefully, because some of the building records had been inscribed on stone and placed in front of the temple during antiquity. The work began in 447/446 BC and already in 433/432 BC the temple was finished.

Inside the temple stood the 4 ft. 10 in. high cult statue of Athena with helmet, shield and lance made in gold and ivory. It was designed by the famous sculptor, Pheidias, who was also in charge of planning the whole sculptural program of the temple. According to the ancient literary sources it was the two architects, Calicrates and Ictinos, who designed the Parthenon. A modern replica (copy of a copy) of the cult statue made by Alan LeQuire can be seen today in Nashville, Tennessee. It took him eight years to complete and was presented for the public on May 20, 1990. Today it stands inside a modern full-scale reproduction of the ancient Parthenon, constructed in concrete and inaugurated in 1997.

The Parthenon is a peripteral temple. The main building, the cella, measured 98 x 63 feet and was surrounded with a hall of columns in the Doric style that measured 228 x 101 feet and was 45 feet high. Its colonnade consisted of 17 columns on the sides and eight in front and rear.

The Parthenon was one of the ancient world’s most decorated temples with free standing statues of deities placed in each pediment showing the birth of Athena at the east end. It also depicts the contest between Athena and Poseidon (the god of the sea) to determine who would be protector of Athens on the west pediment. Above the columns a band was placed called a frieze. The frieze is made up of square panels divided by smaller rectangular panels called triglyphs, which literally means three vertical lines. The square panels between the triglyphs measured 4.32 x 4.79 ft. and were called metopes (literally means between the eyes [of the triglyphs]). There were 32 on the north and south sides and 14 on the east and west sides. The 92 metopes have figures upon them that are cut almost in the round and some of the figures projected up to one foot from the surface of the panel. The themes of the metopes are different battle scenes between mythological beasts and figures such as Centaurs, Lapiths, Amazons, Greek deities, and Giants. They also depict cult rituals connected to Athena.

The inner building (cella) of the Parthenon was also decorated with a 524 feet long frieze of which 420 ft., or 80 per cent, is preserved today. The theme displayed on the frieze is probably highlights of the festival held in honor of Athena, the so called Panathenaic Festival. However, today scholars still argue about the general theme of the frieze and nobody has yet found the its “true meaning.” The main parts of the temple, including its sculpture, were painted in bright and strong pigment colors like blue, red, green and black. When the sun was reflected in the marble and colors, it was a display of light that could be seen all over ancient Athens and was praised in many ancient literary sources in for its beauty.

Except for some repairs made after a fire during the Roman period around 4th century AD, the Parthenon was left practically untouched until Christianity took control of pagan Greece during the 5th century AD. Its conversion into a church probably insured its preservation. In the next part of this essay, we will look closer into Parthenon’s transformation.

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...the Parthenon was left practically untouched
until Christianity took
control of pagan Greece during the 5th century AD. Its conversion into a church probably insured its preservation.