The Architecture and Sculpture of the Parthenon
The Parthenon and the Acropolis
The Parthenon was built between 447BC and 438BC as a temple for the goddess Athena. Part of a broad building project, it was commissioned by Pericles and it replaced the Pre-Parthenon that was destroyed in the 480BC Persian invasion. The building had various names including Hecatompedon (the hundred-foot temple), but the name Parthenon derives from that originally given to the western room. The chief architects Iktinos and Kallicrates, overseen by Phidias, rendered the temple in Doric style, yet it incorporates Ionic characteristics such as the Freize. This Frieze ran around the upper of the inner walls, and along with the Metopes and the Pedimental Statues, makes up the sculpture that adorned the Parthenon.
William Dinsmoor says of the temple that "the plan is more sumptuous than that of any other Doric temple erected on the Greek mainland" and that it is "the most remarkable building in the world" (W.Dinsmoor in Bruno - Parthenon p.172). These kinds of positive proclaimations are not uncommon when reading about the building, and the architecture has a large part to play in these claims. By exploring the many levels of importance of the architecture and sculpture, this essay attempts to explain why the Parthenon is so 'remarkable,' why it is "probably the most celebrated of all Greek temples" (B.A.Barletta in J. Neils - The Parthenon p.67).
Excellent Parthenon Books
Even to the uninformed casual veiwer, the Parthenon and its architecture is almost definitely going to be impressive. The position of the temple on the Acropolis, the strength and power emitted from its heavy marble columns, its sheer scale, these all combine to create quite an amazing spectacle. However, if one explores deeper into the architecture there are levels of skill that warrant the praise it receives. Percy Gardner summises adequately, offering that "the whole building is constructed...on a subjective rather than objective basis; it is intended not to be mathematically accurate, but to be adapted to the eye of the spectator" (Gardner - Grammar of Greek Art p.39). Gardner is referring to the many optical refinements that are to be found within the Parthenon's structure that are there to improve its appearance. Most of these refinements counter unwanted optical illusions that could be created by light, straight lines and perfect angles. It is also worth mentioning that some of these refinements have practical uses. The best example of both of these purposes is the stylobate. The stylobate is the platform upon which the temple stands, and though it appears horizontal, it curves upward in the middle. In practical terms this has the function of shedding rainwater, but yet it can also be argued that it is for aesthetic reasons. Dinsmoor suggests that it is "intended partly to impart a feeling of life...and even more to prevent any effect of sagging" (W.Dinsmoor in Bruno - Parthenon p.181). Sagging is an optical effect that could perhaps result from having multiple vertical columns upon a horizontal platform. To further support this idea, and dispatch ideas of workman error, this stylobate curvature was used in the Peisistratid temple in Corinth, and in the Pre-Parthenon.
Before a discussion of further refinements, it would be useful to note a few potential problems. Firstly, as was mentioned above, there is always the chance of human error. The workmen would have naturally and unwittingly made errors in the construction, and thus some so-called refinements may be excentuated by this. Secondly, the architects may have adapted their ideas during the work and so some irregularities could be due to changes in plans. Thirdly, the equipment and methods used to build would not have been anywhere near as accurate as those used today. The Parthenon is remarkably well-built, but measurements could not have been completely consistent and precise, and this would result in minor discrepancies.
Perhaps the most 'refined' part of the Parthenon is the Doric columns and the way in which they are arranged. It is known that they are Doric due to the fact that they stand freely upon the stylobate without any kind of base and because they have twenty parallel concave grooves running along them. There are 46 outer columns and they follow 'classical proportions' where the number of columns on the side is twice plus one the number on the facade (in this case, 8x17).
The columns lean very slightly inward. It is true that due to this inclination, were the columns of the east and west facades continued upwards, they would actually meet 5000m above floor level (Mary Beard - Parthenon). This effect is unnoticeable when viewing the Parthenon and it will appear perfectly square, but there is purpose behind it. It can give the temple a look of "greater strength" (W.Dinsmoor in Bruno - Parthenon p.179). The columns discretely brace the heavy load of the roof in a more powerful way than if they were vertical. If the columns were vertical they may seem weaker, as if the roof would squeeze and push the columns outwards and fall to the floor. This minute refinement, like most within the Parthenon, unconsciously enters the viewer's mind and creates this response. Additionally, the inward tilt of the columns was used in buildings before the Parthenon and thus was a commonly understood practice. It was deployed in the Temple of Apollo at Aegina, Olympia's Temple of Zeus, and Tegea's Temple of Athena Alea (W.Dinsmoor in Bruno - Parthenon p.180).
The columns themselves are not the perfectly straight cylinders that they seem. They have an entasis, a widening in the middle, and they taper as they rise. An exaggerated but fair example of their shape is that of a cigar. Mavrikios suggests that this shape brings about an "aesthetic function" where the columns seem to flow in both directions because they lack straight lines (A.Mavrikios in Bruno - Parthenon p.206). There is "a rising up in order to receive and to carry the load, and at the same time a movement downward in order to transmit and convey it to the crepis and there to the earth" (ibid). These words suggest a natural flow within the building; as if the Parthenon grew out of the ground and energy from the earth flows up the columns to bear the weight and then that weight flows downwards again and is dispersed back into the earth. The effect could be compared to the natural strength and grace of a tall tree trunk. Gardner alludes at something similar, suggesting that "to the eye a curve is a more pleasing form than a straight line, and the deviations from rigid correctness serve to give a character of purpose, almost of life, to the solid marble construction" (Percy Gardner - Grammar of Greek Art p.39). This obviously man-made structure, seemingly built with straight lines and right-angles, can almost seem quite natural. Perhaps this is partly why the Parthenon receives such acclaim: something built by man could successfully be imitating the perfection of nature, and this is a romantic and intriguing idea.
