Athena Parthenos

Athena Parthenos

Athena Partenos (Greek: Ἀθηνᾶ Παρθένος; Romaniz.: Athenas Parténos , lit. "virgin Athena") was a monumental statue depicting the goddess Athena created by the Greek sculptor Phidias for the Parthenon of Athens in the mid-fifth century BCE.

Standing some 12 meters tall, and clad in gold and ivory, it cost a fortune and years of work, but was immediately recognized as a marvel, granting Phidias celebrity throughout Greece of his time.

One of the founding and capital works of the classical tradition in Greek sculpture, for centuries ahead the reputation of the Athena Partenos spread throughout the Western world, making her one of the most famous statues of antiquity, still of interest to critics today, but the monument was lost in unknown date and circumstances.

Her image has survived, however, in literary accounts and in reduced copies, on reliefs, coins and other media, which give a general idea of the original.

Athena Partenos (Greek: Ἀθηνᾶ Παρθένος; Romaniz.: Athenas Parténos , lit. "virgin Athena") was a monumental statue depicting the goddess Athena created by the Greek sculptor Phidias for the Parthenon of Athens in the mid-fifth century BCE.

Standing some 12 meters tall, and clad in gold and ivory, it cost a fortune and years of work, but was immediately recognized as a marvel, granting Phidias celebrity throughout Greece of his time.

One of the founding and capital works of the classical tradition in Greek sculpture, for centuries ahead the reputation of the Athena Partenos spread throughout the Western world, making her one of the most famous statues of antiquity, still of interest to critics today, but the monument was lost in unknown date and circumstances.

Her image has survived, however, in literary accounts and in reduced copies, on reliefs, coins and other media, which give a general idea of the original.

Athena Parthenos Description

Despite her great fame, surprisingly few descriptions of Athena Partenos remain from eyewitness testimony and none are very detailed. According to available data, it was constructed from a wood core reinforced with metal. Her arms, feet and face were covered with ivory, while her costume and weapons were covered with bronze plates and, on top, removable gold plates that weighed in total around 40 talents (about 1 ton), a technique known as crisislephantine. 

In Pausanias' description, the goddess appears standing; in one hand she holds the image of Nice, goddess of Victory, and with the other she wields a spear, beside which, next to the ground, is a shield and a serpent representing Erictonius, her adopted son and the first mythical king of Athens. He has a richly decorated helmet, crowned by a sphinx flanked by griffins in relief.

His tunic reaches to his feet and on his chest is an aegis with the face of Medusa, in ivory. On the pedestal, a relief narrated the story of Pandora's birth, surrounded by goddesses.

Pliny the Elder said that she was 26 cubits tall (about 12 meters), that on the shield there were scenes showing the Gigantomaquia (painted on the inside) and the Amazonomaquia (in reliefs on the outside), and that on her sandals was engraved the Centauromaquia.

Other details of the statue may also have been painted, and its eyes were probably made of colored stone. It is possible that the pedestal, about whose authorship some uncertainties still hang, was also covered in gold, but the evidence is unclear.

The hand protruding in front supporting Nice may have been supported by a column or other similar element, such as a tree trunk, but the literary sources are contradictory, and even in iconography it varies, appearing with and without support. Contemporary Athenian coins never show the hand supported, but a support for a structure weakened by the years may have been a necessary addition at some late date.

Some of the iconography shows her with the serpent under her right hand, rather than beside the shield. Moreover, it is a fact that technically, due to the fragility of marble, copies in this material often require reinforcements that are not in the originals.

Supports for arms, legs and other elements projected into space, in the form of logs, rocks, vases, columns, secondary figures and others, non-existent in the metal originals, appear regularly in marble copies in the Grecorroman sculptural tradition, in order to give more stability to the structure and to prevent these projections from breaking.

Also many "copyists" were quite imaginative in their work, deliberately departing from the originals, but keeping some basic features that preserved recognizable connection with prestigious models.

During the Hellenistic period, when there is a glut of copies of Partenos, it became fashionable to recover archaisms in new and eclectic formulations, a practice considered a sign of erudition. Copies of copies in successive generations can arrive at very discrepant results, as seems to be the case with the formal descent of Athena Partenos.

Her complex ancillary iconography, inscribed on her shield, sandals, and pedestal friezes, founded new narrative modes in the tradition of Greek sculpture, was, by symbolism and style, integrated into the decorative program of the entire Parthenon, has been interpreted in various ways and given rise to considerable controversy, but, in general, seems to reinforce the military character of the goddess as well as highlight her role in the protection and culture of the city. 

