The Parthenon, an icon of Western civilization, is one of the most famous buildings in the world. The temple was built in the fifth century BC and overlooks the city of Athens from its majestic position on top of the sacred Acropolis Hill.
The Parthenon was built in honor of the goddess Athena Parthenos (virgin Athena), patroness of the city of Athens. Initially the temple was known as the Great Temple (Megas Naos), but later became known by the name of Parthenon.
The current Parthenon was not the first temple built here during the Antiquity. There are traces of two earlier – and slightly smaller – temples, the first in stone, and the second in marble.
Shortly after the Persians destroyed all the buildings on the Acropolis in 480 BC, Pericles commissioned the construction of a new large temple and assigned architect and sculptor Pheidias the supervision of the project. The design of the Parthenon is attributed to Kallikrates and Iktinos. Construction started in 447 BC and the temple was completed just nine years later. Pheidias continued to work on the magnificent sculptures that decorated the temple until 432 BC.
After the Antiquity the Parthenon was converted into a church and during the Ottoman occupation of Athens it was used as an arsenal. It became a ruin only in 1687 when the Venetians, who besieged the Ottomans, bombarded the Acropolis from the Philopappos Hill.
The ammunition that was stored in the Parthenon exploded, destroying the roof, the interior and fourteen columns.
The Parthenon was built as a peripteros – a temple surrounded by columns – in the Doric order. The temple measures 30.86 by 69.51 meters (approx. 101 x 228 ft) and contained two cellae (inner chambers). The east cella housed the Athena Parthenos, a large statue of the goddess Athena. The west cella was exclusively used by priests and contained the treasury of the Delian League (an alliance of Greek city-states).
The Parthenon was decorated with numerous sculptures and reliefs. There were some fifty sculptures on the pediments alone; most of the surviving sculptures are on display at the British Museum in London, while some are at the nearby Acropolis Museum.
There were two friezes: the inner frieze at the cellae and the outer frieze, which consisted of triglyphs (vertical stripes) and metopes (rectangular tablets) with relief sculptures. The inner frieze was designed by Pheidias and depicted the Panathenaea, the festival held in honor of Athena. Many of the metopes and parts of the inner frieze can be seen in the British Museum as well.
To achieve visual perfection, the creators of the Parthenon used optical refinements to seemingly defy the laws of perspective. The columns are slightly slanted inwards and have a curved shape. This results in making the horizontal and vertical lines of the building look perfectly straight to the naked eye.
Most people think that ancient temples always had natural, plain marble colors. But the buildings and statues in the Antiquity were often very colorful. The Parthenon was no exception: sculptures on the friezes and pediment as well as the roof were brightly painted in blue, red and gold colors.
Statue of Athena Parthenos
The main purpose of the temple was to house the close to twelve meters tall statue of Athena Parthenos, created by Pheidias. The statue was chryselephantine – made of gold and ivory – and built around a wooden frame. And like all other Parthenon sculptures, the statue was painted in bright colors, mainly blue and red.
Athena was depicted standing as a helmeted martial goddess. Her left hand rested on a shield and in her right hand she held a statue of a winged Nike. Unfortunately the original statue is lost but a modern full-scale replica of the Athena Parthenos (and the Parthenon) can be seen in Nashville, TN, in the United States.