The Parthenon

Architecture; High Classical sculptural programme: pediments; Ionic frieze; Athena Parthenos; metopes

The Parthenon’s Doric columns and detail, right, of its capitals

Aerial view of the Acropolis looking southeast, Athens, Greece

Restored view of the Acropolis, Athens, Greece. (1) Parthenon, (2) Propylaia, (3) pinakotheke, (4) Erechtheion, (5) Temple of Athena Nike.

Constructed in the 5th century BC, the architects of the Parthenon (Iktinos and Kallikrates) also believed that perfect beauty could be achieved by using harmonic proportions. The ratio for larger and smaller parts was x = 2y + 1 (for example, a plan of 17 x 8 columns).

Plan of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, with diagram of the sculptural program, 447–432 BC. The Parthenon was lavishly decorated under the direction of Phidias. Statues filled both pediments, and figural reliefs adorned all 92 metopes. There was also an inner 524-foot sculptured Ionic frieze.

The Parthenon’s East pediment
Question: Which values are embodied in the art? 5.00

Answer: perfection, transcendence, beauty, heroism, nobility, divinity

Phidias, who designed the composition even though his assistants executed it, discovered an entirely new way to deal with the awkward triangular frame of the pediment. Its bottom line is the horizon line, and charioteers and their horses move through it effortlessly. The individual figures are brilliantly characterized. The horses of the Sun, at the beginning of the day, are energetic. Those of the Moon or Night, having laboured until dawn, are weary. The reclining figures fill the space beneath the raking cornice beautifully. Dionysos/Herakles and Aphrodite in the lap of her mother Dione are monumental Olympian presences yet totally relaxed organic forms. The sculptors fully understood not only the surface appearance of human anatomy, both male and female, but also the mechanics of how muscles and bones make the body move.

Three goddesses (Hestia, Dione, and Aphrodite?), from the east pediment of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, ca. 438–432 BC. Marble, British Museum, London.

The Phidian school also mastered the rendition of clothed forms. In the Dione-Aphrodite group (above), the thin and heavy folds of the garments alternately reveal and conceal the main and lesser body masses while swirling in a compositional tide that subtly unifies the two figures. The articulation and integration of the bodies produce a wonderful variation of surface and play of light and shade.

The Ionic frieze Question: Why is the frieze said by experts to be ‘remarkable’? (5.21)

Elders and maidens of east frieze, Louvre, Paris.

Answer: It was said to be remarkable because: - it was extremely long (it covered 2 sides of the building, 420 ft of the total 525ft are in the Museum); - the dramatic realism, rhythm and individuality of the figures (human and animal) - the communication of nobility and divinity - the treatment of the drapery (the folds and patterns)

Seated gods and goddesses (Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis) of east frieze, Acropolis Museum, Athens

Phidias, Athena Parthenos, in the cella of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, ca. 438 BC. Model of the lost chryselephantine* statue. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

Inside the cella of the Parthenon was Phidias’s 11,5m gold-and-ivory statue of Athena Parthenos (the Virgin), fully armed and holding Nike (Victory) in her extended right hand.
*Chryselephantine made of or overlaid with gold and ivory.

Lapith versus centaur, metope from the south side of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, ca. 447–438 BC. Marble, British Museum, London.

The Parthenon’s centauromachy metopes refer to the Greek defeat of the Persians. The sculptor of this metope knew how to distinguish the vibrant living centaur from the lifeless Greek corpse.

EXTRA and OPTIONAL: Discovery Channel - Engineering feats Rick Steves Full virtual reconstruction of the Acropolis Athens – the dawn of democracy

Secrets of the Parthenon (53.11)

Sources: Gardner ’s Art through the Ages SmartHistory by Khan Academy

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