The Parthenon was a temple built to honor Athena, a goddess born of the union of Metis (meaning cunning) and Zeus. Upon learning of Metis' delicate condition, Zeus swallowed her whole so as to avoid his father and grandfather's fate of being vanquished by his offspring, as an oracle had prophesized. This snack produced in Zeus a mean headache, from which he was delivered by having Hephaestus split his head in two. Athena then emerged from Zeus' cracked skull, fully formed and sporting armour. She later fought for and won the patronage of Athens.

According to Plutarch, the temple architects were Iktinos and Kallikrates, and Phidias oversaw the temple sculpture. The Parthenon is the perfect example of the Doric temple, though it does have some Ionic elements. This is due to the wisdom of Pericles, the great stateman, who was responsible for the construction of the Acropolis, as he sought to incorporate elements from across Greece into the Parthenon.

The basic structure of the Parthenon includes the stylobate, (base) columns, (Doric and Ionic) entablature, (including architrave, frieze, metope and cornice) and pediment (triangular 'roof').

The Parthenon applies many devices in order to give the visual illusion of perfect order and appear straight and graceful. The stylobate employs a slight upward curve to the center of both on north and south sides (to 110 mm) as well as the east and west (to 60 mm). The columns are eight across, seventeen down the side and exhibit entasis, which is a slight bowing of the the middle of the column, to cause it to appear slender. Also, the columns are tilted inward, ever so slightly, giving the illusion of a vertical plane.

The Parthenon's sculpture represents various themes of import, which include mythic and historical events (a rarity in temple statuary). The struggles between order and chaos are depicted upon the metopes in bas relief and include warring Amazons, the rape of the Lapiths by the Centaurs, the gods versus the giants and Greeks against the Trojans. The frieze, which runs consistently around the temple (an Ionic element), depicts a combination of mythic and historic events. It is believed to be the Panathenaiac procession, which concludes in the presentation of the peplos (frock/shift) to a priestess of Athena, which was then placed upon the old cult statue of Athena in the Erechtheion. Gods and war heroes mingle amongst the processioners in this frieze, and thus we have an example of where the mythical and real life were blurred. The pediments incorporate larger than life size freestanding sculpture of the contest for Athens between Poseidon and Athena on the west end and the birth of Athena on the east end. Much of the sculpture from the Parthenon was removed by Lord Elgin and has been on display in the British Museum since 1817. They are truly marvelous to behold.

The focus of the Parthenon, however, was to house the cult statue of Athena in the cella or naos (the largest of the two interior rooms). This statue was designed by Phidias and stood forty feet tall and was primarily a wood and clay structure encased in gold plate clothing and ivory flesh.

Par"the*non (?), n. [L., fr. Gr. Parqenw`n, fr.parqe`nos a virgin, i. e., Athene, the Greek goddess called also Pallas.]

A celebrated marble temple of Athene, on the Acropolis at Athens. It was of the pure Doric order, and has had an important influence on art.

 

© Webster 1913.

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