The Parthenon

The Parthenon (the temple of Athena Parthenos, “Virgin”) was built between 447 and 438 BCE and is the largest religious building on the Acropolis. The Parthenon has eight Doric columns on its short sides and seventeen on its long sides, while six additional columns frame the pronaos (vestibule). In the main room on the eastern portion, a double row of Doric columns divided the space into three naves. In the center stood the colossal chryselephantine statue of Athena, made of ivory and gold plaques on a wooden frame, created by Phidias. The smaller, western room featured four Ionic columns. There, the sacred furnishings of the temple were stored and preserved. According to other scholars, it was in this room that a group of virgins (parthenoi) made the peplos (a garment) to be offered to Athena during the Panathenaic festival.

The plaster casts on show here reproduce part of the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon. The statues of the seated goddesses Demeter and Kore, represented attending Athena’s birth, belonged to the Eastern pediment. The statues of the western pediment represented, instead, the quarrel between Athena and Poseidon for the command of Attica (the region of Athens). A Doric frieze, divided into figural metopes and triglyphs (elements with vertical grooves), ran along the upper exterior walls. On the four sides of the building, the metopes depicted scenes from several battles against chaos and savagery: the fights against the Giants (Gigantomachy), the mythical human and equine hybrids known as Centaurs (Centauromachy), the wild warrior women known as Amazons (Amazonomachy), and the destruction of Troy. An Ionic frieze on the external walls of the cella represented the procession during the Panathenaea festival. The plaster casts on display reproduce some moments of this procession: young men carrying water vessels (a type of vase called hydria), worshippers leading animals for sacrifice, horsemen, and girls walking in pairs. The Parthenon had a long life after the Classical age. In the Middle Ages, it was used as a church. After the Ottoman conquest of Greece in the fifteenth century, the building became a mosque. In 1687, during a Venetian siege, mortar shells struck the building where explosives were stored, causing significant damage.  In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to Constantinople, obtained permission to study the antiquities of the Acropolis and to remove the surviving sculptures. Lord Elgin had most of the Parthenon sculptures dismantled and transported to England. Since 1816, the “Elgin Marbles” have been held in the British Museum, although the Greek government has been claiming their restitution for several years.