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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

The Parthenon Marbles

Parthenon Marbles - British Museum by Joy of Museums

The Parthenon Marbles

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 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, Akron meaning “highest point” and polis meaning “city”. The Acropolis is a flat-topped rock that rises high over Athens, with a large flat area which has been used as a fortress and a religious centre from time immemorial.

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 a high point 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 vast new temple to Athena.

Pericles (495-429 BC) was the most prominent and influential Athenian statesman, and in 461, he became the leader of Athens, a role he occupied 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 of Athena 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 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.

Parthenon Marbles are also known as The Elgin Marbles, which refers to the 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.

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.

Marble Sculptures

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

These three different types of marble sculptures are covered in separate chapters.

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, constructed during 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. It also houses a copy of the long-lost statue of Athena Parthenos within.

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

Reflections

  • The Parthenon Marbles are also called the Elgin Marbles, because of the leading role Lord Elgin played in the removal of about half of the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon and their shipment to England. Elgin intended to use the marbles to decorate his mansion. However, a costly divorce suit forced him to sell them to the British government to settle his debts. What do you think the Parthenon Marbles should be called?
  • When the marbles were displayed in England, they were an instant success with scholars and artist. However, there were many Britons opposed to the purchase of the statues by the Government because they were in damaged condition and therefore did not display the “ideal beauty” found in other sculpture collections. What would have happened to the Parthenon Marbles if they had remained in private hands?
  • Greece continues to urge the return of the marbles to Greece and has built a museum for the Parthenon Marbles. Do you see any resolution to this claim?

Explore

The Parthenon Marbles

  • Title:           The Parthenon Marbles
  • Builder:    Phidias
  • Type:          Marble
  • Built:          447–438 BC:
  • Origins:    Athens, Greece
  • Key Dates:
    • 438 BC   Year building completed
    • 1400’s:   Converted into a Christian Church
    • 1460’s:   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
  • Museum:        The British Museum

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

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Photo Credits: 1) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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