The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in a Museum

The Parthenon Marbles

Duveen Gallery - Parthenon marbles from the Acropolis of Athens - British Museum

The Parthenon was built on the acropolis of Athens Greece between 447 and 432 B.C. as a testament to the glory and pride of the Athenian state.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon stands on the Acropolis of Athens which in ancient times as it does today dominates the city of Athens. The Acropolis is an extremely rocky outcrop above the city of Athens. The word acropolis comes from the Greek words akron, “highest point” and polis, “city”. The Acropolis is a flat-topped rock that rises 150 m (490 ft.) above sea level in the city of Athens, with a surface area of about 3 hectares (7.4 acres) which has been used as a fortress and a religious centre from time immemorial.

View of the Acropolis Athens 2 (pixinn.net)

The Acropolis

Use the interactive Google Map below to gain a 360 degree views from the Acropolis of Athens.

In ancient times the Acropolis was used as a fortress and a religious centre dedicated to the cult of the city’s patron goddess, Athena. During the 5th century B.C. peace had been made with Persia and Athens had reached the highpoint in her wealth and power. Athens was the leader of the majority of the Greek city-states, who paid tribute to Athens for protection from Persia. Under the democratically elected leadership of Pericles, Athens decided to use its wealth to build a great new temple to Athena.

Pericles Pio-Clementino Inv269 n2

Above is a bust of Pericles bearing the inscription “Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian”. It is a marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from ca. 430 BC.

Pericles (495-429 BC) was the most prominent and influential Athenian statesman and in 461, he became the leader of Athens, a role he would occupy until his death. Under his leadership was built the Parthenon, during the Golden Age of Athens.

“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” Pericles

The Temple to Athena

The temple was erected using Doric style columns from white marble quarried from Mount Pentelikon which is about sixteen kilometres from the Acropolis. The building was architected in perfect proportions and decorated with a plethora of sculptures.

The Parthenon in Athens

The temple survived Roman occupation and in the 5th Century AD it was converted into a Christian Church. The worst damage occurred in 1687 when a Turkish gunpowder magazine located within the Temple exploded after a direct hit by the Venetian besieging army.

Lord Elgin

Parthenon Marbles are also known as The Elgin Marbles. This reference is based on the fascinating and controversial history of how and why the Parthenon Marbles from Athens ended up in the British Museum.

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine (1766 – 1841) was a Scottish nobleman and diplomat, known primarily for the removal and shipment to England of the marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens.

When the marbles arrived in England, they were an instant success among many who admired the sculptures. However both the sculptures and Elgin also received criticism from detractors.

Temporary Elgin Room at the Museum in 1819
Lord Byron strongly objected to the removal of the marbles from the temple, denouncing Elgin as a vandal. His view about the removal of the Marbles from Athens is reflected in his poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”:

“Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!”

The Greek government claim that Elgin stole the marbles and are demanding their return to Greece. They have built a museum at the base of the Acropolis to house the Marbles from the Parthenon.

The Parthenon Marbles

The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum consist of three different types of marble sculptures which originally adorned the Parthenon Temple in Athens:

  • The Parthenon Frieze
  • Metopes of the Parthenon
  • Pedimental Sculptures of the Parthenon

The Parthenon Frieze

The Ionic frieze running around the exterior walls of the inside structure of the Parthenon is a bas-relief frieze was carved in situ. It depicts the Panathenaic procession of the citizens of Athens to the Acropolis.

Riders in the procession-North frieze-Parthenon-British Museum

In this annual procession at which Athenians and foreigners would participate to honour Athena by offering sacrifices and a new peplos, a dress woven by selected noble Athenian girls.

Metopes of the Parthenon

The Metopes were part of the relief sculptures that were integral to the architecture of the Parthenon. They are square marble blocks that were placed high on the exterior of the temple walls.

Parthenon XL

They were a series of marble panels, originally 92 in number, on the outside walls of the Parthenon forming part of the Doric frieze. The East Metopes were situated above the main entrance of the temple. They depict the cosmogonic battle between the Olympian Gods and the Giants. The South Metopes represent the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, as can be seen below.

