Unlocking Mysteries Of The Parthenon
It is impossible not to be awed when one stands in the shadow of the great Parthenon and looks up at its elegantly carved Doric columns towering overhead.
The quality of the craftsmanship, the stunning white Pentelic marble, the sheer size of this 2,500-year-old temple dedicated to Athena Parthenos – the virgin goddess and patron deity of ancient Athens – are all features of a unique, world-class monument that strike us immediately.
However, there is much more to the Parthenon than first meets the eye.
As viewers, we welcome and accept the temple’s outward beauty and seeming perfection, but we don’t often stop to ask ourselves why the building so affects us.
The answer is that the Parthenon’s architects, Ictinus and Callicrates, and its chief sculptural artist, Phidias, have incorporated numerous “hidden” devices within its marble construction and carved decorations that were designed to trick the viewers’ eye, to make us believe we are witnessing something perfectly regular, sensible and balanced in all its aspects.
These almost imperceptible optical refinements and other little adjustments or design tricks allow us to unwittingly take in the details of the Parthenon more easily.
To appreciate them more fully and to not be disturbed by unpleasant optical illusions that otherwise could have been caused by the building’s massive scale and the basic nature of ancient post-and-lintel architecture.
TRICKING THE BRAIN
Looks certainly can be deceiving! Who would believe that, in fact, there are virtually no straight lines or right angles in the Parthenon?
This enormous temple appears at first glance to be a giant rectilinear construction, all of whose lines are straight!
And does it seem sensible to the rational mind that the base of the temple – its stepped pedestal or stylobate – is actually domed, not flat?
The four corners of the pedestal droop gracefully downward, such that if one were to stand on the top step and look lengthwise along the building at someone else also standing on the same step at the opposite end, these two observers would only see each other from about the knees up.
This doming of the temple base was reputedly done to avoid an optical “sagging” of the building’s middle that would have been perceived along its east and west ends and especially along its long north and south sides.
If its lines were actually designed and built to be perfectly straight.
Additional refinements in the Parthenon include the slight inward leaning of all the columns in the Doric colonnade surrounding the building.
The corner columns are slightly larger in diameter than the others and lean inward in two directions; that is, diagonally to the corner.
They also are set in such a way that there exists a smaller space, or intercolumniation, between them and the next column.
Meanwhile, the columns themselves are not straight along their vertical axes, but swell in their middles.
This phenomenon, called “entasis,” intended to counteract another optical effect in which columns with straight sides appear to the eye to be slenderer in their middles and to have a waist.
Furthermore, the whole superstructure of the outer facades of the temple, above the level of the columns (the “entablature”), also curves downward at the corners, to mirror the stylobate and carry upward the temple’s overall domed curvature.
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