Art Through Time: A Global View
The Urban Experience Art: Parthenon
In the early fifth century BCE, the Athenian Acropolis was sacked by invading Persians.
Although the populace vowed not to restore the site, just a few decades later, the influential politician Perikles (d. 429 BCE) led a building campaign that would transform the Acropolis into an iconic symbol of the Athenian city-state. The creation of the Parthenon, the largest structure on the Acropolis and the core of its ideological program, began in 447/6 BCE following a momentous Athenian victory over their long-standing Persian rivals. By the time it was finished in 433/2 BCE, the Parthenon was the grandest, most extravagant temple in the Greek world.
Remarkably, although the Parthenon looks perfectly symmetrical and straight, none of its angles are right angles, each horizontal line rises in its center, and every vertical column is thicker in the middle than on the top and the bottom. When seen by the human eye from a distance, however, these distortions are reconciled, attesting both to the Greek notion that true perfection is ultimately an illusion and to the sophistication of Athenian engineering and architecture.
Made of marble, a light-reflecting material, with thinner columns than the prominent temples that preceded it, the Parthenon had something of a heavenly aura about it. At the same time, its predominantly horizontal design rooted the building firmly in the human world. In the pediments and on its other solid surfaces, the Parthenon was ornamented with relief sculpture originally painted in opulent colors. Among the scenes depicted were the Amazonomachy (The Battle of the Amazons) and the Centauromachy (The Battle of the Centaurs), both visions of order triumphing over chaos meant to be understood as metaphors for Athens’ victory over its “barbarian” neighbors. Around the upper wall of the temple ran a frieze that many scholars believe to represent the annual procession that took place during the Panathenaic festival held in honor of the city’s patron goddess, Athena. In the building’s pediments were scenes of Athena’s birth from the head of Zeus and her contest with Poseidon for control of the city. The Parthenon itself was dedicated to the goddess and a colossal, gold-drenched statue of the Athena Parthenos by the sculptor Pheidias stood inside. The temple and the cult statue within were simultaneously offerings that honored Athena and ensured her continued blessings, and signs, to both residents and the outside world, that the city was unparalleled in wealth, power, culture, and divine favor.
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