The Parthenon is of Pentelic marble, of a purity of texture and color which astonishes all visitors. Along with a handful of monuments (the Taj Mahal, Saint Mark's in Venice), the Parthenon is familiar from countless photographs long before one actually sees it. Consequently, almost every visitor is oppressed by a secret fear: can the Parthenon possibly be as beautiful as one expects? Happily, the answer, despite the ravages of time, is yes. No photographs and no descriptions can prepare one for the unique golden glow of the Parthenon's columns.
The Parthenon has an exterior colonnade of eight Doric columns at each end, and seventeen Doric columns along each side. Each of these columns bulges slightly in the middle, a device which pre vents the massive columns from seeing lifeless and overly regular. In addition, this swelling (known in Creek as "entasis") corrected the optical illusion whereby perfectly straight columns appear to be slightly concave.
Within the temple itself were two chambers, one in which the statue of Athena Parthenos stood, and one which housed the temple treasury. Visitors to the Parthenon today, disappointed not to be allowed inside, should take some comfort from the fact that most Athenians in antiquity never were permitted inside the temple. Only priests ever entered the treasury, and the statue itself was viewed only rarely. One of those who saw the statue was Pausanias, who describe the Athena as standing "upright in an ankle length tunic with a head of Medusa carved in ivory on her breast. She has a Victory about eight feet high, and a spear in her hand and a shield at her feet, and a snake beside the shield; this snake might be Erichthonios."
The temple itself was adorned with sculpture, of a quality never before, and never since, equaled. The metopes (rectangular panels above the columns) were sculptured with scenes from the Trojan War, and from the Battles of the Athenians and Amazons, the Lapiths and Centaurs, and t he Gods and Giants. In addition, a sculptured frieze above the temple walls depicted the great Panathenaic procession. In this annual celebration, Athenian youths and maidens accompanied the new robe for Athena's statue from Eleusis to the Akropolis itself. The young men on horseback, the maidens, the sacrificial oxeri, and the gods themselves all were depicted, and may be seen today - but not in Athens.
The sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, are on view in . London at the British Museum. A few carvings remain in place on the Parthenon, and some fragments are on view in the Akropolis Museum.
In addition, the Parthenon had monumental sculpture in both pediments. As Pausanias concisely put it, "As you go into the temple called the Parthenon, everything on the pediment has to do with the birth of STRONG>Athena; the far side shows Poseidon quarrelling with Athena over the country." As we know, Athena won this contest by producing the first olive tree, and the Athenians did not stint in honoring her with Greece's finest temple. However, the Athenians were always practical: the gold regalia which clad the great statue was designed so that it could be removed for safekeeping. The Athenians had learned what could happen to their sacred sites in the Persian sack of the Akropolis of 480 B.C.
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