Part 3a

"And I, as I watched, was taken
outside time, far from time,
free of forms enclosed
within the ages, of statues and icons "
Angelos Sikelianos -The sacred way


When we enter into discussions on the Parthenon sculptures, the ideas that we are presented with tend to fall into two possible groups that we can conveniently summarise as the political and the aesthetic. Where we hear of the political and historical aspects or the arguments for restitution, little mention is made of the aesthetics of the sculptures which seem in the eyes of many to be almost irrelevant to the argument. When we talk of aesthetics, certainly there is mention of a controversy, possibly in the introduction, or by implication in a plan showing the current location of the fragments being discussed. However, it is rare to find any attempt to tackle the restitution issues, as though these arguments would in some way detract from an artistic appreciation of the sculptures.

Despite the discrete nature in which these arguments are commonly presented, it is naive to assume that one could possibly manage to survive without the other. Without the influence of Elgin the marbles would remain as mere sculptures, with little attention paid to any aspect of their history. With the application of the historical arguments however, we are forced into a state of far greater and deeper historical awareness. Not only do we know of the sculptures, but in the narration of the arguments we begin to grasp something of how they originated and why they are so revered.

The marbles like the Mona Lisa or The Scream are a piece of art that has gained its popularity through notoriety. They have reached the point where they are famous for being famous.

When we apply the two aforementioned arguments, there is still something missing however. The synthesis of the two rationales that have almost taken on the role of argument and counter argument certainly presents us with a more powerful understanding of the sculptures, but there is still something more, a third strand of the story that runs through like a hawser or cable, intertwined with the other stories.

sum of parts

Already in passing it has been implied that in some way the sum of all the parts can come together to create a greater whole, as regards the aesthetics of the Parthenon sculptures. The reasons for this are as numerous as they are multifarious.

First, there is an issue of completeness. Obviously, it is of more value to have a complete piece of art work than a few fragments, but unfortunately with the Parthenon sculptures, the complete set has been unattainable since the removal of the first pediment statues in the fifth century during the building's conversion to a church. As we can not have the original complete set, then the next best thing is surely to have as close as possible, to possess every surviving piece. Next to completeness, there follows the idea of narrative. It would be a strange person who regularly purchased books with chapters torn out, as it would be almost impossible to understand the story without seeing everything in the correct order. With the Parthenon sculptures, there is also a narrative that runs through their pieces, a story that interconnects and unifies all the fragments, the comprehension of which assists a better understanding of why the sculptures are like they are.

Still another argument, following on from many of the restitution /retention principles, would be the desire to own the complete set, so that no one else could own it, buying to deprive rather than because of any real want or need.


All of the above arguments in favour of completeness, are still missing one key fact however. The Parthenon sculptures are not only sculptures in their own right, but they are also an integral part of the Parthenon.

When the government talks about the sculptures now being an integral part of the British Museum, it comes across more as an expression of their own naivety than as a line of argument to be pursued. If we look at the Parthenon closely, if we dismantle the stones one by one, we will see that the sculptures were not mere applied ornament as in so many other buildings, but that they themselves formed actual structural elements, that without them the building could no longer exist.

If we look at the metopes &how they slot together, we can see that not only are they held by metal rods to the triglyphs to them from being slid out horizontally, but also that the stone lintel that ran above them first had to be removed to access them. Elgin's men were only able to remove them by first breaking the beam that was holding them in place, or as Lusieri put it:

“I have, My Lord, the pleasure of announcing to you the possession of the 8th metope, that one where there is the Centaur carrying off the Woman. This piece has caused much trouble in all respects, and I have even been obliged to be a little barbarous.”

This integrity of the metopes is now also causing great difficulty for the current restoration programme under way on the Parthenon. Some of the best preserved metopes are still in position on the building, but in recent years have been subjected to rapid decay from the polluted air. There is an urgent need to remove these statues to a more rigorously controlled environment if they are to survive much longer, but removal of them would involve dismantling large amounts of the pediment. The pediment above these metopes is still fully intact and perfectly stable, so archaeologists are unwilling to risk damaging the building just to remove the metopes. Retentionists keep using these metopes however as an example of how much better preserved those that were removed are in comparison to those that were left behind.

