02. Ancient Mediterranean, Art & Humanities

#35. Parthenon. Acropolis. Athens, Greece. Iktinos and Kallikrates. c. 447-410 BCE. Marble.

#35. Parthenon. Acropolis. Athens, Greece. Iktinos and Kallikrates. c. 447-410 BCE. Marble.

The AP Art History curriculum is commonly nicknamed “the 250” because there are 250 “images” that students must intimately know before their exam. However, “the 250” is a misnomer because if you were to count every individual image it would be closer to 400. The Acropolis is one of those lovely “images.” The Acropolis, yes the WHOLE thing, is listed as one image but of course it isn’t just one image. It’s more like 6:

  • The Acropolis plan
  • Parthenon
  • Plaque of the Ergastines, from the Parthenon
  • Helos, horses, and Dionysus (Heracles?), from the Parthenon
  • Temple of Athena Nike
  • Victory Adjusting her Sandal, Temple of Athena Nike

So obviously for sanity’s sake I am splitting these up into their own blog posts, and even then I am going to leave out a lot of the more high-brow academic information for clarity.


Art Historical Background

*Note: If you are looking for historical background on the acropolis in general CLICK HERE. This post is more focused on the Parthenon’s structure & then I will have two more blog posts on one of the pediment friezes & an interior frieze.

The Parthenon is, without a doubt, the crowning glory of the Athenian acropolis, and, quite frankly, of all Ancient Greek architecture. The building is a hallmark of the Greek classical style and embodies the marriage between artistic aesthetic and scientific precision. The architect, and believed contractor, of the Parthenon is Iktinos and Kallikrates. One of the most fascinating aspects of the building is the appearance of perfection and symmetry that is achieved via an optical illusion. One of my humanities students actually did a great blog post about this so I will just link to his post HERE.

Historical Context

The whole of the acropolis got a serious makeover after the Persian’s razed Athens to the ground. In response to this sounding military defeat, the Greek city-states banded together in an alliance to then return the favor to the Persians. After their victory in 480 BCE, the Greeks forged a confederacy known as the Delian League, with Athens at its head. Athens, and Pericles as its leader, saw their role as the “first amongst equals” and used the tribute paid by the other city-states to line its coffers (& pay for part of the acropolis’ rebuilding program).

*Note: not related to Art History, but the other city-states soon figured out Athens was essentially skimming off the top of the treasury and they dissolve back to their seperate states.

 

Vocabulary

There is a lot of architecture vocabulary to break down with the students, so that is typically the best place to start before diving into the building itself:

  • Cella (naos) – room where the religious statue was kept
  • Pronaos – porch or entrance before the cella/naos
  • Stylobate – raised floor that the columns are on, typically with steps up
  • Anta – a small room (sometimes) behind the cella for storage
  • Prostyle – temple design with columns only in the front
  • Amphiprostyle – temple design with columns in the front and back
  • Peristyle – temple design with columns all around the temple cella (this is what the Parthenon is)
  • Peripteral – single row of columns
  • Dipteral – double row of columns
  • Entasis – “swelling” at the middle of a column to “fool the eye” into thinking they are straight

Read more: Lesson Plan: The Classical World

For column vocabulary, it is straight to have students label the vocabulary terms associated with Doric and Ionic columns (above). The Parthenon unusually incorporates elements from both Doric and Ionic columns. In the back room (anta), where the treasure was kept, there are Ionic columns. Additionally there is a continuous sculpted frieze along the interior of the temple (Ionic element), with the Doric-style metopes and triglyphs on the exterior.

I don’t expect them to memorize all of this vocabulary for a test but I do expect them to know what I am saying if I talk about the “pediment” or “capital.”

Read more: Travel Tips: Visiting the Acropolis

Parthenian Artwork

Although I am going to discuss two specific art pieces from the Parthenon is later blog posts, I think it is important for students to have a general understanding of the scope and theme of the artwork in the Parthenon as a whole. Much of the exterior artwork is, not surprisingly, about warfare. The Greeks vs the Trojans, fights against the Amazons (Amazonomachy) & against Giants (Gigantomachy), & against a Centaur tribe (Centauromachy). All with the Greeks winning of course.

The friezes on the interior are mostly of the Panathenaic procession honoring Athena. See the section on function, and the blog post on the Plaque of the Ergastines for more information.

Function

The temple, like all greek temples was meant to house the cult statue. The city of Athens, and therefore the acropolis, was consecrated to Athena. The Parthenon is especially dedicated to Athena Parthenos (aka “Athena the Virgin”). Although no longer inside the temple, there once stood an imposing 38-foot chryselephantine (made of gold and ivory) statue of the virgin goddess. The statue is believed to be the work on the sculpture Phidias, who oversaw all the temple decoration. Although the statue is technically not part of the 250, it is important to an understanding of the building’s primary function, so I think it should be included at least at a glance.

*FUN FACT: you can visit Nashville, Tennessee for a real-life replica of the Parthenon with the statue inside!

The function of the Parthenon is also closely related to another AP Art History image: #26. Athenian agora. Archaic through Hellenistic Greek. 600 BCE–150 CE. Plan. Every 4 years there was a Panathenaic procession (seen in the Plaque of the Ergastines) which had women bringing a new peplos (type of dress) to the statue.

After the end of the era of Mediterranean polytheism at the hands of Christianity, the temple was turned into a church (then later, specifically an Orthodox Church). After the conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Muslim Ottoman Empire it was transformed in to a mosque, and then later used to store gunpowder (brilliantly, stupid idea when the gunpowder went off). One of the great controversies behind the Parthenon, and more specifically the art of the Parthenon, is that the Ottoman Empire (legally) sold artwork to the British during their occupation of Greece. However, when Greece gained their independence and asked for their (“stolen”) art back, the British Museum denied them and still does to this day. I do talk about this controversy in class when teaching Helios, horses, and Dionysus (Heracles?) & Plaque of the Ergastines because I think the concept of essentially lawfully looting occupied countries is an important topic for transforming students to informed 21st century global citizens.

Read more: Student Series! Religion’s Purpose in Ancient Greece

Resources

Next time: #35. Helios, horses, and Dionysus (Heracles?), Parthenon. Acropolis. Athens, Greece. Iktinos and Kallikrates. c. 447-410 BCE. Marble.

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