Greece: The Parthenon – Center of the Acropolis

ATHENS is the centre of Greece, the Acropolis is the centre of Athens, and the Parthenon is the centre of the Acropolis,—I do not mean measured by the surveyor’s chain, but by the highest standards of human interest. Unless a man is an irreclaimable Philistine, the Acropolis is the first thing he hastens to see in Athens, and the last thing he sees when he takes his leave. And of the temples which crown it, the Parthenon in all its shattered glory is supreme.

No visitor who has not been side-tracked in provincialism or ignorance comes to the Parthenon without prepossessions. He has seen it pictured in books and photographs or modelled in wood and stone. He has heard it proclaimed as an adorable sanctuary of religion and art. He knows just what he ought to see and just how he ought to feel when he sees it. If he is an American, he recalls not without amusement the remarkable zeal with which wooden temples of the Doric order were propagated in his own land, and applied to every sort of structure, whether town-hall, church, schoolhouse, or private dwelling, with-out the slightest regard to utility or fitness. Perhaps he has an unjust grudge against the Parthenon as the mother of all these insignificant and solemn caricatures ; but could he think any less of them than would Pericles himself? I have never forgotten Wagner’s look of disgust when I told him, just before the first grand representation of his trilogy at Bayreuth, that some one was going about Germany circumventing his copyright by playing the music on a piano. Athens could not copyright the Parthenon; and so the rustic imitations we have made of it have been much like Wagner’s wonderful orchestration reduced to a piano, or an oratorio played on a flute. Yet one must not forget that this multiplication of Grecian temples on American soil was born of the enthusiasm which the revival of knowledge of the Parthenon spread in Europe, and which crossed the ocean and caused the Doric column to impinge on the primeval forest. It is hard to see how the conceptions of one who comes with such impressions as these or with any impressions derived from pictures or models of the Parthenon can help being heightened when he sees the original, unless he comes with a too luxurious imagination ; and in that case I am bold enough to think his imagination is more likely to be at fault than that embodied in a temple which Pericles and Phidias and Ictinus and Callicrates thought worthy of the gods.

Many visitors to Niagara have confessed their disappointment at the first sight of the great cataract; and Mr. Mahaffy has admitted that even the Parthenon could not stand the weight of expectation he had formed in regard to it, though his disappointment subsequently gave way to sober and enduring admiration. Too much importance, however, may be ascribed to first impressions. Few brains can take an instantaneous view perfect in all its details. The mind has not had time to get into focus. The emotions have not had time to rise. The subject cannot be grasped in its full proportions. The first impressions of an engraving may be the clearest and best; but brains are not always so sensitive as paper, and the process by which great images or ideas are transferred to them is often like that of the slow, laborious work by which the engraver cuts a plate. The only man who can afford to be satisfied with his first impression of the Parthenon is he who is so unfortunate as not to be able to take a second. I have seen tourists come up in their carriages, remain half an hour or less, and then go off. They have ” done the Parthenon,” but the Parthenon has not done much for them. They can say that they have seen it, and thus secure a little respect in good society, though even this claim is not true. No one can see the Parthenon who does not know it, and he cannot know it without studying it. It is one of those grand and enduring works whose emotional effect is increased by a knowledge of the intellectual and aesthetic principles upon which it is constructed, just as a thorough student of harmony can perceive relations and enjoy effects not perceptible to an uneducated ear.

As for myself, I mounted the Acropolis with a joy which it would be but affectation to conceal. I should as soon think of measuring the great temple by my first impression of it as of measuring an oak with an acorn. Even so far as the mere intellectual use of vision is concerned, it is impossible for any one pair of eyes to see at once all of the Parthenon, its structure, method, and intent. It was more than a century and a half after the temple had become known to the Western world through Spon and Wheler, in 1678, that the curvature was discovered by Pennethorne in 1837. There are elements in it which the eye can discover only when aided by the rule.