In the same way as the metopes, the frieze also served a structural purpose. When discussing the aesthetics it was noted that some portions of the frieze appeared to have been carved in isolation whereas others had been carved as a continuous piece. Those that were carved in isolation, presumably at ground level must have been begun early in the construction process, otherwise there would not have been time to finish them before they were placed in position. The fact that they were structural meant that although carved in low relief, they were part of deep stone blocks and it would have been impossible to remove the whole heavy piece just for the frieze. Again Lusieri explains how the problem was solved:

“With a single saw I have got from the convent, they have sawn a precious fragment of the cornice of the Temple of Neptune Erechtheus and with the same saw they are now sawing a bas-relief ,a part of the frieze of the Parthenon that was made inconveniently heavy by its thickness ”

Even the pediment sculptures that are carved in the round and to an extent appear to be free-standing, in many cases serve structural functions as well. The bases of some of these statues had to be sawn off to facilitate their removal, as they had originally been attached to the geison that ran beneath them.


As we can see, the sculptures were all designed as parts of the building from the outset and as such were designed to be seen within the specific context of the building. Not only this, but the building itself had a relationship to its context. The context forced you to see the building in a specific way and the building forced you to see the sculptures in a specific way.

The Acropolis rock had been the site of temples for a long time before Pericles ordered the building of the Parthenon. The whole city state of Athens grew up with the Acropolis rock at its centre. The original reason for building a settlement on the Acropolis rock was one of safety and security. The Acropolis formed a location that was almost impregnable with only one possible route through the towering cliffs, yet at the same time was within easy reach of the sea. It was only in later years as the political climate stabilised, that it became the site for a temple, visible from everywhere and overlooking the whole city. Even as a temple site, it was still used periodically for defensive purposes, although these were ancillary to its main usage as a place of worship.

The unique topography marked the Acropolis rock as a very special location. Any architectural intervention there could not be just thrown anywhere on the site, but instead must be placed carefully in order to fully benefit and enhance this home of the gods.


To understand further how the buildings on the Acropolis were arranged, one has to have a certain understanding of the various processes that would have happened in and around the temples the purpose of the site. Although it was by no means the only structuring principle in the design of the Acropolis, one of the key features was procession.

The omphalos of the Athenian religious calendar was a ritual that occurred once every four years, the Panathenaic festival. This festival was in celebration of Athena, the city 's patron and the goddess to whom the Parthenon was dedicated. The Panathenaic festival was in celebration of the birthday of Athena in Hekatombaion (August). As well as the sacrifices that formed a part of every festival, there were also athletic, musical and equestrian contests for which the prizes were amphorae of tax-free olive oil. The central feature of the festival however was the presentation of new embroidered robes to the wooden statue of Athena located in the Erechtheion on the Acropolis. The build up to this ceremony was a procession that ran across the city to the temple for the presentation of the prizes from the games, before sacrifices were made and the robes were deposited at the altar.

The route taken to the Acropolis became known as the Panathenaic Way, through its involvement in the festival. The festival was the subject chosen for depiction on the inner frieze of the Parthenon and was in many ways the reason for the building's existence.


When arriving at the only entrance to the Acropolis rock, the Propylaeum that also formed the end of the Panathenaic way, the only route forward was up the steep steps that led through the gateway to the Acropolis. Although it was visible from a great distance, the Parthenon had become obscured as you neared it and the top of these steps was the first point where you could see it again, the moment of transition from a distant unattainable goal to an immediate destination.

Although there were other lesser temples on the Acropolis and the route to reach each one differed, we are purely focusing our attentions on the Parthenon. If you wanted to reach the Parthenon, two walls channelled you into following a designated route to the temple, although from the outset the route appeared to lead to a point in space to the left of the Parthenon. The other edge of this space was formed by a lesser smaller temple, with the route that was being followed appearing to lead between the two buildings.