All the battles depicted speak of the victory of the forces of order and civilization over barbarism and chaos. In the words of C. J. Herington, "the Athena Partenos is a sculpture so loaded with meaning that a full study of all the motifs behind it would not fail to penetrate any of the activities of fifth-century Athens."

Because of the low quality of the surviving copies, all of which are small in size and generally crude and fragmentary, and also because of the significant inconsistency among them, detailed stylistic analysis of the original Athena Partenos is impossible, although it has been attempted many times.

But it surely followed the general canons of the classical period, canons that the Partenos, incidentally, helped found and enshrine, typified in a unique combination of naturalism and idealism in the representation of the body, in the sparse emotional expression, and in the formal atmosphere of rationality,

balance, and harmony, characteristics that conveyed an effect of monumentality, transcendence, authority, timelessness, and of poise contained in the perfect balance of opposing forces, sublimating the human form and purging it of all personal and transient irregularity in the quest to capture a reflection of the incorruptible essence common to all men.

At the same time, it made of this archetypal form a blueprint for a complete man who would also serve all, to be approached on earth through disciplined, wise and harmonious self-improvement. These characteristics were associated with a constellation of ethical values that had been deeply rooted in Greek society for centuries and were considered essential to general happiness.

In this context, the primary role of the craftsman was to create works that were useful to society, that promoted the common good, and that enshrined these collective values. The formal origins of this new style lie in the art of the severe sculptors, the generation that preceded Phidias, who developed a new sense of naturalism in the representation of the human form from a rather schematic and ritualistic model prevalent in the Archaic period.

The specific sources of Phydias' inspiration for modeling the Athena Parthenos are not known, if any, but, on the other hand, by collecting previously scattered elements, in it a new typology for the representation of the goddess crystallized, which became paradigmatic over several subsequent generations.

Function of Athena Parthenos

The Athena Parthenos was conceived as the main statue of the temple of Athena on the Acropolis of Athens, the Parthenon, which apparently was not quite a temple, it was more the city's treasury depository than a place of worship, having no traces of any altar nor are there historical records of the existence of priests or ritualistic proper. 

In the myth shared by most Greeks, Athena had among her main attributes the art of war, in which she was invincible and the most ingenious of strategists; wisdom, being infallible in good counsel and justice; and the technical arts and housekeeping, being a symbol of disciplined work, education, family, inventiveness, and culture.

She was, in short, an intellectualized and civilizing goddess, and even in war she never lost control, surpassing Ares, the other warrior deity, for cunning and prudence.

Being Athens' tutelary goddess of her own volition, disputing her protection with another great god, Poseidon, defeating him, as the legends narrate, and having those attributes, she was for the Athenians the supernatural guarantee of the state, the demonstration of divine favor, and the mythical legitimation of Athenian claims of cultural, military, social, ethnic, and economic supremacy over the other Greek cities.

Thus, the statue must have functioned above all as a civic, political, and moral allegory, as an embodiment of the Athenian state and civilization, rather than as a cult image, since, according to most scholars,

the specifically religious worship of Athena was concentrated in the oldest and most mystical of the sanctuaries of the Acropolis, the Erecteion, where the diminutive but sacrosanct statue of Athena Polias (Athena "of the city"), also called Palladium, who the Greeks believed to have fallen from Olympus and to be endowed with miraculous protective powers, was enthroned.

It is also reported that Athena, as Plutarch and Thucydides handed down, was a kind of reusable storehouse of wealth, for her gold, applied to movable plates, could be removed in cases of public need.

It seems that she did not even have a definite name until the 3rd century BC, for none of the official documents from Phidias' time call her by the name by which she became known, and some contradictory later sources make obvious confusion between the Parthenos, the Polias, and another colossal statue of Athena created by the same Phidias years earlier for the same Acropolis, the Athena Promacos, which was installed in the open and was made of bronze. 

The nickname, meaning "virgin," however, attested in sources before Phidias, was supposedly in common usage in popular devotion. Virginity was, in any case, another of the goddess' prominent attributes.

Even though researchers tend to see the Athena Parthenos as a secular image, it is quite likely that she participated in religious worship to some extent. At that time, the functions of state and religion were blended to a considerable degree, and a tablet rarely cited in the bibliography suggests that the ancient Athena Polias ritual was accommodated to include participation by the new statue.

Late records of its impact on the public as a true epiphany of the goddess and the vast number of ex-votos in which the model was reproduced, many of them found on the Acropolis, also attest to a broad popular assimilation of the statue into the religious sphere.

