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Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov (18441927)  The Parthenon, Temple of Athena Pallas, 1881-1882   Oil on canvas  The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
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Title: The Parthenon
Description:
Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov (18441927)
The Parthenon, Temple of Athena Pallas, 1881-1882
Oil on canvas
The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

At the approximate position where the Parthenon was built later, the Athenians began the construction of a building that was burned by the Persians while it was still under construction in 480 BCE. It was presumably dedicated to Athena, and after its destruction much of its ruins were utilized in the building of the fortifications at the north end of the Acropolis. Not much is known about this temple, and whether or not it was still under construction when it was destroyed has been disputed. Its massive foundations were made of limestone, and the columns were made of Pentelic marble, a material that was utilized for the first time. The classicalParthenon was constructed between 447-432 BCE to be the focus of the Acropolis building complex. The architects were Iktinos and Kallikrates (Vitruvius also names Karpion as an architect) and it was dedicated to the goddess Athena Pallas or Parthenos (virgin). The temples main function was to shelter the monumental statue of Athena that was made by Pheidias out of gold and ivory. The temple and the chryselephantine statue were dedicated in 438, although work on the sculptures of its pediment continued until completion in 432 BCE.
The Parthenon construction cost the Athenian treasury 469 silver talents. While it is almost impossible to create a modern equivalent for this amount of money, it might be useful to look at some facts. One talent was the cost to build one trireme, the most advanced warship of the era. (http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Classics/CL56/CL56_LN11.html), and
one talent was the cost for paying the crew of a warship for a month (D. Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, 61). According to Kagan, Athens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian war had 200 triremes in service, while the annual gross income of the city of Athens at the time of Perikles was 1000 talents, with another 6000 in reserve at its treasury.

The Parthenon is a temple of the Doric order with eight columns at the façade, and seventeen columns at the flanks, conforming to the established ratio of 9:4. This ratio governed the vertical and horizontal proportions of the temple as well as many other relationships of the building like the spacing between the columns and their height.

The cella was unusually large to accommodate the oversized statue of Athena, confining the front and back porch to a much smaller than usual size. A line of six Doric columns supported the front and back porch, while a colonnade of 23 smaller Doric columns surrounded the statue in a two-storied arrangement. The placement of columns behind the statue was an unusual development since in previous Doric temples they only appeared on the flanks, but the greater width and length of the Parthenon allowed for a dramatic back of double decked columns instead of a wall.

The back room sheltered Athenas treasure and four columns of the Ionic order supported its roof. The introduction of elements of the Ionic order in a predominately Doric temple was more dramatic in the development of a continuous freeze on the exterior wall of the cella. While the integration of Doric and Ionic elements on the same temple was not a new development in Greek architecture, it was rare, and bestowed on the Parthenon a delicate balance between austere and delicate visual characteristics.

All temples in Greece were designed to be seen only from the outside. The viewers never entered a temple and could only glimpse the interior statues through the open doors. The Parthenon was conceived in a way that the aesthetic elements allow for a smooth transition between the exterior and the interior that housed the chryselephantine statue of Athena. A visitor to the Acropolis who entered from the Propylaia would be confronted by the majestic proportion of the Parthenon in three quarters view, with full view of the west pediment and the north colonnade. As the viewer moved closer, the details of the sculpted metopes would become decipherable, and when in proximity to the base of the columns, parts of the frieze would become evident in tantalizing colorful glimpses peering from the spaces between the columns.

Moving towards the east and looking up towards the exterior of the cella, a visitor would be mesmerized with the masterful depiction of the Panathenaic procession as it appeared in cinematic fashion on the frieze which was visually interrupted by the Doric columns of the exterior. This was certainly a scene that every Athenian could relate to through personal experience, making thus the transition between earth and the divine a smooth one. A visitor moving east would eventually turn the corner to face the entrance of the Parthenon, and there he would be confronted with the birth of Athena high above on the east pediment, and just beyond it, the arrephores folding the peplos among the Olympian gods and the heroes of the frieze. Then, just below, the peplos scene, through the immense open doors, any visitor would be enchanted by the glistening gold and ivory hues of the monumental statue of Athena standing at the back of the dim cella. The statue of Athena Pallas reflected its immense stature on the tranquil surface of the water-pool floor, and was framed by yet more Doric columns, this time smaller, in a double-decked arrangement that made the interior space seem as if it were even larger and taller than the exterior.