The view presented of the Parthenon at the point where vision of it was regained at the head of the Propylaeum, was one carefully framed by the gate of the building itself. The Parthenon at this stage was presented to the processioner at an alignment whereby both sides appeared to be of equal length due to the oblique angle of the long side in relation to that the shorter. You could at this stage in your journey clearly make out the sculptures on the western pediment that was facing you and the metopes that sat beneath the pediment. The north face metopes would have been visible, but the forms would have been hard to discern from this shallow angle. Vertically, the altitude angle at which you saw the sculptures was fairly shallow, as you were still distant, so we shall assume that it was similar to looking head on at them and level with them. The distance from the sculptures also meant that the details were indistinct, you were merely seeing the key outlines of figures, silhouettes against the imaginary skyline of the pediment.

As you moved along the route the ground ramped gently upwards and as it did so, the two walls that were on either side became progressively lower. As the walls became lower, more of the columns of the Parthenon were slowly revealed, allowing gradual release of the full scale and form of the building to the processioner. The angle of the building relative to the viewer would have rotated, so that the north face was seen almost head on if they look to their right, whilst the west face is rotated out of view. Below the west pediment, the alignment of the columns opens a window to the processioner, framing a view to the landscape beyond and the distant port. In reaching this phase, if observing the pediment, the depth and overlap of the figures would have been obvious, and their forms would have slowly evolved, their silhouettes breaking apart and welding, as you moved past. Just before reaching the present stage of the route, was the point where the west pediment and metopes were closest, yet paradoxically almost obscured due to the steep vertical viewing angle as you neared the building. Although relatively distant the detail of both metopes and pediment would have been clearly visible as you approached, due to the highlighting effect of the pigment, although of course the finer features would still be impossible to see.

Continuing to move past the building, the northern metopes would now be clearly visible, a narrative unfolding in them as you passed each one in order, in this case stories surrounding the Trojan war. The angle of your path of movement was such that although your distance to the metopes diminished slightly during this phase, it was not on a level that was noticeable. The wall on either side of your route had now sunk to waist level and for the first time the whole of the Acropolis rock was revealed, with all the temples and other buildings clearly visible, with views across Athens to the countryside and surrounding hills behind. The space ahead of you had now altered to reveal a large statue of Athena on a pedestal, sitting in front of the entrance to the Parthenon.

On reaching the eastern edge of the building, the view in front of you would rapidly open out into a vast panorama of the hills eventually leading to the sea and the Parthenon itself would temporarily drop from view as you reached the end of the north side. As the view widened, so also did the path that you followed.

The end of the path followed from the Propylaeum was formed by a larger open space, a courtyard without enclosure, a plateau on top of the world. You began to believe that you had truly arrived in the land of the Gods. As you entered this courtyard, it acted as a place to slow and then turn around through almost half a circle, to find yourself suddenly directly in front of the main entrance to the Parthenon. The east pediment depicting the birth of Athena was clearly visible ahead of you, as were the metopes that on this side depicted mythical battles between the Greeks and the Amazons.


Viewed under brilliant Greek midday sunlight, the opening leading to the building appeared as a black hole in the wall, a doorway leading to a cool protected sanctuary, an escape from the exposure of the mountain top you currently occupied.

As you walked towards the entrance, the sculptures on the pediment and metopes were slowly obscured, although before they disappeared from view their angle of altitude was so steep that the processioner would only see them if they made the specific effort to crane their neck backwards for the purpose. One would be unlikely to look up at this stage anyway, as by now your eyes would have started to perceive forms within the darkness of the opening, as you approached it and it began to envelop you. In the dark tranquil interior, the glistening statue of Athena, clad in gold leaf and bedecked in jewellery would slowly be revealed.

Once inside the building sacrifices and other offerings would be left and after a short period of deliberation it would be time to abandon this tranquil space and enter the outside world once more. As you turned, the vast scale of the door would make it appear more as a window, offering many changing vertical slivers of views through the columns, the effect of peering out through the edge of a forest, of maintaining a relationship to nature, in keeping with the timber origins of the temples form.