South metope 27 Parthenon BM

The West Metopes depict the legendary invasion of Athens by the Amazons. The North Metopes show scenes from the Trojan War.

The Metopes in total, illustrate scenes from Athenian mythology and history. For Athenians they also symbolised the triumph of Athenian reason and order over chaos.

Pedimental Sculptures of the Parthenon

The pediment is a classical architectural element consisting of the triangular section in front and behind the temple found above the horizontal sections supported by columns. The pediment was not an ideal space for sculptures and demanded imagination and skill to create sculptures that worked in the narrowing space at either ends of the sloping Pediment.

The East Pediment above the entry to the temple displayed the story of the birth of Athena from the head of her father, Zeus. The sculptural arrangement depicts the moment of Athena’s birth.

East pediment KLM Parthenon BM

The West Pediment depicted the contest between Athena and Poseidon during their competition for the honour of becoming the city’s patron.

The Parthenon sculptures, Head of a horse of Selene from the east pediment of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, 438-432 BC, British Museum (14246715981)

Below is a video of the East Pediment of the Parthenon describing the story depicted in the sculpture.

Copies of the Parthenon Temple

The Parthenon was remarkably innovative when it was built and influenced many temples that followed in the Greek and Roman world. Even in modern times much of Western Architecture is based on the Parthenon model. Examples include the front of the British Museum and many Government buildings in the United States.

There are many modern copies of the Parthenon around the world. Examples include:

  • The Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. It is a full-scale replica of the original Parthenon in Athens. Built in 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. It also a copy of the long-lost statue of Athena Parthenos within is a reconstruction.

Nashville parthenon 01

  • The Walhalla is located above the Danube River, east of Regensburg in Bavaria. Built between 1830 and 1842.

Walhalla Aussen2

The Parthenon Marbles despite the controversy of how they were acquired are the greatest masterpieces in the British Museum, because they influenced first the Roman world and subsequently Western views of beauty in sculpture and architectural design across many cultures.

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Essential Facts:

  • Artist:                             Phidias
  • Type:                               Marble
  • 447–438 BC:                 Years during which the Parthenon was built
  • Original Location:      Athens, Greece
  • Museum:                       The British Museum
  • Key Dates:
    • 438 BC    Year building completed
    • 1400s:     Converted into a Christian Church
    • 1460s:     Turned into a Mosque
    • 1687:       Venetian bombardment destroying large sections of the Parthenon
    • 1801:       Start of the removal of the Marbles by Lord Elgin’s ream
    • 1805:       Marbles arrived in England
    • 1816:       The British Government purchased the Marbles from Elgin:
  • The collection at the British Museum includes the following material from the Parthenon:
    •   247 ft (75 m) of the original 524 ft (160 m) of the Parthenon Frieze:
    • 15 of the 92 Parthenon metopes
    • 17 Parthenon pedimental figures
    • Variety of pieces of architecture from the Parthenon
  • The collection at the British Museum includes the following material from the Acropolis:
    • 4 slabs of the frieze and architectural members from the Temple of Athena Nike.
    • A Caryatid, a column and other architectural members from the Erechtheion:
    • Architectural members from the Propylaia
  • Other museums also hold sculpture from the Parthenon:
    • Musée du Louvre, Paris
    • Vatican Museums
    • National Museum, Copenhagen
    • Glyptothek, Munich
    • Kunsthistorisches Museum,Vienna
    • University Museum, Würzburg

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“Captive Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought the arts to rustic Latium” Horace

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Acknowledgement: This page is dedicated to Peter V.


Photo Credits: 1) By Andres Rueda [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Christophe Meneboeuf [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Yair Haklai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons 4)Phidias [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons 5) © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons 6) By Copy of Kresilas (Jastrow (2006)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 7) By Steve Swayne [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 8) By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 8) By No machine-readable author provided. Thermos assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons 9) By MICHAEL BROWN (ParthenonUploaded by Kaldari) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 9) By Michael J. Zirbes (Mijozi) (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 10) By Archibald Archer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons