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The Parthenon and its sculptures

The temple known as the Parthenon was built on the Acropolis of Athens between 447 and 438 BC. It was part of a vast building programme masterminded by the Athenian statesman Perikles (died 429 BC). Inside the temple stood a colossal statue representing Athena, patron goddess of the city. The statue, which no longer exists, was made of gold and ivory and was the work of the celebrated sculptor Pheidias.


The building itself was decorated with marble sculptures representing scenes from Athenian cult and mythology. There are three categories of architectural sculpture. The frieze (carved in low relief) ran high up around all four sides of the building inside the colonnades. The metopes (carved in high relief) were placed at the same level as the frieze above the architrave surmounting the columns on the outside of the temple. The pediment sculptures (carved in the round) filled the triangular gables at each end.

Although the building was to undergo a number of changes, it remained largely intact until the seventeenth century. The early Christians turned the temple into a church, adding an apse at the east end. It was probably at this time that the sculptures representing the birth of Athena were removed from the centre of the east pediment and many of the metopes were defaced. The Parthenon served as a church until Athens was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century, when it became a mosque. In 1687, during the Venetian siege of the Acropolis, the defending Turks were using the Parthenon as a store for gunpowder, which was ignited by the Venetian bombardment. The explosion blew out the heart of the building, destroying the roof and parts of the walls and the colonnade.

The Venetians succeeded in capturing the Acropolis, but held it for less than a year. Further damage was done in an attempt to remove sculptures from the west pediment, when the lifting tackle broke and the sculptures fell and were smashed. Many of the sculptures that were destroyed in 1687, are now known only from drawings made in 1674, by an artist probably to be identified as Jacques Carrey.

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