The curve in the columns also has the purpose of countering the possible optical illusion of concavity. If the columns were to have straight outlines there would be a chance that they would "seem concave instead of straight" (W.Dinsmoor in Bruno p.186). Since this effect would perhaps make the columns look thin and weak it is avoidable by adding the slight entasis to the columns so that they compensate for the concavity.
A similar refinement has been made to the corner columns. They are thicker than all of the other columns "because they are sharply oulined by the unobstructed air round them, and seem to the beholder more slender than they are" (Vitruvius). The majority of columns in the Parthenon are generally seen against other walls or columns and so their outlines are clearly seen. The corner columns however can be seen with just a block of sky behind them, and this can blur the edges and render the columns thinner than they actually are. This refinement was pre-meditated too, since the thickening is found with each corner column, and therefore cannot be workman error.
A last point on the skill of the Parthenon's architecture involves its dimensions. Many of the dimensions employ a complicated ratio of 4:9. Berger found this ratio in the width:length, height:width, the width:length of the Naos, and the diameter of the columns:the distance between column axes. Again this skill and understanding of construction shows how important the temple was when it was built. Dinsmoor has suggested that there is a "mathematical precision in the setting out of the work and in its execution which is probably unparalleled in the world" (W.Dinsmoor in Bruno p.179). There is an interesting theory that somehow the Parthenon includes Phi, the golden number. Phi is approximately 1.618 and it supposedly appears in many famous pieces of art and architecture, and also in nature, due to its aesthetically pleasing proportions. The inclusion of Phi in the Parthenon however requires some very imaginative measuring and it is largely a romanticism, but it's still a pleasant idea.
The architecture of the Parthenon would be amazing even if it were built without any refinements, but it is these refinements that show the depth of building skill and importance of the temple. The adaptations are so slight that they are barely visible, yet they have been meticulously employed to counter known optical problems in building construction. When we look at the Parthenon our minds register the curves but we see straight lines, and through this the building "achieves an unsuspected new character which…charms us even if we are ignorant of its true meaning and cause" (Choisy quoted by A.Mavrikios in Bruno p.200).
East Pedimental Statues
The importance of the Parthenon is not only shown in its architecture however. Upon and within the temple there was sculpture and statues that also show the depth of its importance. Around the outside and above the columns were the Metopes, in the ends were the Pedimental statues, around the upper part of the inner wall (the cella) was the Frieze, and inside was the great statue of Athena. Today many of these marbles have been lost and only a few of those that still exist are in their original position on the Parthenon. Evelyn B. Harrison suggests however that even with just the surviving marbles, and from where they were in position, they were "second only to the cult-statue in importance for the temple" (E.B.Harrison in Bruno pp.225-226). The cult-stature referred to is the long lost Athena that was housed within the temple. This shows how important the Parthenon was since Athena was Zeus' favourite daughter and thus the "city which Athena championed was favoured above all others" (ibid). The Parthenon was built for Athena in the famous city of Athens and this holds obvious symbolic importance and prestige to the temple.
The Frieze and Metopes have mythological and historical themes and there is a general depiction of the "triumph of civilization over the uncivilized" (ibid). This is shown for example in the Centauromachy, the Amazonomachy, and the sculpture showing the sack of Troy and the defeat of the Persians. The sculpture shows the struggle of the Greeks against the unknown, the barbaric East and the evil mythological creatures. These ideas show the temple's importance as they make the temple into a symbol of the greatness of civilization. The temple is the symbol of Athens, the city of power, peace and democracy.
The sculptures also depict many of the different Greek gods. Zeus, Poseidon and Dionysus were all to be found upon the Parthenon. Furthermore, the ordinary Greeks are seen interacting with these gods. The symbolism in these sculptures is important as it suggests an equality that is perhaps to be found in Greek culture. In addition, many gods are depicted, showing that not one single god is elevated to too great a position, and men are seen with them. Athena is obviously the centre of attention but yet she is surrounded by other important characters. This idea of freedom and equality can be seen in the sculpture of the Parthenon, and thus seen by all who look upon the temple.
The sculpture itself is of the highest quality. Indeed, even the backs of the Pedimental statues are finished, even though they would only be seen from the front (and from below) when adorning the Parthenon. Percy Gardner compares the Pedimental statues of the Parthenon to those in Olympia and he makes a point of mentioning the "finish and the charm of those of the Parthenon" (Percy Gardner - Grammar of Greek Art p.85). This almost unnecassary finish indicates the importance of the Parthenon as the time and care was taken to really complete the statues. The northern and southern parts of the Freize show hundreds of horses running swiftly and this is captured in low-relief sculpture that has a maximum depth of 6cm. The skill involved in producing such work is also of a very high order. The effort injected into the sculptures on the Parthenon reinforces the importance of the temple.
The Parthenon is obviously a building of many levels of skill and importance. The refinements show how deeply skilled and knowing were the designers and architects, and this in turn proves the building's importance. The multitude of adaptions subtly built into the temple show a skill that is arguably not seen elsewhere. The architects knew of the various optical illusions that could have a negative effect on the appearance of the structure, and they made fine changes to correct them. The importance of the building is seen by the use of these: the Parthenon was meant to be something special. The sculpture suggests this too, in both what it depicts and the quality to which it is made. There are many symbolic meanings to be found in the marbles, and they all have a message and a purpose alongside that of mere decoration.