The Parthenon sculptures

Again, students of ours have gone to view these—in one morning, but days and months can be spent viewing them.


Athene and Hephaistos

Plutarch’s Life of Pericles is to be recommended, both for the character and philosophy of the man and for what is said about the buildings and sculpture on the Acropolis.

He quotes Pericles as saying that the creation of the temples and their sculptures would ‘awaken every art, and stir every hand, and bring the whole city into employment.’

Plutarch goes on,
ἀναβαινόντων δὲ τῶν ἔργων ὑπερηφάνων μὲν μεγέθει, μορφῇ δ᾽ἀμιμήτων καὶ χάριτι, τῶν δημιουργῶν ἁμιλλωμένων ὑπερβάλλεσθαι τὴν δημιουργίαν τῇ καλλιτεχνίᾳ, μάλιστα θαυμάσιον ἦν τὸ τάχος. ὧν γὰρ ἕκαστον ᾤοντο πολλαῖς διαδοχαῖς καὶ ἡλικίαις μόλις ἐπὶ τέλος ἀφίξεσθαι,ταῦτα πάντα μιᾶς ἀκμῇ πολιτείας ἐλάμβανε τὴν συντέλειαν.

The works went forward, surpassing in grandeur, and inimitable in their form and grace: the craftsmen strove to pass beyond craftsmanship in the beauty of their art. But most marvellous was their speed. People thought that each one of the works would scarcely reach perfection by the succession of many generations, but they all reached consummation in the zenith of one government. —Plutarch, Life of Pericles, Chapters 12-13

Plutarch first saw them around AD 60, when as he thought, they would be ‘preserved from the touch of time’.  When one came out on to the Acropolis from the Propylaea, the first of the Parthenon sculptures to be seen—elemental, because they depicted the moment when Athene became patron goddess of the city—were on the western pediment of the Parthenon. Most of these were smashed to smithereens in 1687, and only fragments remain.

The story of all the destruction, some accidental, some deliberate, is a study in itself, as is the rescue (at huge labour and expense) by Lord Elgin, and many others, of what remained. Students sometimes mention the sonnet by Keats (On Seeing the Elgin Marbles) and ask for an explanation of his words: which is difficult. Keats evidently found his mixture of feelings—amazement at the beauty of the sculptures, and shock at their damage—too much to cope with.

See also earlier post: Horses