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The Parthenon

The Parthenon

Author: Ian McConnell

Recognize ways in which the Parthenon incorporates key elements of Greek temples and Greek architecture.

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Exploring the Parthenon temple in Athens.

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to today's episode of "Exploring Art History with Ian." My name is Ian McConnell. Today's lesson is about the Parthenon.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. As soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things we're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the political and cultural background of Periclean Greece, describe some important architectural and artistic characteristics of the Parthenon, and discuss the sculptural program of the Parthenon.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson.

First key term is Panatheneic procession sculpture. Sculpture on the frieze of the Parthenon celebrating a festival honoring Athena and involving a ritual of bringing a new peplos, or cloak, to the Statue of Athena.

Frieze is a horizontal band of sculpture, usually near the ceiling of a building.

Metape. A square element between triglyphs, or three bands, on a Doric frieze.

Chryselephantine. Ellison A type of sculpture made of gold and ivory.

Phidian wet drapery is a type of drapery first used by the sculptor Phidias. It clings to the human figure and appears to be wet.

The big idea for today is that the Parthenon is considered the pinnacle of Greek architecture.

And there are required artworks today, which are in purple.

The construction of the Parthenon took place from about 448 BC to 432 BC, during what came to be referred to as the Golden Age of Athens.

A quick geography lesson. Ancient Greece, the area we'll be looking at today, is centered in the city-state of Athens.

Periclean Greece refers to Pericles, who ruled the city-state from 461 to 429 BC, during what came to be referred to as the Golden Age of Athens. Now, he was a gifted orator and politician,among other things, and is remembered for his efforts to make Athens the most important, influential, and powerful city in ancient Greece. And this was accomplished in three main areas-- politically, aesthetically, and militarily.

Now, part of his political strategy was in restructuring the democratic system in Athens. The idea of democracy existed before Pericles in some form, he didn't invent it. But he did refine it into a form that was more representative of the population. Granted, only free men who were citizens could participate, but the socioeconomic barriers that prohibited men from participating in the process were largely removed under Pericles.

Pericles introduced a system of radical democracy, in which people were paid for their public service. This financial incentive brought people into politics that wouldn't have otherwise because of the need to earn money.

Militarily, Pericles built up the Athenian navy into the most formidable navy of the time, in ancient Greece at least, and used this leverage to sell protection to other city-states.

He was also responsible for the rebuilding of the Acropolis, which had been damaged during the Greco-Persian Wars, and the construction of the Parthenon, which is where our focus will be today.

So what is the Parthenon? The Parthenon, pictured here, is a religious temple in honor of the patron deity and namesake of Athens, the goddess Athena. Now it may not look super-impressive today, having seen 2,500 years of environmental abuse, but in its time it was a true marvel, and represents the epitome of classical Greek architecture,

Its construction began in 448 BC and ended in 432 BC. Architects Iktinos and Kallikrates were responsible for its design and supervising its construction.

This is an exact, or almost exact, replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, of all places. In its day, the original Parthenon would have had painted friezes and artwork adorning the upper sections. It's constructed almost entirely in the Doric order, with a series of Doric-style columns providing the means of support.

The Parthenon's probably the best example of the Grecian use of entasis, or bulging, in the design of the columns. This bulging gives an impression of a great amount of weight on top of the columns, and suggests an almost organic quality to the columns, as if they're buckling under the weight.

The Parthenon was intended to be visually perfect rather than mathematically perfect, according to Roman architect Vitruvius. For example, he said that the Greeks were aware that long horizontal lines can appear to sag in the middle, as the red arrow is showing you, ever so slightly. The architects designed these sections of the building to ever-so-slightly arch upwards to compensate for this effect.

The spacing between the columns isn't uniform, either. If you look closely, you can see how the columns in the front corner are slightly closer together than along the front entrance. This was another compensation that, ironically, gave the impression that the columns were evenly spaced. Now, it's this attention to detail and consideration of the viewer that makes the Parthenon such an amazing example of ancient architecture.

So this is an aerial diagram of the interior of the Parthenon. And as I mentioned before, the Parthenon was constructed primarily in the Doric order, but the interior treasury is one place where it's actually supported by Ionic columns. Some scholars have suggested that this had a political motivation as a way of uniting design elements from west and east. The Doric order evolved in Greece, modern-day Greece, where the Ionic column and the Ionic order developed in Ionia, which is in modern-day Turkey.

Here I'm pointing out the treasury. The statue of Athena, or where it would have been positioned, and the interior wall, which would have been solid.

Here what I've done is just highlighted the repeated use of the rectangle, which was a key design element in the Parthenon. You can see how the rectangles are kind of inlaid within one another.

So the Parthenon was not just a marvel of architecture, but was adorned with an abundance of sculpture that compromised the sculptural program of the Parthenon. The program consisted of the visual account of mythical stories related to Greece and Athens. Originally, the metapes would have lined this Doric frieze. Each side had referenced different story. The western metape-- some of it is pictured here-- was about the Amazons battling the Athenians. And this is an original sculpture from the southern metape of the Parthenon, from the mythical story about battle between the centaurs and the lapiths.

It as been suggested that all the metapes are representations of the civility and superiority of Greece over the barbarianism in the rest of the world.

So the Parthenon pediment sculptures are heavily damaged today, but in their time they would have clearly shown two different stories related to Athena and the founding of the city. The west pediment, which is not shown, shows the contest between Poseidon and Athena to determine who would become the patron deity of Athens.

The east pediment, which is shown right here, is of the birth of Athena. Now, the part that's kind of sticking out in that is a horse head, and this horse head would have been one of the horses of the deity Helios rising from the bottom of the pediment. But as you can see, it's highly damaged today. The reclining figure is possibly Heracles. You probably know his Roman equivalent, Hercules. They're the same character. Or Dionysus.

And finally this is a re-creation of the original chryselephantine statue, which is ivory and gold, that would have been located within the Parthenon. The original, like this recreation, would have been about 40 feet tall. You get one of the largest sculptures of its type in the world.

So that brings us to the end of the lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the political and cultural background of Periclean Greece? Can you describe some important architectural artistic characteristics of the Parthenon? Can you discuss the sculptural program of the Parthenon?

Once again, the big idea for today is that the Parthenon is considered the pinnacle of classical Greek architecture.

And that's it. Thank you for joining me today. See you next time.


Image of Parthenon Frieze Public Domain; Image of Parthenon Replica Public Domain; Image of Greece Map Creative Commons; Image of Pericles Public Domain; Image of Plan of Parthenon, Public Domain, Image of Parthenon, Photo by Steve Swayne, Creative Commons, Image of West Metopes of Parthenon, Creative Commons, Image of Athena Parthenos, Alan LeQuire, Photo by Dean Dixon, Creative Commons, Image of Metope High Relief Creative Commons
Terms to Know

A type of sculpture made of gold and ivory.


A horizontal band of sculpture, usually near the ceiling of a building.


A square element between triglyphs (three bands) on a Doric frieze.

Panathenaic Procession Sculpture

Sculpture on the frieze of the Parthenon celebrating a festival honoring Athena and involving the ritual of bringing a new peplos or cloak to the statue of Athena.

Phidian Wet Drapery

A type of drapery first used by the sculptor Phidias that clings to the human figure and appears to be wet.