An introduction to the Parthenon and its sculptures:
A building from Athens’ golden age
The Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens was built between 447 and 438 BC as a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena Parthenos. The word parthénos (παρθένος) meant ‘maiden, girl’ or ‘virgin, unmarried woman’.
Illustration by Kate Morton.The temple’s great size and lavish use of white marble was intended to
show off the city’s power and wealth at the height of its empire, under the statesman Pericles. It was
the centrepiece of an ambitious building programme centred on the Acropolis.
You can find out a bit more about Greek architecture and what some of these terms mean in this blog post.
The sculptures in ancient times
Sculptures carved in the round filled the pediments (the triangular gables) at either end of the building.
Morton.The pediment sculptures and metopes illustrate episodes from Greek myth, and include the
famous head of a horse of Selene (the moon goddess) and the river god Ilissos.
447–438 BC.The frieze (carved in low relief) ran around all four sides of the building inside the
Image from Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Dean Dixon.We don’t know much about his life.
He trained in the workshop of Ageladas of Argos. He worked mostly in Athens but also transferred
his workshop to Olympia, where he constructed in gold and ivory the colossal gold and ivory seated
Zeus – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
A history of the buildingThe Parthenon has a long and complex history. The building was altered and the sculptures were damaged over the course of the centuries. It began nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to Athena.
Around AD 500 it was converted into a Christian church (the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians) and remained so for a thousand years. At this time, the whole of the middle section
of the east pediment was removed, destroying a dozen statues. Part of the east frieze was taken down, and almost all of the metopes on the east, north and west sides were deliberately defaced.
grey ink and watercolour, with bodycolour, over graphite, 1765.Mainland Greece was conquered by
the Ottoman empire by 1460 and the building became a mosque in the early 1460s. When Athens
was under siege by the Venetians in 1687, the Parthenon was used as a gunpowder store. A huge
explosion blew the roof off and destroyed a large portion of the remaining sculptures. The building has
been a ruin ever since.
The sculptures as museum objectsBy 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained. From 1801, after obtaining permission from the Ottoman authorities, the British ambassador to the Ottoman empire Lord Elgin removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and the building.
Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures to Britain at his own expense. Their arrival in London made a profound impression upon European art and taste, at a time when the European Enlightenment was revising its idea of what art should be.
with portraits of staff, a trustee and visitors. Oil painting on canvas, 1819.
Room 17. Photo by Donald Macbeth. The Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum are 247
feet (around 75 metres) of the original 524 feet (around 160 metres) of frieze, 15 of the 92 metopes,
17 figures from the two pediments, and various pieces of architecture from the building.
and west sides) and the pediments. In the 1970s the Greek government began a programme of restoration of the Acropolis monuments. As part of this work, all the architectural sculptures from the Parthenon have been removed to the Acropolis Museum, and all the Parthenon sculptures are now museum objects.
Most of the sculptures are roughly equally divided between Athens and London, but important pieces are also held by other major European museum including the Louvre and Vatican Museums.
Inspiration for artistsThe Parthenon sculptures have inspired artists and writers for generations, from John Keats to Henry Moore. Perhaps the most influential of these was the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who saw in Pheidias a kindred spirit and artistic mentor.
ink, before 1870. © Musée Rodin. Photo: Jean de Calan. The Parthenon sculptures are iconic works
of art. They play a central part in the story of art and will continue to inspire artists in the future.
Discover how Rodin was inspired by the Parthenon sculptures and see a selection of them on display in the exhibition Rodin and the art of ancient Greece (26 April – 29 July 2018).
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