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From sculptures to pottery, from paintings to temples, mythology is a broad topic in ancient Greek art and architecture. The Parthenon architecture, one of the most famous ancient complexes of all times, is a striking example of how the ancient Greeks took inspiration from their classical mythology to make sense of the real world.
Rise of the Parthenon
This magnificent temple was built after the Persian Wars, when, in the mid 5th century BC. Athens and its leader, Pericles, wanted to show the world that they were strong, and brave. The city had been destroyed several times and the Parthenon architecture could be a symbol of its rebirth. In order to serve Pericles’ nationalistic goal, the Greeks built the temple on top of the Acropolis, where it could be clearly visible by anyone approaching the city.
The temple honoured Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and War and patroness of Athens. She is also the protagonist of its key decorations. However, after their outstanding victory over the Persians, the Greeks wanted the Parthenon honor all the Gods of Mount Olympus, not only Athena. Gods and Goddesses occupied the pediments (the big triangles supported by columns on the short sides of the temple). The West Pediment told of the mythological contest between Athena and Poseidon (the God of the Sea) over who would be the ruler of Attica. The victory went to the Virgin Goddess. The East Pediment evoked the story of the birth of Athena before the other divinities gathered to enjoy the event.
The monstrous enemy
But mythology could serve a smarter and more useful role. Stories of battles between uncivilised beasts and strong men, could easily be connected to the more recent historical events: the Wars between the barbaric Persians and the heroic Athenians. Any who studied the Greeks knows that they considered the Centaur (a half-man, half-horse beast usually drunken and very loud!) the ‘uncivilised’ par excellence. And so… Greek sculptors used the metopes (the rectangular spaces under the pediments) to represent the mythological fight between the Lapiths (a legendary tribe from Thessaly) and the Centaurs. They crashed the wedding of the Lapith king in order to steal their women. The tale served the ideological goal of the temple perfectly: the centaurs could metaphorically represent the Persians and their bad manners, while the Lapiths, who win the battle in the end, were connected to the superior and civilised Athenians.
The Parthenon today
One cannot but think that the Greeks were real masters of the arts! They were highly skilled sculptors and architects and with the Parthenon, their iconographic choices often followed precise ideological plans. We can’t know if the Greeks will ever get their most famous sculpture back to Athens, but for now we keep enjoying some of its parts at the British Museum. Want to know more about how the famous ‘Elgin Marbles’ were brought to the English capital? Read the story here! The Parthenon architecture is, of course, a wonderful treasure in our Fun & Games hunt; for more blog posts (and bonus answers) on other Fun & Games treasures check here and here! Feel like you’d like to learn more about Greek Art? Check our Blog post on the Symposium in ancient Greece.