The Parthenon is a symphony in stone. It is not to be grasped in any melodic phrase of construction, but only in the full, rich harmony of its perfection. From a study of the whole one is led inevitably to a study of the parts ; and from a study of the parts he comes back to a fuller, more perfect conception of the whole. Alas that gunpowder and vandalism should have made such inroads upon its beauty! Though shaken by earthquakes, the tooth of time has spared it. There is scarcely a wrinkle on its countenance which can be ascribed to age or decay. It was the divine energy of man that reared it, and the diabolical energy of man that broke its columns and architraves and stripped its frieze and pediments of their treasures. This is the melancholy thought which forces itself on the visitor. Let the bombardment of the Parthenon be another count in the indictment against the costs and hardships of war.

Though literally ” broken and cast down,” the temple is ” not in despair.” The drums of many of its columns are scattered about, and great gaps are left in the stately row which supported the roof; but there is a grandness, a solidity, a strength, in the ruins which brook no suggestion of decay. The Parthenon was young when it was dismembered, and it is young still. The fallen drums are white and sound to the core.

One of the elements in the glory of the Parthenon is the imposing Acropolis on which it stands. Here is a steep hill of solid rock, rising abruptly from the plain to a height of two hundred feet. It is a natural fortification, inaccessible on all sides but one. It is only about three hundred yards the longest way, and about one hundred and twenty-five the shortest. Yet what spot in Greece contains more shrines of art or religion or more history to the square inch carved into or built upon its surface?

There is first the hard, crystalline limestone of which the hill itself is built, hoary with age and out-dating and outlasting everything that has been built upon it. Its summit must have been rough and jagged when the work was begun of planing it off to furnish the foundations for the dwelling-place of men and gods. Athens did not begin on the plain, and extend to the hill: it began on the hill, and spread to the plain. This lofty rock was far enough from the sea to furnish a safe retreat from the depredations of pirates, and it was easy to fortify it against attack. Those early dwellers, Pelasgic or other, did not put up a hedge or a board fence. They erected walls whose rough, solid masonry still winds its rugged courses around and over the Acropolis, as it did centuries before the Parthenon was built. Some of these walls were buried for ages until the spade of the excavator revealed them. Others rise stubbornly in the daylight, as if to dispute with the marble Propylea the trophy of permanence. Whatever myths may float around the heads of these early dwellers, the walls they built are solid facts, and will outlast the trivial masonry of our day.

Then there are the traces of the devout spirit of early Greek occupation. He would be rash who would let misty conjectures of how long Athene or Artemis had been worshipped on this hill harden into any rigid chronology. It is known that Pisistratus lived on the Acropolis five centuries and a half before the Christian era; but other kings and tyrants had dwelt there before him, and this hill was the centre of civil and judicial life. That there was an early temple here to Athene is known, and in 1885 Dorpfeld pointed out its foundations near the Erechtheum. The temple was destroyed in the Persian wars, and perhaps rebuilt. Then the conception of a magnificent temple farther to the right, and covering vastly more space than the original one, took shape; and the foundations were broadly and strongly laid. They are still there ; and many of the broken columns of this unfinished temple, which must have been attempted after the Persian War, are built with other fragments into the north wall of the Acropolis. All this before the Parthenon.

When Pericles began it, he built the new temple as far as possible upon the foundation of the old one. It was enriched and glorified by the chisel of Phidias and by the brush of the painter. It was consecrated to the virgin goddess, and her statue within it was one of the grandest achievements of ancient art.

The Parthenon was completed 438 B. C. For six centuries it stood there as a holy temple of the religion to which it was dedicated. Then a new religion, reared on a Hebrew foundation, and with a new virgin goddess, arose, and in time the Parthenon, under Frankish rule, became a Christian church. The march of religions went on, and Mohammedanism crossed swords with Christianity. The Turks were victorious, and the Parthenon was turned into a mosque and topped with a minaret. Two hundred years ago the Venetians sought to recover their hold in Greece. The Turks who held the Acropolis stored their treasures and their gunpowder in the Parthenon, just as the Puritans, a little earlier on American soil, sometimes used their wooden churches for similar purposes. To the credit of Morosini, the Venetian commander-in-chief, be it said that he was reluctant to bombard Athens, but a council of his officers urged its capture. The Acropolis was the key to the situation, and a bomb fired by one of his officers fell into the Parthenon and exploded the magazine, leaving the building a wreck. The Venetians practically gained nothing. They left Athens the following year, and once more a Turkish mosque was built in the Parthenon.