If you were staying longer on the Acropolis, you might choose to walk along the south side of the building taking an alternative route to the Propylaeum and if you did this then new metopes would be revealed as you passed along the building. Alternatively sacrifices might be made at the altars that sat within the columns on the south and north sides of the Parthenon. Whilst walking through the columns you might just manage to catch a glimpse of brightly painted images high above you, the Parthenon's inner frieze.

On the whole procession from the Propylaeum to the Parthenon, no mention was made of the frieze, for the simple reason that it could not be seen from any of the vantage points unless you looked directly up when entering the temple. This would have been unlikely because all focus at that moment would be on the vast statue emerging from the shadows ahead of you. The frieze is hidden by its location behind the outer beam that houses the metopes. The depth of the beam is such that if you are outside the columns of the building, a very steep viewing angle is necessary to see the frieze. Even if you were looking up from outside, the continuity of the frieze would be lost as isolated fragments would only briefly be revealed as you passed each column.

To a viewer inside the columns, the frieze would be more clearly visible if you looked up and although the angle might be more oblique the original continuity of the panels connecting together would be preserved. Due to the way in which the shallow relief was carved, the lower portions were much deeper than the upper parts, in an attempt to make them more easily readable to the viewer below.

The presentation of the frieze as you can see was very different to that of the metopes and pediment. Rather than the harsh sunlight, it was lit in a diffuse ethereal way by light reflected upwards from the ground and walls so that shadows would have been almost non-existent. Not only would it have been lit differently, but the surfaces would also have appeared much brighter and fresher, their pigments sheltered from the fading of the sun and the corroding power of the rain.

Although the pediment and metopes were presented in a way accessible to everyone and similarly had grand mythical subjects to depict, the frieze was all but hidden from view. It was a secret within the envelope of the building, a part of the temple only known to the initiated, the origins of the esoteric. In line with its hidden nature, its depiction was also more subtle yet more relevant to the life of the temple and the people who used it. It depicted real humans performing real duties, rather than the mythical world concealed by the statues of gods and legends that surrounded it. They were the myth surrounding the logos.


The Athenians, along with the people of most of the other city-states of mainland Greece had their origins much further east. Displaced populations from a group known as the Acheans poured into the country in successive waves, each time pushing their boundary further into the country. These waves of people in turn pushed the original inhabitants first on to the remotest peninsulas and eventually to the refuge of the islands. The invaders entering Greece were nomadic herdsmen and their primary concern was to appease the gods in the sky. These invaders who became known as Dorians saw the gods in the form of the forces of nature and personified them as male characters. The Dorians built myths around the sudden and improbable, with stories of violent battles and encounters with mystical creatures. Consequently, much of their lifestyle and their building forms evolved around the idea of a male god. Doric architecture traditionally has wide solid columns and is in general typified by its solidity and permanence, An attempt almost to resist the gods rather than to cohabit. For the Dorians the gods were a frightening aspect, to be treated with respect and placated. Their buildings were a point of rationality existing in a sea of chaos.


The natives of Greece who fled to the islands became known as Ionians. They were primarily agriculturists and their religion was built up around the idea of expression of gratitude to the gods for the fertility and growth they brought. Their gods were personified as female figures, an idea derived from that of fertility.

The Ionians' religion was more mystical, the goddesses were more secret and abstruse in comparison to the direct visible influences of the Dorian gods. Worship occurred through devotion rather than placation and the people as a result embraced sensuality and emotionalism to a greater extent than the Dorians. Their stories and mythology focused more on human aspects than on violent unexplained gestures.

The temples that the Ionians built were freer and less rigorous than those of the Dorians, as much from the assimilation of the existing island traditions as from religious differences. The Ionians' buildings tried to express a female form, not only were the columns more slender, but the details were finer and more attention was paid to decoration and subtlety.