History of Athena Parthenos

At the time the statue was created, between 447 and 438 B.C., Athens was ruled by Pericles and was recovering from the damage left by the Persian invasion during the Median Wars. Tradition says, often repeated in modern bibliography, that Phidias was in charge of directing the entire renovation program.

As far as documentary evidence goes, we know only that his contract was to create the statue of Athena, and, as far as has been discovered, within the administrative system in place there was no room for a "supervisor of everything", as he was presented by Plutarch. But it is not difficult to suppose that, being an already respected artist and, it is thought, a member of Pericles' inner circle, he had an informal say in many other artistic matters.

It is also taken for granted that around the same time Phydias supervised the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon, but it is unlikely that he personally sculpted any of its pieces. Moreover, there are indications that he interfered with the structure of the building to better accommodate the statue of Athena.

The main center of attention was the Acropolis, the vital core of the polis, where its treasury was deposited and where the main Athenian gods were worshipped, among whom Athena reigned sovereign. It was, therefore, a place loaded with meanings.

The Athenians had sworn not to rebuild the city before defeating the hated "barbarians," and in the Battle of Plateias (479 B.C.), which put an end to the Median Wars, they managed to fend off a much stronger enemy.

That is why the reconstruction of the city, which began around 450 B.C., soon after Athens took control of the treasury of the League of Delos, took on the character of a ufanistic political campaign, orchestrated in such a way as to visibly reaffirm Athenian power and the superiority of its culture over the Persian through a series of monumental public works, richly decorated with innovative style representations that mark the foundation of the classical period, one of the most central references in the history of Western art.

Plutarch reported how enthusiastic everyone was about the works and how they mobilized the effort of the community in weight, how they caused admiration for their beauty and grandeur, how they amazed by the aesthetic novelties they introduced, and how they were perceived as a true apotheosis of the Athenian people:

"There was an aspect of novelty in each work and they seemed timeless. It is as if a life in continual bloom and a spirit of eternal youth had been infused into their creation." Indeed, this period became known as the "Golden Century" of its history, when Athens became a Mediterranean power, leaving a legacy that is one of the foundations of Western civilization.

According to tradition, the creation of the statue was the result of a contest, in which Phidias and Alcamenes participated. Phydias' proposal would have foreseen the distortions that the image would suffer in its visualization due to its large dimensions - being seen essentially from below - and would have compensated for them by being more ingenious in its use of the optical laws of propping, and therefore ended up winning.

Inscriptions survive attesting that a committee was formed to oversee the work and raise funds, at a cost estimated at twice the annual military budget of Athens. A work of Athena's size and complexity would surely have required the collaboration of several other professionals; among them may have been the important sculptors Chalamis, Míron, and Crésilas.

Monumental, resplendent, and described as a composition of inimitable majesty, the image caused a sensation among Phidias' contemporaries, but it also seems to have brought him criticism.

According to Plutarch, some accused him of having sacrilegiously depicted himself and Pericles on the reliefs of the goddess' shield, and others said that he had subtracted for himself some of the gold he had been entrusted to clothe her; but the history of Phidias is obscure and full of contradictory accounts, and little can be said with certainty.

Some versions claim that the charges were confirmed and earned him imprisonment, exile, or death, but these accounts are flimsy and may have been spread by disaffected Pericles, from whom the sculptor had apparently become a protégé.

For whatever the reason, it seems certain, based on archaeological evidence, that he left the city soon after completing his work, heading for Olympia, where he left another gigantic creation in the temple of Zeus, in the same technique, but the very hiring of the artist to perform another large and responsible task suggests that the accusations either belong to legend or were considered unfounded even at the time.

For modern critics, they are quite discredited. Over the years, Athena produced fertile offspring in smaller copies and derivations, was engraved on reliefs, cameos, seals, jewelry and coins, copied in paintings and mosaics, and was the model for numerous ex-votos. The cities of Priene, Noctus and Pergamos copied her in large dimensions.

Athena Parthenos Destination

Pausanias saw the statue in the second century of the Christian era, leaving his notorious description and attesting to its good condition, but in the following centuries, the trajectory of the Athena Partenos becomes increasingly obscure; at some point it disappeared, and so far the explanation is all conjectural. Currently researchers are divided chasing several contradictory clues.

It may have been: destroyed by order of some Christian emperor or by groups of Christians spontaneously; or when the Parthenon was converted into a church; or in the predatory barbarian invasions of Athens; or taken to Constantinople and there ruined in one of the many popular riots and sieges that afflicted the city in the Middle Ages; or lost in a fire.