The next sacrilege was Lord Elgin’s rape of Athene’s girdle — the beautiful frieze, the pediments and metopes of her temple, which now enrich the British Museum but have left the Parthenon disrobed. The judgment of the world concerning this act has been various; but the English protest has nowhere been so strongly uttered as by Byron in flaming poetic curses. When I saw these marbles in the British Museum, I said, ” They are at least safe here from earthquakes, bombardments, and changes of weather, and thousands may see them who never go to Greece.” Still, when I came to the Parthenon, the sense of loss was too great to be satisfied by that argument. For the bald fact remains that those who see the dislocated marbles in the British Museum do not see them as they were meant to be seen. It is another illustration of Emerson’s ” Each and All,” of taking home a shell from the seaside.. Those colossal figures cannot be properly seen close at hand ; still more, they cannot be appreciated apart from the grand temple for which they were made, any more than the Parthenon apart from the Acropolis on which it stands or from the scenery which surrounds it. They are jewels plucked from a coronet; and, when you see the crown, you mourn that they have been torn away.

The temple did not escape bombardment from Greek guns too, in the hot days of the revolution; but which of the cruel wounds that still remain were made by friends or foes I do not know: the saddest thing is that they are there.

When one mounts the Acropolis to view the Parthenon, the great rock on which it is built seems to be inseparable from the structure itself. It gives it an elevation and dignity which it would not have if put in a hollow or set on a plain. At first the visitor may want to lay aside every suggestion or interpolation of later times that comes between him and the temple of Pericles ; but the tides of history have left their water-marks, and cannot remain unread. He finds himself on this ancient rock brought into association with centuries older than Pericles, and with the twenty-four centuries that have followed him. He ascends the rugged steps which so many feet have trod, and over which has passed the grandeur of many a Panathenaic procession. He enters the magnificent gateway of marble, the Propylaea, the noblest and most elaborate portal ever erected by the worshippers of a Greek deity. He turns to the old Pelasgic wall, and thinks of the ruder days before this later splendor. He treads with veneration the stones which mark the ancient temple of Athene, and stands where her lofty statue doubtless rose. The Erechtheum—that exquisite romance in marble — and the charming temple of Athene Nike are still here. The Parthenon rises grandly over all. But on its cella walls is the faded image of the Virgin Mary which marks the advent of Christianity, and here and there the architect may trace the vestiges of the Byzantine church or the Turkish mosque. Neither Christianity nor Mohammedanism could add anything to its material glory; and the Parthenon in strength and dignity rises calmly superior to the parasites which assailed its beauty. Elsewhere Christianity built its own temples with a magnificence surpassing that of the Parthenon ; but here on this grand old rock Athene still is victor, and the glory of her temple reveals to us the inspiration toward the beautiful and the sublime which lay in the heart of the Greek religion.

One of the first impressions which the Parthenon makes, and which it was intended to make, is that of simplicity, — a simplicity combined with strength and elegance. Here is none of the complexity of Gothic architecture, no such multiplication of points, angles, and mere ornament as gives over-elaboration and richness to the cathedral at Milan. Putting aside considerations of size and weight, it seems to the spectator as if it had been an extremely simple matter to lay these stones one upon another, and to rear the columns drum upon drum. Here is no springing arch or swelling dome: mechanically it seems to be but a glorified, marble log-cabin, retaining in various details a strong reminiscence of its humble wooden origin. But when one studies the temple carefully, he sees what a remarkable combination of mathematical and mechanical effects was necessary to produce the grand and simple structure before him. The architects never forgot the observer’s eye. They wished to produce a certain effect; but, in order to achieve this in the mind of the spectator, it was necessary to construct a different building from that which he thought he saw. Thus the observer thinks he is looking at a building whose beautiful columns are perfectly straight from top to bottom. He presumes that he is looking at a stylobate and steps built on horizontal lines. He sees no signs of leaning in those strong pillars. Yet, when the temple has been measured foot by foot, as Penrose measured it, he finds that he has been looking at a building whose lines and angles have been softened into curves so delicate and beautiful that they melt imperceptibly in the observer’s eye.