It seems certain that the master planners of the Parthenon conceived it as a theatrical event. The temple was constructed with the movements of the viewer in mind, and by the arrangement of the temple, the monumental sculptures of the pediment, and the detailed frieze, the emotions of the visitors were choreographed to prepare them for the ultimate glimpse of the majestic Athena Parthenos at the interior of the naos, and to maximize the effect of an awe inspiring visit.
As a post and lintel temple, the Parthenon presents no engineering breakthrough in building construction. However its stylistic conventions have become the paradigm of Classical architecture, and its style has influenced architecture for many centuries after it was built.

The Parthenon is a large temple, but it is by no means the largest one in Greece. Its aesthetic appeal emanates from the refinement of many established norms of Greek architecture, and from the quality of its sculptural decoration. The Parthenon epitomizes all the ideals of Greek thought during the apogee of the Classical era through artistic means. The idealism of the Greek way of living, the attention to detail, as well as the understanding of a mathematically explained harmony in the natural world, were concepts that in every Athenians eyes set them apart from the barbarians. These ideals are represented in the perfect proportions of the building, in its intricate architectural elements, and in the anthropomorphic statues that adorned it.

Some of these details were found in other Greek temples while some were unique to the Parthenon. The temple owes its refined appeal to the subtle details that were built into the architectural elements to accommodate practical needs or to enhance the buildings visual appeal.

The fact that there are no absolute straight lines on the Parthenon bestows a subtle organic character to an obvious geometric structure. The columns of the peristyle taper on a slight arc as they reach the top of the building giving the impression that they are swollen from entasis (tension) - as if they were burdened by the weight of the roof; a subtle feature that allots anthropomorphic metaphors to other wise inanimate objects.

The peristyle columns are over ten meters tall, and incline slightly towards the center of the building at the top (about 7 cm), while the platform upon which they rest bows on a gentle arc which brings the corners about 12 cm closer to the ground that the middle.

The architects of the Parthenon appear to be excellent scholars of visual illusion, an attribute undoubtedly sharpened by years of architectural refinement and observation of the natural world. They designed the columns that appear at the corners of the temple to be 1/40th (about 6 cm) larger in diameter than all the other columns, while they made the space around them smaller than the rest of the columns by about 25 cm. The reason for this slight adaptation of the corner columns is due to the fact that they are set against the bright sky, which would make them appear a little thinner and a little further apart than the columns set against the darker background of the building wall. The increase in size and decrease of space thus compensates for the illusion that the bright background would normally cause.

These subtle features set the Parthenon apart from all other Greek temples because the overall effect is a departure from the static Doric structures of the past, towards a more dynamic form of architectural expression. Moreover, the intricate refinements of the forms required unprecedented precision that would be challenging to achieve even in our time. But it was not mere grandeur through subtlety that the Athenians desired. It is evident that they sought to out-shine all other temples of the time through the lavish sculptural decoration of the Parthenon, and its imposing dimensions. The doors that lead to the cella were abundantly decorated with relief sculptures of gorgons, lion heads and other bronze relief ornaments.

The Athenian citizens were proud of their cultural identity, and conscious of the historical magnitude of their ideas. They believed that they were civilized among barbarians, and that their cultural and political achievements were bound to alter the history of all civilized people. The catalyst for all their accomplishments was the development of a system of governance the likes of which the world had never seen: Democracy.

Democracy, arguably the epitome of the Athenian way of thinking, was at center stage while the Parthenon was built. This was a direct democracy where every citizen had a voice in the common issues through the Assembly that met on the Pnyx hill next to the Acropolis forty times per year to decide on all matters of policy, domestic or foreign.

The fact that common people are depicted as individuals for the first time at the Parthenon frieze was owed to the fact that for the first time in history every citizen of a city was recognized as a significant entity and a considerable moving force in the polis and the observable universe.
Parthenon Facts
Year Built: 447-432 BCE
Precise Dimensions:
Width East: 30.875 m
Width West: 30.8835 m
Length North: 69.5151 m
Lenght South: 69.5115 m
Width to Ratio: 9:4
Width to height Ratio (without the Pediments): 9:4
Number of stones used to built the Parthenon: Approximated at 13400 stones.
Architects: Iktinos and Kallikrates
Parthenon Cost: 469 talents
Coordinates (of Plaka area just below the Acropolis): 37 58'N, 23 43'E

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