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Two Goddesses

Two GoddessesTwo Goddesses
From the East Pediment of the Parthenon
Acropolis of Athens
430s B.C.

The Acropolis of Athens is a natural hill of rock that projects some 60 feet above the surrounding city. The Athenians built sanctuaries to their most important deities on the Acropolis, including the famed Parthenon, a temple to Athena, the city’s patron goddess. The Parthenon was part of a massive construction project meant to glorify Athens during her "golden age" under the leadership of the statesman Perikles. From the ashes of the Persian sack in which the buildings of the Acropolis were burned, new buildings arose in unprecedented grandeur. The Parthenon housed the cult of Athena Parthenos ("the virgin"), who embodied exemplary virtue, and thus became the very symbol for the city that bore her name.

Constructed of white marble from the nearby quarries of Mt. Pentelikon, the buildings of the Acropolis were among the most lavish and technically sophisticated in the ancient world. The architects Iktinos, Kallikrates and Mnesikles are remembered today for their unique architectural genius, applying the highest standards in measurements and refinements, while master sculptor Pheidias oversaw the immense sculptural program. Pheidias himself must have designed the 40-foot gold and ivory cult statue of Athena that stood in the Parthenon’s interior, and he probably masterminded the sculptural program that decorated the building’s exterior. The Parthenon’s uniqueness lies both in the quality and the amount of sculptural decoration it received, which far exceeded that of any other Doric temple. Both of its pediments (gables) were filled with sculptural compositions, which epitomize the effortless grace and complicated drapery patterns of the High Classical style.

The Two Goddesses, perhaps Aphrodite and her mother Dione, come from the east pediment, which depicted the birth of Athena. According to myth, Athena sprang full-grown and armed from the head of Zeus. The figures of Zeus and Athena (now lost) were placed at the center of the pediment, while the sides held various groups of gods standing or reclining, reacting as the news of the miraculous birth spread. The west pediment depicted a contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronage of Athens. In addition to the pediments, a continuous frieze ran around the upper, outer wall of the temple’s interior room. (A cast section of this frieze hangs over the outside entrance to the Cast Gallery.) Finally, all 62 of the Parthenon’s metopes were sculpted (a cast of one of these hangs over the Two Goddesses in the Cast Gallery) to illustrate various episodes of Greeks triumphing over barbarian enemies, including the hated Persians.

In 1812 Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, removed many of the Parthenon’s sculptures to England, including the Two Goddesses. These objects were purchased by the British Museum in 1817, where they are currently on display. Weathering war, earthquake, and sheer neglect, the Parthenon stands today like a battered sentinel, presiding over the city as it has done for 2,500 years. Restorations begun in the 1980s will ensure that this famed symbol of the past will continue to stand for generations to come.

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