The Parthenon and its Sculptural Decoration
by Elaina Rudolph and Adam Sheehy
The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena and was built on top of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. The Parthenon was designed by the architects Ictinus and Callicrates and built over the years 447-432 BC. It looks very much like what we would imagine a Greek temple looks like, a rectangular building surrounded by Doric columns around its four sides. [reconstruction 1, reconstruction 2]
With the exception of the roof and parts of the ceiling, the entire temple is constructed in marble. The most glorious aspect of the Parthenon was surely its sculptural program, all of which was supervised by the great sculptor Pheidias. Much of this sculpture has been damaged or lost over time, but much also survives, some on the temple itself, but mostly in museums, notably the British Museum in London.
The temple faced east. On its east pediment (the triangular space under the sloping roof and over the entrance) a large sculptural group depicted the birth of Athena from the head of her father Zeus [reconstruction]. The sculptural group on the west pediment depicted the contest for Attica (the territory of Athens) between Athena and Poseidon [reconstruction].
Beneath the pediments on the east and west sides of the temple and along the lower edge of the roof on the north and south ran a continuous series of alternating triglyphs and metopes. Triglyphs are stone tablets decorated with horizontal channels, that separate one metope from another. The metopes were similar stone tablets but sculpted with images in high relief. The metopes, ninety-two in all, were arranged in four series, one for each side of the temple, each series presenting scenes from a different mythical conflict. On the east were scenes from the battle between the gods and the giants, the savage offspring of Earth who challenged their rule (the metopes are quit worn); on the south, the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs; on the west, the battle against the Amazons (also badly worn); and on the north, the combat of Greeks and Trojans (badly damaged).
A separate frieze ran around the upper edge of the temple wall. Its relatively small size (3 feet 5 inches tall) and placement (inside from the triglyphs and metopes) made it fairly hard to see from the ground. Unlike the metopes, the frieze has a single subject on all four sides. On three sides (north, west, and south) it depicts a procession of horsemen, musicians, sacrificial animals, and other figures with various ritual functions. On the east side there is a scene centered on a child handing a folded cloth to an older man. On one side of them seated gods and goddesses are in attendance; on the other, two girls are carrying something. The procession is that of the Great Panathenaia, Athens' grandest festival in honor of Athena. Part of the ritual of this festival was the presentation of a new peplos (gown) to Athena. It is this ritual that we see depicted on the frieze.
Mention should also be made of the towering gold-and-ivory statue of Athena within the temple, also the work of Pheidias (this image and this are views of a recreation of the statue in the Parthenon in Nashville, TN).