The fact that the end= of the building lies deeper than the middle was observed before the reason was discovered. Karl Botticher maintained that this curvature had occurred because the corners of the foundation had settled. An examination of the foundation showed that the building was set on the solid rock and that it was impossible for it to sink so many centimetres. It was maintained by another that it was due to earthquakes; for hardly any of the columns have escaped disturbance of this sort. But earthquakes do not do their work with mathematical regularity. It would have been a miraculous convulsion which could have jostled this temple into curves of beauty. The measuring rod showed that no part of the building was more perfect in design than that which had been ascribed to convulsion or decay.

Every column, instead of being a straight line from base to neck, tapers towards the top and has a gentle swell or entasis. So slight is this curve that, as Penrose truly says, until a comparatively recent period, the columns were assumed to be perfectly straight. And what is the object of this curve? It is ” to correct the optical illusion, which gives an attenuated appearance to columns perfectly straight.”

The curvature of the steps is more easily detected. It will be conveyed to the mind of the reader by the figure of a bow which is already strung. Set it down with the string parallel to the floor. The string forms a horizontal line, while the bow arches above it. Let the string represent the ground on which the Parthenon rests : the curvature of the bow will correspond to the curve of the stylobate and the steps, which rise gently to the middle, and then slope down as gently to the other end. Place a hat on the steps at one end; go to the other end and get down until your eye is on a level with the edge of the step, and then look along it. You will not be able to see the hat at the other end. The convex rise in the middle conceals it from view. Yet comparatively few per-sons when they mount these stairs, suppose that they are stepping on a curve instead of on a straight line. Of course, if the columns were set on this con-vex stylobate without correction, they would not be perpendicular supports to the roof; they would lean in opposite directions. To secure perpendicularity the lower drums of the columns are made higher on one side than on the other, thus offsetting the curvature of the base. The difference in the height of the sides is something like eight centimetres. As the architrave is curved as well as the stylobate, the same correction in the drums must be made at the top as well as at the bottom. In addition to their own entasis, the whole line of columns is made to incline slightly toward the building, so as better to bear the strain of the roof. Think of the immense amount of work required to calculate and secure these effects ! It has been conjectured that wooden columns may have been set up and used as patterns for the marble ones. By building the columns in sections or drums the work was easier.

The stylobate is made of great blocks. The steps on the sides are so high that one has to climb them. They were made for the eye, not for the feet. In earlier times when small buildings prevailed, the steps to the temples were made in a certain proportion to the columns. When the Parthenon was built this pro-portion was retained and the blocks were too high for steps. The same is true of the Zeus Temple at Olympia, and of others. Small steps were therefore laid at the entrance between the larger ones. So when the west end of the Parthenon was made the entrance for the Byzantine church, small steps had to be interpolated there also.

In Greek temples orientation was of great importance. The axis of the temple pointed to the rising sun. The main door was to the east, so that when it was opened on the high festal day of the goddess, the sun would shine into the temple. Pen-rose and Lockyer have supported this view by astronomical calculations.

Greek architecture must be seen in the joyous light of a Greek sky. The problem, still inviting discussion, as to how the Doric temple was lighted is not so difficult of solution when the temple is set, like the Parthenon upon the Acropolis, upon lofty heights or open plains. Set it in the forest or surround it with heavy shade-trees, as some of the stately old mansions in our own country, which, unhappily, imitated the Greek style, and the effect is solemn and gloomy enough. But in Greece the flood of sunlight through a clear atmosphere is so intense that, when it falls upon a building of Pentelic marble like the Parthenon, the glare is too strong for weak eyes. The whole building is suffused with a glory which must have brilliantly illuminated its colored triglyphs and sculptured pediments.

What of the inside? Shall we maintain with Fergusson that it was lighted from the top, or with Dorpfeld that it was lighted only through the great door which was opened on festal days? In support of the latter view the point has been made, with great truth, that the penetrating power of light in Greece is so great that through a large door enough light would enter to reveal in mystic grandeur the colossal statue of Athene in the Parthenon or the equally great statue of Zeus in the temple at Olympia. It is argued also that the Greeks did not want in their house of God anything but a ” dim religious light; ” and an American architect has sought to show that lamps were used in these solemn temples.

