Monday, May 24, 2010

History of the Parthenon

As we gaze upon the ruins of the Parthenon let us try to visualize it as it was in the time of Pericles, when it stood supreme, surrounded by other buildings, each an architectural masterpiece, for what we see today is but the empty shell of Athena's temple. It is more than a miracle that in a changing world it has withstood the ravages of time, fire, earthquakes, war, and religious fanaticism, and that its honey-colored marble, mellowed by almost two thousand five hundred years of Attic sun, still forms a tangible link with the past, bearing witness to the immortality of man's spirit.

While the Parthenon was scrupulously respected by the Romans the intolerance of the Early Christians completely blinded them to the superlative beauty of Greek Art, in which they saw only the evidence of paganism. During the first centuries of our era it was a common occurrence for Christians to mutilate or completely destroy priceless works of art.

After serving as the sanctuary of Athena for a thousand years, the Parthenon was essentially intact apart from some repairs to the roof after a fire in the second century AD, when, in accordance with the edict of the Emperor Theodosius concerning pagan temples, it was converted to Christian worship in the fifth century. The drastic structural alterations involved in transforming it into the ornate Byzantine church of Divine Wisdom (Aghia Sophia), later dedicated to the Virgin Mother of God (Theotokos) violated its beauty. At the east the pronaos was largely destroyed to make way for an apse, the opisthodomos at the west end became the entrance and the Parthenon proper the narthex. The blank partition wall between the cella and the Parthenon proper was pierced by three doorways, the inner columns were removed and replaced by a Byzantine colonnade, a vaulted roof substituted for the coffered ceiling and the walls covered with paintings. During the alterations considerable damage was done to the sculptures; the Birth of Athena represented in the east pediment was all but totally destroyed when the pronaos was pulled down.

In 1209 the first French ruler of Athens, Otto de la Roche, adapted the Parthenon to Catholic worship and consecrated as the church of Sainte Marie of Athens. Later, in 1456 Athens fell to the Turks and the Parthenon was converted into use as a mosque, though fortunately without any further structural changes.

In 1674 the Marquis de Nointel, French Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, obtained permission to visit the Acropolis. Among the members of his suite was the draughtsman Jacques Carrey, who made a series of drawings of the sculptures of the Parthenon. These drawings, four hundred in number, are now in the National Library in Paris and constitute an invaluable record of the state of the sculpture at that time.

In 1676 the Acropolis was visited by two friends, the French Physician Jacques Spon and Sir George Wheler, who were the last two travelers to see the Parthenon before it was severely damaged by gunfire in 1687. The book describing their voyage to Italy, Dalmatia, Greece and Asia Minor appeared in 1678 and contained the first scientific description of the ruins of Athens.

On 26th September 1687 a shell from a Venetian mortar crashed through the roof of the Parthenon, which the Ottomans were using as a powder magazine. In the tremendous explosion that followed, the naos, pronaos and fourteen columns of the peristyle were shattered. Further violence was done to the sculpture by Morosini's clumsy and unsuccessful attempt to lower Athena's chariot from the west pediment, and the Parthenon suffered still more damage when the Turks regained Athens in the following year.

In 1787 Count Choiseul-Gouffier, French Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, transported to Paris a portion of the frieze from the outer wall of the naos and two metopes, which he had retrieved from the mass of fallen masonry. Fourteen years later his example was followed, though on an infinitely larger scale, by Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to Constantinople. Eighteen figures from the pediments, almost half the frieze and fifteen metopes from the Parthenon, one of the Caryatids and a column from the Erechtheion, some small pieces of sculpture from the Temple of Athena Nike, as well as a statue of Dionysus from the choregic monument of Thrasyllus that stood above the Theatre of Dionysus, were among the two hundred and fifty priceless Greek marbles which Elgin ravished from the Acropolis and other places in Greece and shipped to London between 1803 and 1812.


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