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INTRODUCTION TO THE PARTHENON FRIEZE

The temple and its sculptured decoration

The theme of the frieze

The designing and carving of the frieze

The history of the frieze

The Parthenon as a church, east end. Restored drawing by M. Korres

HISTORY OF THE FRIEZE

In antiquity the frieze remained undisturbed in place on the monument for many years. Shortly after the middle of the third century A.C. there was a big fire in the Parthenon, but to what extent it damaged the frieze is unknown. When the great temple was converted into a church, probably between 450 and 500 A.C., the centre of the east pediment and part of the frieze of the east end were removed. Later on, perhaps during the 12th century, six blocks of the frieze were removed in order to make an equal number of windows, three on each long side of the building, which continued to function as a church.

The Parthenon as an Ottoman precinct during the 17th century. Dimetrical drawing by M. Korres The explosion of the Parthenon on 26 September 1687. Dimetrical drawing by M. Korres

In 1458, when the Turks seized Athens, the Parthenon became a tzami (mosque). In 1674, the artist Jacques Carrey accompanied C.F. Olier, Marquis de Nointel, French ambassador in Constantinople, to Athens where he made remarkably accurate drawings of the sculpture. Preserved today are his drawings of the east, west and parts of the long sides of the frieze.

The great desctruction of the Parthenon occurred thirteen years later, in 1687, during the Turko-Venetian war and Morosini's campaign in Athens. The explosion that occurred at that time destroyed a large part of the frieze of the long sides of the temple and caused irreparable damage to stones that remained in place as well as those that fell out. The way was thus open to looters. In the mid-eighteenth century the English architects, J. Stuart and N. Revett made for the first time accurate architectural drawings of the temple, the sculpture and whatever of the frieze still remained in place.

The Parthenon with the scaffolding for removing the sculpture. Drawing by Sir William Gell, 1801. British Museum

During the first years of the 19th century, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, removed from the ruined Parthenon as many sculptures as he could. Among these pieces were eighty metres of the frieze. The backs of the frieze blocks were sawn off in order to reduce their weight for shipping. The pieces, known as the Elgin Marbles, are today in the British Museum in London.

The last stretch of the frieze that remained in place was that on the west end, measuring approximately twenty metres. For protection of the marble surface of the west frieze from exposure in the open air and rain, it was imperative that this section be removed and transferred to the Acropolis Museum. This was done in 1993.