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The Parthenon: The Religious Centre Of Athens During The Power Of The Delian League

A former temple on the Athenian Acropolis in Greece, dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patroness of Athens. Construction of this marvellous temple took place around 450 BC

The Parthenon: The Religious Centre Of Athens
The Parthenon: The Religious Centre Of Athens

Descriptions of the Parthenon have always been littered with superlatives. This temple to Athena Parthenos, the virgin protectress of Athens is regarded as the supreme example of classical architecture, an artistic and sculptural masterpiece. The building belongs to the middle of the 5th century B.C. By then the Persians, who in 480 B.C. succeeded in storming Athens, had been decisively defeated, and the city, under the influence of the statesman Pericles, was brimming with pride and self-confidence. This mood was reflected in a lavish building program, and the money to finance it was available in the form of tribute exacted from Athens' allies. Classical civilization was at its height, and the new temple of Athena on the Acropolis would demonstrate that fact to the whole world.

The Parthenon is a temple in the Doric style, 228 feet (69.5m) long and 100 feet (30.5m) wide. The peristyle, or outer colonnade, enclosed an inner building, the cella, containing the shrine that housed a giant statue of the goddess made of gold and ivory. The Peristyle had 46 columns - with being visible across the front of the temple, 17 along the sides - each fluted, composed of a number of massive drums, tapering toward the top. The columns were marble, as were the pediments and entablature they supported, but the roof of the temple was wooden. The building style had developed from that used for simple timber structures, and the Parthenon displays in stone all the elegance of those early solutions to engineering problems. But its simplicity of line and form is deceptive: the architect, an Ionian Greek called Iktinos, was nothing less than a master of perspective, calculating exactly how a building must be shaped if it is to please the human eye gazing up at it from below.

The Parthenon was built on the foundations of an earlier temple to Athena and once contained a colossal statue of the goddess by the great sculptor Phidias, carved in chryselephantine. Athena was a warlike deity, and she was also the patron of the arts and crafts.

If the Parthenon was a temple, it was also something of an art gallery, a perfect setting for a wealth of sculpture. The pediments and entablature were covered with figures visible from the outside, but the celebrated "Parthenon frieze" (half of which was removed to London by Lord Elgin and bought by the British Museum in 1816) ran around the solid outer walls of the cella at a height of about 40 feet (12m), where its detail would have been largely unappreciated.

Inside The Parthenon
Inside The Parthenon

The modern image of Greek temples as gleaming white buildings is a false one. The Parthenon was originally painted in colourful, not to say gaudy, fashion. In recent years the marble has suffered badly from the effects of Athens' smog and from the sheer number of tourists who crowd onto the Acropolis. In the past the building was adapted for many different uses, serving among other things as a Greek Orthodox church, a Roman Catholic church, and a mosque. In 1687 the Turkish army was using it as a gunpowder store when besieging Venetian forces succeeded in blowing it up. Dubious 19th-century restoration schemes were resisted, and today - despite the fact that so much of it is roped off and great quantities of its sculpture reside in foreign museums - the Parthenon is still a truly breathtaking sight.

The Parthenon Frieze

The birth of the goddess Athena was celebrated annually in Athens, and every four years there was a special ceremony involving a procession and the presentation of a new robe for the statue of the goddess. The Parthenon frieze - over 500feet (152m) in length - has long been thought to represent this procession, and many of the details support such an interpretation. Yet there are some anomalies. Professor John Boardman has recently suggested that the frieze shows the 192 Greek heroes who died fighting the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. The presence of a whole assembly of gods, in addition to Athena, seems to show that this is a ceremony of greater than usual significance and that the actual heroes of Marathon are being presented to the gods of Olympus.

About half the panels of the Parthenon frieze can be seen at the British Museum (although there are repeated calls for the restoration of the so-called Elgin Marbles to Greece). The poet John Keats viewed the frieze soon after it came to London, and part of his "Ode on a Grecian Urn" seems to have been directly inspired by one of the panels:

To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies...

Evocative words from a poet whose culture owes an immeasurable debt to that of ancient Athens.

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