Even long after the tribes had started to mix and cohabit, the temple architecture of mainland Greece remained primarily Doric and at first glance the Parthenon in Athens appears to be carrying on this tradition, making only subtle refinements rather than leaps forward.


Not only did the sculptures of the Parthenon interact with and respond to the context, but they also connected to the building itself in a specific way, allowing interrelated themes to unravel as your exposure to the building increased.

To understand the Parthenon, one first has to realise that is was a turning point in classical architecture, a synthesis of elements from the two dominant styles that were for the first time found together in one building. The Parthenon visible to the casual viewer is Doric, with its carved metopes and triglyphs and a column height to diameter ratio of 5.6 :1.On the inner porch however, although the columns are still an exceptionally slender Doric form (for the time), the area above the columns is no longer Doric. The architrave has pegged regulae in accordance with Doric rules, but directly above this what we find is not Doric metopes as one acquainted with temple architecture might expect, but instead an Ionic frieze. Unlike the discrete windows or frames created by metopes, the frieze is a continuous element, and can as such accommodate a story in a less fragmented way than the metopes. It also has the ability to round corners cleanly so the story can last for longer and even end where it began forming a circular narrative.

Similar Ionic friezes had been found above the porch in the temple of Hephaistos, but due to extensive rebuilding it is unknown whether this building was contemporary to the Parthenon or not. The fact that the frieze on the Parthenon also ran along the wall of the cella was entirely without precedent however. With other Greek temples, there were no secrets in the exterior, the viewer could instantly see every aspect of the temple. With the Parthenon frieze you would never see everything that the building had to offer.

In the interior of Doric temples, it was customary to support the ceiling by superimposition of columns on two levels. However, as well as the main cella, the Parthenon had at the rear a smaller treasury or Parthenon, the space which was to give the building its name. Within this small room, superimposition of columns would have appeared cluttered and awkward, while individual Doric columns would have taken up all the available floor space. For this reason, the decision was made to instead use Ionic columns in this end of the building. Note should be made that the Ionic columns were not used in the interior of the main cella, where many people would have visited. They were instead hidden in the private space at the rear only used by those who worked in the temple, a hidden secret consistent with the positioning of the frieze.

The temple that Phidias had created, rather than being a refinement of one of the streams of development had instead developed into a synthesis of the two streams. It was a combination of the solidity and rationality of Doric, with a secret mystical core of refinement and humanism represented by the Ionic.

sculptural relevance

The hierarchy that existed with the form of the temple itself was also carried through the sculptures, as is to be expected when they were such an integral part of the building. Although we have so far only talked of three sculptural elements, the pediment, the metopes and the frieze, there were other elements of sculpture that have long since disintegrated and that we only know about from writing and later copies.

The most important sculpture of all was that of Athena, a huge personification that filled the interior of the temple. Although she was a female goddess, she had many of the attributes of male gods and as such was represented as a massive figure in the building. This statue of Athena was something that people could recognise but not directly relate to, an image that would bring an awareness of their own mortality and insignificance. As the most important statue of the building, not only was that of Athena the largest, but also the most ornate, covered in gold leaf and bedecked in intricate jewellery and robes. In many ways, Athena herself was a synthesis of the Doric and the Ionic. The powerful and the fragile.

Other sculptural elements were more minor and either consisted of applied elements such as shields attached to the exterior of the building, or like the acroterium and antefixes were more functional continuations of the temple's organic origins, rather than being items of particular symbolic importance. We have therefore, four major sculptural elements in the building that can be combined to form an order or hierarchy in a number of complementary ways. The first theme is one of humanism against mysticism. From the Ionic frieze that represents real people, citizens of Athens performing a procession, we progress to the metopes that represent a world where the humans can interface with the mythical. All the metopes depict humans, but they are in battle with enemies ranging from centaurs to amazons to the Olympian gods. As you progress to the pediment the stories portrayed become entirely mythical, albeit with human personifications. The east pediment depicts the birth of Athena, whilst the west shows a battle between Athena and Poseidon. Finally this hierarchy inverts to depict the Goddess Athena on the centre rather than on the outside, although it could be argued that she is merely a representation of the invisible Athena that is outside, her city that surrounds the building.