Theodosius II (r. 408-450) issued a decree in the year 435 forbidding all pagan rites and ordering his magistrates to proceed with the destruction of all ancient temples and shrines in his empire. Various sources indicate that the order was not fully enforced in several parts of the empire, including Attica, which was slow to become Christianized, and so the Parthenon survived, but it is possible that the order meant the destruction or removal of its contents.

An account left by Marinus of Neapolis in his biography of Proclotus reports that shortly before the philosopher died, in the year 485, a young woman dressed as the Athena Parthenos had appeared to him in a dream asking him to receive her into his home because she had been expelled from her Athenian tabernacle, "removed by those who change things that should not be changed."

If she still remained for some time in the Parthenon, abandoned, after it was closed, as the date of the dream indicates, almost 50 years after the imperial decree, it would certainly be impossible for her to remain after the building was converted into a Christian church and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but it is also not known precisely when this happened.

Probably at some point before the end of the sixth century, but conclusive evidence only dates it to the year 693, interpreted as the cut-off date of his possible presence at his former abode.

It is possible that the Parthenon is the temple mentioned in an inaccurate account included in the manuscript nicknamed Tubinga Theosophy (c. 474-508), where it is said that Athenian citizens had transformed a certain temple of Athena into the home of the Mother of God during or just after the reign of the Byzantine emperor Leo I the Thracian (r. 457-474), which reinforces Proclot's account.

Other sources, however, which do not cite Athena but recount the misfortunes the Parthenon went through in its history, allow us to assume alternatively that the statue, if it had not been removed earlier, was destroyed in a fire. There is strong evidence that at least one major fire devastated the building in antiquity, but it is not known when.

Several dates have been postulated for this disaster and none have conclusive proof. Official reports covering as far back as 316 BC state that it would have remained intact, so it may have been 165 BC when tradition says the statue suffered damage and was restored;

but it is possible that there was another fire during the Heruls' invasion in 267, when most of the local temples suffered heavy damage, or in 300, when the ceiling would have been affected, collapsing and probably destroying or severely damaging everything inside, or in 377, or during the Visigoth invasion in 396. In any case, the materials from which the statue was made were unlikely to withstand any fire.

Another indirect source, Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Life of Constantine, speaks that soon after the year 300 the emperor, converted to the Christian faith, had all the pagan temples stripped of their valuables, offerings, donations and works of art and took them to enrich the treasury of Byzantium, transformed into his new capital and renamed "New Rome" - the future Constantinople - henceforth the center of the Byzantine Empire.

A 10th century record states that at this time she was in the city. This location is not guaranteed, but has been well accepted, for there is strong other evidence that over the centuries,

Constantinople's elite collected many important pagan statues and installed them in their palaces and public squares to mark with their "capture," the victory of the new faith and at the same time ensure a symbolic link of continuity with the glorious Roman imperial past, of which the Byzantine Empire considered itself the rightful heir.

It is possible that over the centuries of its existence the Athena has undergone conservation work more than once. One of the versions of Phidias' life tells that the gold layer of the Athena was removed once in 433 BC to have the metal weighed and to check if the artist had stolen it;

someone subtracted the gold gorgonion from the shield during the Peloponnesian War, but it was replaced before 398 BC. C.; the gold was removed again in 296 B.C. to pay the troops of the usurper Lacares, "leaving Athena naked," as several chroniclers complained, and its covering was probably replaced by much lower cost gilded bronze plates.

There is no news of the gold being put back, and immediately after this date a large mintage of Athenian gold coins appears, of a type used only in serious crises, the metal of which is presumed to be that taken from the statue. Nor is it possible to know whether these replacements of parts and subsequent conservation remained faithful to the original conception;

after a few generations its appearance could be quite different from Phidias' creation. The Parthenon building itself underwent modifications in antiquity, and it is not known to what extent these interfered with the statue's conservation.

It is speculated that, if missing in one of the fires, a smaller copy may have been enthroned in its place; in this case, it could have been this, and not the original, statue that spawned most of the copies, the one described by Pausanias and the Romans, and the one supposedly taken to Constantinople and marked there in the 10th century.

Jeffrey Hurwit suggests that there may have been as many as three successive statues. Be that as it may, after this ultimate and unproven record, its tracks are lost.

In short, its final fate remains unknown. Of the statue created by the Greek only survives traces of the foundations of its pedestal on the floor of the Parthenon, a square hole in the floor where the mast that served as its backbone was nailed, and six fragments of pedestal blocks that were identified by William Dinsmoor outside there and recently relocated to their primitive position.