The great size of the door in the pronaos, some fifteen feet broad and thirty feet high, supports the theory that it was used for lighting the interior. There was a smaller door by which the priests might enter.

Karl Botticher has advanced the theory that the Parthenon was not really a sanctuary, but a treasure house. The slight architectural reasons presented for this bold conjecture have been examined in detail and refuted by Dorpfeld. Their force can only be fully appreciated by those who are fortunate enough to see the building under Dr. Dorpfeld’s guidance, and trace with him its history revealed in clamps, tool marks,, the circles on which missing columns once stood and the grooves described by hinged doors. The changes made in the Parthenon by its adaptation to Byzantine worship render complex and difficult the task of distinguishing in the interior between the original and the adapted structure. It is in just such a task that Dr. Dorpfeld’s architectural knowledge and rare powers of observation find their opportunity. An Hellenic clamp, a tool mark or a tell-tale circle may show the age of a stone and the use that was made of it as clearly as if the workman had written it in words.

But I cannot linger on the artistic and mechanical details of this wonderful temple of worship. For the last hundred years our knowledge of it has been continually increasing, and we cannot be sure that we know all its secrets or even all it was intended to reveal. There is one spot in it of peculiar interest. It is the space nearly in the centre of the building where the remains of a strong foundation of poros stone and a square slot in the middle reveal, undoubtedly, the spot where stood the famous statue of Athene wrought by Phidias, on a frame of wood, and covered with ivory and gold. How wonderful was the influence on the Greek mind of this conception of the virgin goddess, and how remarkable its influence on the western mind when it passed into Christianity ! Athene, as pictured by Homer, is a grand and beautiful conception. In the earliest forms in which men undertook to paint or mould with the hand that which floated as a vision in the brain, we are struck by the great chasm between that which they aimed at and that which they achieved. The literary conception was high, the artistic product low. But gradually this ideal of the divinity of the intellect, embodied in the form of a woman, and radiating, too, into gracious charms of sentiment and beneficence, took possession of the eye and hand of the artist as well as of the song of the minstrel; and by and by, yet as early as the fifth century before Christ, art rose to the level of literature, and bloomed in the perfect flower of the Parthenon and the wondrous art of Phidias which adorned it.

The influence of this Greek idea did not stop here. In the fifth century A. D. the Parthenon became the temple of Saint Sophia, and a few centuries later it was transformed into the church of the Virgin Mary. Like Paganism, Christianity could not be contented with a purely masculine deity. Athene, excluded from her temple, revenged herself by re-appearing in a new guise and with new functions. If the later Christian homage to a virgin met a need of the human heart, who shall say that that rendered to the Greek virgin was not as sincere and inspiring?

The best time to see the Parthenon is at sunset or under the silver light of the full moon. The tones of the building, weather-stained by centuries, seem richer and deeper in the sunset glow; and the temple fits beautifully into the illumined landscape. Take your stand at the southwest corner of the temple of Nike. Below you lies the theatre of Herodes Atticus, a little to the right the hill of Philopappus, still farther Observatory Hill, the Areopagus, the Pnyx, and the stately Theseion. In the plains the fresh green barley alternates with olive groves and brown furrowed fields. To the left stretches the Bay of Phaleron, opening to the larger sea. Piraeus lies beyond. Here is the island of Salamis, there AEgina. The coast of Attica fades into the distance. Walking to the other end of the Acropolis, we see below the new Athens, the royal palace and garden, and steep Lycabettus rising abruptly from the plain. The whole view is framed in by sea and mountain, — Pentelicus, from whose bosom came the milk-white curdled marble with which these temples were reared, Parnes, AEgaleos, the pass of Daphne, and, most familiar of all, the long ridge of Hymettus. How the sinking sun seems to fondle it, and how softly the mutable colors play over it, — gold and violet and red, — melting its hard, rocky surface into geniality and beauty ! In this sunset glow the Parthenon, the magnificent Propylaea, the Erechtheum, and the bewitching temple of Nike are gilded with super-natural light, as if the sun loved to heighten their beauty. And, when the moon rises and in the deep silence silvers the old rock and the temples upon it, you forget the things of today; and in the witchery of the moonlight Athene seems to come once more to claim her holy place, and you are a willing worshipper at her shrine.