Why is the Parthenon so important?

Why is the Parthenon so important?

Restauration du Parthénon. Photograph showing restoration working taking place on the Parthenon

Moreover, a symbol of Athens democracy. Built after the victory on the Persians who occupied Athens in 480 BC. Furthermore, built to celebrate the victory and Athens political, economic and cultural superiority.

One section of the Parthenon Frieze remains well preserved even after thousands of years as the figures are still very well defined.

Let’s focus on a section of the Parthenon Frieze classified as North XLVII, figs. 132-136. 

This piece of the frieze is located on the end of the north side of the Parthenon. The north frieze is a depiction of the procession of the Panathenaic festival. This festival occurred every four years and served the purpose of honoring the Goddess of wisdom, Athena. Among a plethora of events hosted at this festival, a cavalcade created with a line of horsemen in a display of honor towards the Goddess Athena.

Taking into account the context of the North Frieze, there are many indicators that this section is the end of the procession. In this piece, it can be seen that there is a little boy (fig. 136) helping a horseman (fig. 135) adjust his tunic by tying his girdle. This scene appears to be an act of preparation to start riding since it is their turn to begin moving as part of the cavalcade.

One interesting observation to note is the head of the horse, the man wearing the tunic, and the boy, are all facing downwards. This subtle but important detail conveys a sense of patience and preparedness to the piece. Jenkins describes this feature to “lend an air of quiet” to the scene.

Although this is a rather sharp contrast from many of the other frames which depict action and movement in the Parthenon Frieze, it actually fits nicely to create a natural rhythmic scene of the cavalcade. As men on horseback begin to ride forwards. It follows chronological order for those ahead to start moving before those towards the end. In fact, the sense of rhythm in the north frieze can be further observed. As a result of noticing the involvement of musical instruments in the cavalcade. Furthermore, even possible that the movement of the cavalcade became synchronized to the beat of the music. 

Closely fitted repair work
One of the most eye-catching figures in this section of the Parthenon Frieze is a man (fig. 133) turned toward the figures behind him, thereby exposing his entire physique.

The choice of the sculptor to expose the figure’s natural physique by clothing him with just a cloak was very deliberate. Since the Ancient Greeks greatly valued the beauty of the human body. The sculptor likely included it to depict heroism and virtue.

Additionally, the peculiar position of his body garners attention. He has his left hand extended towards the figures behind him with his pointer finger curled towards the front of the cavalcade. Since it can be seen that the horses ahead of him are already in full motion. I suspect he is signaling for his companions behind him to get ready to stay with the movement of the cavalcade.

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It is interesting that the “air of quiet” in the piece described by Jenkins faces juxtaposition as this man seems to be hurrying his fellow companions along. At first glance, it may seem as though this piece offers a stationary look at the cavalcade. However, taking into context the surrounding procession of the cavalcade, this piece offers the viewer a chance to understand the dynamic experience of being a part of the Panathenaic festival. 

It is quite amazing how much lies in a small piece of the Parthenon Frieze.

This section of the frieze contributes greatly to the rhythm of the procession and puts on display the true depth of Ancient Greek culture. Through the close analysis of Parthenon Frieze North XLVII, I have a more profound understanding of the Panathenaic festival. The quest to try and understand exactly what the sculptor of the frieze is trying to depict may never end.

However, it is a true joy to critically analyze the evidence presented in an effort to better understand Ancient Greek culture.

Written by Steven Chen

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Western and northern (partial) sides

References Jenkins, I. (1994). The Parthenon Frieze (First University of Texas Press Edition ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.