The Parthenon

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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 Athenian’s 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 building’s 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



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