An alternative method of hierarchical description would be a physical one of depth, detail and realism. Starting again with the frieze, we have figures in a shallow relief and although they are intricate, the detail is not visible from the ground. The frieze figures if examined closely do not seem to have separate identities or personalities, their differences are more through posture than through expression. Moving out to the metopes, the depth of the carving is much greater, with the figures almost detached from their background. The increased size of the figures means that the detail is more clearly visible from below. The pediment sculptures are carved in the round, so even though the rear side is unattainable for a visitor to the building, they can assume it exists. The sculptures are larger than those on the metopes and additional elements of realism have crept in, from the detail of the fabric to the expressiveness of the individual faces. The final stage of the hierarchy, again is the statue of Athena, carved in the round and now it is possible to circulate on all sides. The decoration and detail are perfect even when seen from close to, in many ways she is a hyper-realistic representation. In the same way as with the hierarchy of myth, the detail level could also be seen as realism increasing as you move out from the building, ending as your eye leaves the space of the building and enters the cosmos. After all, what can be more realistic than reality itself. The final hierarchical schema, although already alluded to but not discussed directly is that of privacy or concealment. From the hidden frieze, we move to the metopes, ornamentation sitting between the triglyphs and visible yet not explicitly obvious. The pediment is larger and therefore more visible than the metopes, but still possible to miss if you are not looking at the temple roof. The final level is again Athena, unmissable by virtue of being the object you are visiting the temple to see, yet at the same time concealed within its walls.

linear hierarchy

Along with the development of this hierarchy of overlay running from the centre of the building outwards, there is another linear hierarchy that runs around the building, acting as a structuring element within the sculptures themselves as well as between them. If the sculptural stories are examined carefully, they all work their way forward to a culmination at the front entrance of the temple, beginning in the south-west corner. The reason for this is probably that in being the least visible corner of the temple, it could conceal the point where two threads of a story began and diverged before meeting together above the entrance.

Even a cursory inspection of the frieze marbles reveals that figures are facing in different directions on different slabs. They form separate branches of the procession, leaving the south west corner and eventually meeting again to form a presentation to the gods on the eastern side. The themes in the metopes develop in importance and relevance towards the east face of the building and the stories contained within them read in this direction. Similarly the west pediment is of lesser importance to the east one, depicting a mere battle compared to the awakening, or birth.

dynamic vision

The Parthenon and its environs act as a complex yet rigorous viewing framework for the sculptures. Despite the static rigid form of the building, it is an architecture of process and movement. At no one point can all the sculptures be seen, they are instead revealed and hidden as you move around and through the building. Not only are they hidden or revealed, but their form and your awareness of it also changes as you pass through the space and see the same sculpture from different angles.

Many discussions on the aesthetics of the marbles tend to see them as static forms or snapshots of time, that despite implying movement within themselves are otherwise rigidly frozen. The reality is quite different though, it is truly a space in four dimensions that can only be understood with the addition of time. It was an architectural promenade long before le Corbusier popularised the idea.

Here the two lines of argument have finally begun to converge again. The purely historical and the purely aesthetic approaches are unified by time. Not only does time unify these elements however, but it creates a framework in which we can understand other aspects of the sculptures.

The sculptures are undergoing a process of continual evolution and metamorphosis, spread out over a period of time too long to easily comprehend. At the same time however, there is their relationship to movement, the expression of time over a short duration. There is another dimension in the supposedly frozen time implied by the figures in the sculptures themselves, both in their posture and in their symbolism. Here we have an overlay of time on three planes, each operating at different rates, successive layers of fractal complexity.

In the life of the sculptures, the last two hundred years is only a minor footnote, that in another thousand years could be forgotten, yet will still in some way have left its mark on the marbles to be carried forward with them. The present is in no way less a part of history than the past.

To view part 3b click here.