Ideas of the Parthenon
The Greek people of the 5th century BC created a culture that was deeply rooted in philosophy and the arts. Their endless search for their place in the grand scheme of the universe and in nature around them influenced everything in their lives especially their love of the arts. Their drama, sculpture, and even architecture are all shining examples of the ideas that were so dominant in the minds of the Greek people. What could be considered the crown jewel of Greek architecture, the Parthenon, is one such of these examples. It brings into form the three principal ideas of humanism, rationalism, and idealism of the 5th century Greek people through not only its structure, but its ornamentation and sculpture as well.
The basis of humanism can be summed up in the words of Protagoras, ?Man is the measure of all things.? Humanism is the idea that human beings are the yardstick by with to measure all things in the universe, including Greek gods and goddesses. The Parthenon stands for this very idea through the fact that it is a human organization of space. It brings an understandable order into a chaotic space that would otherwise be incomprehensible to a human being. It allows a human to see the space and recognize it as something that is real. It also consists of repeated patterns and distance intervals throughout its structure that add to this order. The metopes, for example, are set in an alternating pattern with the triglyphs around the entire building at distinct intervals bringing a clear order to the entablature of the Parthenon. The columns that support the Parthenon are also placed in certain distance intervals from each other and coincide with the pattern formed by the metopes and triglyphs. These columns, however, are not in a perfect pattern of equal distances around the entire Parthenon. The columns on either side of the doorway to the Parthenon are placed a little farther apart than the rest to show a clear entrance to the building. Also the corner columns of the building are positioned slightly closer to their neighboring columns in order to compensate for the human eye. Without this compensation the columns would give the illusion of leaning outward and being farther apart than the rest of the columns because of the distortion of such a large structure to the human eye. The stylobate that the columns rest on is also built to allow for this optical illusion of the human eye. It has a gentle arch to it that prevent the human eye from believing the building to be concave or sagging toward the middle. This effect, known as entasis, can be seen throughout the Parthenon from the curve of the stylobate and entablature to the slight bulging of the columns that gives the impression of bearing the load of the structure. Another example of humanism in the Parthenon can be seen in it ornamentation and sculpture.
The Parthenon is a temple to the goddess of wisdom, Athena, and has many references to her though its decorative art work. For example, the East pediment of the Parthenon depicts the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus. All of the figures in the pediment are in a human form, including the gods and goddesses and Athena herself. This is a way of bringing the gods down to a level that can be recognized and understood by humans who worship them. This is true of all the Greek statues of gods and goddesses such as the gold and ivory statue of the goddess Athena that stood in the Parthenon itself.
Another idea of the 5th century Greek people that can be recognized in the Parthenon is that of rationalism. Rationalism is the idea of eternal principles or basic truths that are inherent in the universe and in the human mind. An example is that of Pythagoras’ right triangle theory that a?+b?=c?, which cannot be total proven but yet has never been disproved either. This same theory can be seen in the Parthenon through its rectangular shape which, if cut in half diagonally, would be two right triangles. As it is plain to see, rationalism had a great hand in the very shape of the Parthenon as well as many other aspects. One of these other aspects has to do with the size of one part of the Parthenon in proportion to the size of another part. The proportion or ratio of 9:4 has been recognized and reoccurs throughout the building in many different instances. For example, when the length of the Parthenon at the stylobate of 228 feet is compared to the width at the stylobate of 104 feet the resulting ratio is 9:4. This ratio can also be seen when you compare the distance from the center of one column to the center of the neighboring column to the diameter of the column at its base and in the distance of that diameter to the width of the triglyph on the entablature. Moving on from the Parthenon’s structure to the statues, pediments and friezes that decorate this temple to Athena, one can notice even more effects of the idea of rationalism. In the 5th century BC, a sculptor by the name of Polyclitus very successfully attempted to apply a canon, or body of rules, to the proportions of the human body through sculpture. Although Polyclitus didn’t set his body of rules in stone, so to speak, he started an idea of rationalism that applied to the ratios of the human body. The statue of the goddess Athena that resides in the Parthenon is one such sculpture that was created with a similar body of rules in mind. The same can be said for the elaborate pediment on the East end of the Parthenon, as well as the much smaller friezes and metopes that decorate the great building inside and out.
The humanistic concepts of the Parthenon are plain to see, a building built by humans, for humans, and built with human ideas, but what about the other side of the coin. This other side of humanistic thinking is known as idealism. Idealism is the perfect and unblemished aspirations of human beings manifested in their minds and their art, such as the Parthenon. The Greeks belief in their gods and goddesses is the perfect example of this idea of idealism. To the Greeks, their gods and goddesses represented the perfection that they all were trying to achieve physically and mentally, which is a direct contrast of the humanistic idea of man being the measure of all things. Thus, when one looks at the statue of Athena or the East pediment depicting her birth they can interpret them as an example of humanism, gods being more human, or as idealistic, humans being more god-like. The same can be said for the use of entasis and the other deviations from ?perfect? geometry in the Parthenon. By adjusting the building from exact right angles and precise flat surfaces, the architect made the Parthenon appear, to the human eye, as an idealized dwelling for a perfect being, the goddess Athena. There are other examples of idealism in the Parthenon that are not related to humanism at all. The sheer size of the building hints to the fact that the Parthenon is a place that is not meant for a human or even built with a human being in mind. For example, the steps of the Parthenon are to such a large scale that is clumsy and awkward for a man’s normal stride, but in the Greek mind, the perfect distance and size for that of a goddess. The entrance to the Parthenon, through it’s colossal size, denotes that a human is not the main concern when it comes to entering and exiting of this building in the mind of the architect.
The 5th century Greek people played a pivotal role in the shaping of not only the world of philosophy but also the world of art and architecture. Their ideas of humanism, rationalism, and idealism were the things that brought to life the artwork of their time and still effects ours to this day. The Parthenon, with its bulging columns, its repeated ratios, and its colossal size expresses how these ideas formed the structure of the building and then shows how the same ideas brought to form the beautiful pediments and sculptures that give us a deeper insight into the minds and hearts of the Greek people. The Parthenon is truly an elaborate time capsule overflowing with Greek ideas.