Print of the ancient temple seen from below, with houses before it and two bearded figures among ruins in the foreground

An introduction to the Parthenon and its sculptures

Publication date: 11 January 2018

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.

An introduction to the Parthenon and its sculptures

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'.

Drawing of reconstruction of Acropolis showing a number of buildings within walls
A reconstruction of how the Acropolis may have looked in ancient times, including the Parthenon. Illustration by Kate Morton.

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.

Drawing of Parthenon with arrow pointing to one of pediments with sculptures
A reconstruction of the Parthenon showing the location of one of the pediments. Illustration by Kate Morton.

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.

Two photos of sculptures, on left head of a horse on right, what remains of male nude reclining figure, head and parts of limbs missing
Head of a horse of Selene and the river god Ilissos from the east and west pediments of the Parthenon.

Metopes (rectangular slabs carved in high relief) were placed above the architrave (the lintel above the columns) on the outside of the temple.

Illustration showing the location of the pediment, metopes and frieze on the Parthenon.
An illustration showing the location of the pediment, metopes and frieze on the Parthenon..

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.

Illustration showing location of frieze on Parthenon just above inner set of external columns, around building
A reconstruction of the Parthenon showing the location of the frieze. Illustration by Kate Morton.

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.

Marble relief (Block XLII) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival
A section of the Parthenon frieze. Athens, 438–432 BC.

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.

Recreation in modern materials, largely gold in colour, of the lost colossal statue by Pheidias, Athena Parthenon
Replica of the Athena Parthenon statue in Nashville by Alan Le Quire. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Dean Dixon.

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 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.

Drawing of east front of Parthenon, narrow walled street on right, mosque behind
William Pars (c. 1742–1782), detail of the east front of the Parthenon with a mosque behind. Pen and grey ink and watercolour, with bodycolour, over graphite, 1765.

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.

Oil painting of the Temporary Elgin Room in 1819 with portraits of staff, a trustee and visitors.
Archibald Archer, The Temporary Elgin Room constructed to display the Parthenon sculptures, with portraits of staff, a trustee and visitors. Oil painting on canvas, 1819.

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.

Photograph looking down the length of a narrow gallery at the British Museum with sculptures and friezes either side
The Parthenon sculptures as they were displayed in 1923 at the British Museum. This is now Room 17. Photo by Donald Macbeth.

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.

A display of seven sculptures, male and female bodies with parts missing
Sculptures from the west pediment of the Parthenon on display in Room 18 in the British Museum.

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.

Sketch of frieze depicting men riding horses
Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), Study of the Parthenon south frieze cavalcade. Graphite and pen and ink, before 1870. © Musée Rodin. Photo: Jean de Calan.

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.

Rodin was inspired by the Parthenon sculptures, featuring in the exhibition Rodin and the art of ancient Greece which ran from 26 April to 29 July 2018. Sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.