A monumental statue of Athena Parthenos, created of gilded ivory, once stood in the center of the magnificent temple of the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens.
The Athena Parthenos (Ancient Greek: Ἀθηνᾶ Παρθένος) was a massive chryselephantine sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena, created by the Ancient Greek master sculptor Phidias and his assistants.
Dedicated in 438 BC, she stood proudly for centuries in the center of the Parthenon in Athens; the statue of the goddess protector of the city of Athens was designed as its focal point. Parthenos, meaning “maiden or virgin,” was one of the names of the goddess Athena.
She was the Greek goddess of wisdom, warfare, and handicraft and was seen as the embodiment of the city in ancient times. There have been many replicas and works inspired by the statue in both ancient and modern times, allowing us to know what she looked like to those who were fortunate enough to have seen the statue millennia ago.
Her monumental image was not only the most renowned cult image of Athens, it was considered one of the greatest achievements of the most acclaimed sculptor of ancient Greece.
Phidias began his work around 447 BC. Lachares, known as a demagogue of the city, removed her gold sheets in 296 BC to pay his troops, and the bronze replacements for them were probably gilded thereafter.
The iconic statue was damaged by a fire that occurred in approximately 165 BC but she was repaired. An account mentions it in Constantinople in the 10th century; it may have been dismantled and scrapped by the Ottoman Turks after the later takeover of Constantinople in 1453.
Ancient Greek historian Pausanias recorded the creation of monumental statue
The ancient historian Pausanias, in his work Description of Ancient Greece described the statue in this way: “The statue is created with ivory and gold. On the middle of her helmet is likeness of the Sphinx…and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief. The statue of Athena is upright, with a tunic reaching to the feet, and on her breast the head of Medusa is worked in ivory.”
Pausanias further said: “She holds a statue of Victory (Nike) that is approximately four cubits high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent. This serpent would be Erichthonius. On the pedestal is the birth of Pandora in relief.”
In front of the statue, sunk into the marble floor of the Parthenon, was a large, shallow tank of water. This had the dual benefit of reflecting light into the chamber and maintaining a moist atmosphere to best preserve the ivory, according to experts. The cutting in the temple floor in which the central support column of the statue was placed is still visible today.
Exactly what it looked like in antiquity can be seen from images on coins from miniature reproductions used as votive objects and even from representations on engraved precious gems.
The statue depicts Athena after she had won in combat. With her left hand, she supports a shield with carvings of an Athenian battle against the Amazons. On her right rests a representation of the goddess Nike (the winged goddess of victory).
Her left knee is slightly bent, her weight slightly shifted to her right leg. Her peplos is cinched at the waist by a pair of serpents, whose tails entwine at the back. Locks of hair trail onto the goddess’s breastplate. The Nike on her outstretched right hand is winged; whether there was a support under it in Phidias’ original is unknown; evidence in surviving versions is contradictory.
The exact position of Athena’s spear, often omitted, is also not fully determined, whether held in the crook of the goddess’ right arm or supported by one of the snakes in the aegis, following the representation on the “Aspasios” gem.
The statue was approximately 11.5 meters (37 feet 9 inches) tall and stood on a pedestal measuring 4 by 8 meters. The sculpture was assembled around a wooden core, covered with shaped bronze plates which were covered in turn with removable gold plates, except for the gleaming ivory surfaces of the goddess’s face and arms.
The gold on the statue weighed an incredible 44 talents the equivalent of about 1,100 kilograms, or 2,400 pounds; the statue of Athena in the Parthenon represented a sizable portion of the treasury of Athens.
Her fish scale poncho that had been the gift of her father Zeus supposedly had protective powers.
Incredibly, a stone from 440/439 BC relating the construction of the original statue still survives today. Held at the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, its ancient Greek inscription contains accounts of the supervisors for the construction of the priceless gold and ivory statue.
Many faithful copies of statue made over the millennia
As was often the case with the most outstanding ancient sculptures, many copies of the Athena Parthenos were made in those times and in the ages to come. A number of ancient reproductions of all or part of the statue have survived to the present day, which at least let us know what the famed statue must have looked like as it towered above the city.
The “Varvakeion Athena,” a 3rd-century AD Roman copy in marble is housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. This is generally considered the most faithful version, although it is not painted nor has any gold cladding.
The “Lenormant Athena,” a small unfinished copy of the original statue, created perhaps in the 1st century AD, is also in the National Museum in Athens.
Another copy is in the Louvre and yet another copy in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome.
A 3rd-century BC Roman marble reduced-scale copy of the statue’s shield, from the Strangford Collection, is held at the British Museum.
Athena Parthenos stands in recreated golden glory outside Nashville
As unlikely as it may sound, a faithful, full-size replica of the Athena Parthenos statue was created in 1990 in Nashville; she stands in her place of honor in the middle of the recreated building of the Parthenon there.
Noted sculptor Alan LeQuire created the impressive statue, painting every detail of the replica and gilding it as it was originally decorated.
A Nashville native, LeQuire was awarded the commission to produce the Parthenon’s cult statue. His work was modeled on descriptions given of the original. The modern version took eight years to complete, and was unveiled to the public on May 20, 1990.
However, instead of ivory, the Nashville Athena Parthenos is composed of a composite of gypsum cement and ground fiberglass. Her head was assembled over an aluminum armature, and the lower part of her body was made over a steel frame.
Four ten-inch H beams rest on a concrete structure that extends through the Parthenon floor and basement down to the bedrock, to support the great weight of the statue. LeQuire was sure to make each of the 180 cast gypsum panels of statue light enough to be lifted by one person and attached to the steel armature.
The Athena Parthenos of Nashville stands 41 feet 10 inches (12.75 meters) tall, making her the largest piece of indoor sculpture in the Western World as befits this great goddess of the Greek capital.
Parthenon of Nashville volunteers gilded Athena under the supervision of master gilder Lou Reed. The gilding project, which took less than four months, makes the modern statue appear very like the way that Phidias’ Athena Parthenos would have looked to the ancient Greeks.
The gleaming, 23.75-karat gold leaf on Nashville’s Athena Parthenos weighs a total of 8.5 pounds (3.9 kg) but is only one-third the thickness of tissue paper.
The original statue may have been lost in a fire in 165 BC or been taken to Constantinople, where it certainly would not have survived the overtaking of the city many centuries later, and it may well have disappeared long before that.
Although the Athena Parthenos may have been lost in the sands of time, the memory of the statue will never be lost, thanks to the many representations we thankfully have in the world today.