Among the 200 or so ancient copies or derivations that have come down to the present day the so-called Athena Varvakeion, marble about 1 meter high, which is part of the collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, stands out, and is considered the best, although even this is rather crude. 

Another copy considered important is the small Athena Lenormant, marble from the same museum, which was not finished but is precious for preserving a sketch of the pedestal frieze, usually omitted in the others.The site of Phydias' workshop has been identified, where traces of molds, ivory and tools probably used in the construction of the statue have been found.

Legacy of Athena Parthenos

The Athena, along with the Zeus of Olympia, one of the seven wonders of antiquity, meant the definitive consecration of Phidias as the most important sculptor of the Hellenic world, giving him a fame that has crossed the centuries and remains high to this day.

Pliny the Elder and Quintilian said that she had become so beloved because she had been able to express the amplitudo and pondus of the gods, adjectives that at the time embraced the concepts of magnificence, authority, majesty, elevation, grandeur, and sublime dignity.

Quintilian further added that by such a quality never seen before the statues of Phidias had added a new note to received religion. Cicero, who like many Romans held Phidias as the supreme sculptor, saw the statue and considered it unsurpassed.

In his Orator he said that the master's statues were not modeled in the likeness of beautiful real persons, but he would have somehow ascended to the heavens and seen the true divine forms.

Although copies were plentiful from their origin, their popularity is curiously not attested in written documents until at least a hundred years after their creation, when a cluster of evidence emerges.

In the aftermath interest seems to dissolve and testimonies become rare, but in the second century BCE he experienced an explosive revival, especially in Asia Minor, as inferred from the multiplication of copies and in particular of widely circulated coins engraved with his image, and as indicated by the sudden proliferation of literary sources.

The reasons for this irregularity are unknown. Kenneth Lapatin, professor at Boston University and curator of the Getty Museum, believes that as Athenian military power declined, his image, so identified with the state, may have begun to be massively reinvoked as a nostalgic reminder of past glory. 

Over eight thousand coins of 110 different types on which a record of Phidias' work appears survive, originating from dozens of cities around the Mediterranean rim, and this abundance also probably reflects a form of tribute to the cultural importance of Athens in the Greek world, being a model in many ways for other cities, associated with concepts of humanism and prosperity.

Several records are known in which this admiration is expressed, and several Hellenistic kings showed commitment to strengthening their ties with that cultural metropolis, issuing coins with the effigy of Partenos and erecting important monuments and statues in which the masterpiece was reinvoked. 

In the same period its associations with religion seem to have intensified, ex-votos and statuettes for private devotion with its form becoming common, while among the Romans, great appreciators of Greek art, it became, among other uses, also a popular purely decorative motif, with reduced copies installed in gardens, mansions and public spas.

The frieze of the pedestal and the gorgonion of the shield also gave rise to many independent copies in various techniques. In Lapatin's appreciation,

"The blending of patriotism, politics, religion, and economics in the representations of Partenos is not surprising, for all of these were present in Phydias' original, a statue that came into existence as a complex panoply of myth, religion, power, wealth, and imperialism.

But Partenos also carried notions about identity, both cultural and personal. Ideas of a superior culture, intelligence, and decorum were clearly present in images of Partenos placed in public libraries and private villas. Intimately associated not only with Athens, the cultural capital par excellence of antiquity, but with its Golden Age under Pericles, this image of the goddess of wisdom also spoke of civilization and learning."

After an eclipse in the Middle Ages, from the Renaissance onwards interest in it resurged, and its ancient fame led many archaeologists and artists to seek since then to reconstruct its original appearance, multiplying its iconography and revitalizing its symbolism, which began again to ratify humanistic, cultural and political values inspired by Antiquity, appearing frequently associated with cultural institutions, regal figures and eminent politicians, spilling over even into popular culture.

A contemporary reconstruction of the Athena Partenos in its original size (but in different materials), based on available testimony and approved as plausible by experts in Greek art, was made in Nashville, United States, by sculptor Alan LeQuire. Opened in 1990, it is installed in the local replica of the Parthenon.

Its prestige in antiquity, its importance in introducing and consolidating the classical canon, one of the most reiterated standards in the history of sculpture, the seminal impact it had on the iconography of the goddess Athena,

being a favorite model for many centuries, generating quantity of copies and derivations, and the vast influence of Phidias' mythified memory on Western culture over millennia almost uninterruptedly, mean that the Athena Parthenos continues to interest researchers and be the subject of numerous studies.