An introduction to the Parthenon and its sculptures
The Parthenon in Athens is one of the most famous buildings from the ancient world. Its sculptures are greatly admired today. Here we take a closer look at why the building was so famous, and why these iconic works mark a key moment in the global history of art.
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’.
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.
The temple was richly decorated with sculptures, designed by the famous artist Pheidias, which took until 432 BC to complete. The pediments and metopes illustrate episodes from Greek myth, while the frieze represents the people of Athens in a religious procession. Inside the building stood a colossal image of Athena Parthenos, constructed of gold and ivory by Pheidias and probably dedicated in 438 BC.
The sculptures in ancient times
Sculptures carved in the round filled the pediments (the triangular gables) at either end of the building.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.
Metopes (rectangular slabs carved in high relief) were placed above the architrave (the lintel above the columns) on the outside of the temple.
The metopes illustrate episodes from Greek myth, including the battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths.
The frieze (carved in low relief) ran around all four sides of the building inside the colonnade.
While the pediment sculptures and metopes depicted scenes from Greek myth, as was usual for the sculpture on Greek temples, the frieze breaks with all tradition as it shows the people of Athens in a religious procession. The Athenians on the frieze are not really portraits of ordinary people though. Instead, they are shown as an ideal community. The Athenians of Pericles’ time wanted to be remembered at their best by generations to come.
Pheidias was the most famous sculptor of all antiquity. He is best known as the artistic director of the Athenian building programme, including the Parthenon sculptures and the colossal gold and ivory statue of Athena Parthenos that stood inside the Parthenon.
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 building
The 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.
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 objects
By 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.
These sculptures were first seen from 1807 in Lord Elgin’s temporary museum. However, Elgin had bankrupted himself transporting the sculptures to Britain. In 1816 Parliament decided to acquire the collection for the British Museum. Since 1817 the sculptures have always been on display to the public in the British Museum, free of charge.
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.
About half of the surviving sculptures remained in Athens, including extensive remains of the metopes (especially from the east, north and west of the building), the frieze (especially the north 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 artists
The 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.
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.
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El Museo Británico (en inglés: The British Museum) es un museo de la ciudad de Londres, Reino Unido, uno de los museos más importantes y visitados del mundo. Sus colecciones abarcan campos diversos del saber humano, como la historia, la arqueología, la etnografía y el arte.
El museo fue una de las primeras instituciones de este tipo en Europa. Custodia más de siete millones de objetos de todos los continentes, muchos de los cuales se encuentran almacenados para su estudio y restauración, o guardados por falta de espacio para exhibirlos.
Alrededor de los grandes museos de antigüedades, sobre todo el museo del Louvre (Francia) y el Museo Británico, siempre se ha mantenido la polémica sobre la obtención de ciertas obras de arte, ya que numerosos sectores lo califican de expolio. Muchos países que se consideran expoliados, han pedido en repetidas ocasiones a las autoridades británicas que se devuelvan ciertas obras. El gobierno británico responde diciendo que, según una ley promulgada por el Parlamento en el año 1753, se prohíbe la salida del país de cualquier pieza, a no ser que sea un duplicado, para preservar toda esta cantidad de obras. Además, el gobierno británico esgrime como argumento el que esas obras no podrían haber sido conservadas adecuadamente en sus países de origen.
El caso más paradigmático del Museo Británico es el de los frisos y esculturas del frontón del Partenón. El gobierno de Grecia lleva solicitando formalmente desde hace varios años la devolución de los restos de este templo. El gobierno británico afirma que el Estado compró oficialmente los restos del Partenón que se conservan en el museo a lord Elgin, y que éste a su vez se lo compró al Imperio otomano y es la postura oficial desde la página web del Museo. Hay algunas voces discordantes en este punto, en las que dicen que en realidad no fueron compradas, sino que diversos funcionarios públicos fueron sobornados por lord Elgin para conseguir sacar las esculturas del país. Además, consideran al Imperio otomano como país invasor, con lo cual, aunque hubiera vendido las obras, no hubiera sido una venta legal. El Ministerio de Cultura de Grecia exige la devolución de las esculturas porque considera que éstas deberían estar junto con el resto del templo, y no esparcidas por museos de medio mundo.
A raíz de las exigencias del gobierno griego, otros países también están pidiendo la devolución de materiales, como Nigeria y Egipto. De momento, el Museo Británico se ha negado a devolver cualquier pieza. Sin embargo, en el año 2006 devolvieron a Australia unas cenizas de aborígenes de Tasmania.