This iconic temple, dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens, stands majestically on top of the Acropolis, a sacred complex overlooking the city. The 17 Doric columns on either side and the eight at each end create both a sense of harmonious proportion and a dynamic visual and horizontal movement. The building exemplifies the Doric order and the rectangular plan of Greek temples, which emphasized a flow of movement and light between the temple's interior and the surrounding space, while the movement of the columns, rising out of the earth, to the entablature that rings the building, draws the eye heavenward to the carved reliefs and statues that, originally, brightly painted, crowned the temple.
Ictinus and Callicrates were identified as the architects of the building in ancient sources, while the sculptor Phidias and the statesman Pericles supervised the project. Dedicated in 438 BCE, the Parthenon replaced the earlier temple on the city's holy site that also included a shrine to Erechtheus, the city's mythical founder, a smaller temple of the goddess Athena, and the olive tree that she gave to Athens, all of which were destroyed by the invading Persian Army in 480 BCE. The Persians also killed the priests, priestesses, and citizens who had taken refuge at the site, and, when the new Parthenon was dedicated, following that experience of trauma and desecration, it was a monument to the restoration and continuation of Athenian values and became, as art critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote, a "dramatization of the political and moral differences between the victims and the perpetrators."
As Mendelsohn noted, the Parthenon while taken "as the epitome of Greek architecture...was typical of nothing at all, an anomaly in terms of material, size, and design." It was both the largest temple in Greece and the first built of only marble. While Doric temples commonly had thirteen columns on each side and six in the front, the Parthenon pioneered the octastyle, with eight columns, thus extending the space for sculptural reliefs. Originally the Parthenon Marbles decorated the entablature, as 92 metopes, or rectangular stone panels, depicted mythological battle scenes - of gods fighting giants, Greek warriors fighting Trojans or Amazons, and men battling centaurs - while the pediments contained statues depicting the stories of Athena's life, so that as Mendelsohn wrote, "Merely to walk around the temple was to get a lesson in Greek and Athenian civic history."
The temple's interior was equally meant to inspire, as Phidias's colossal statue of Athena Parthenos, or the virgin Athena, dominated the space. Forty feet tall, the statue held a six foot tall gold statue of Victory in her hand. A frieze, carved in relief, lined the surrounding walls, innovatively introducing a decorative feature of Ionic architecture into the Doric order. The 525 foot long frieze has been described by art historian Joan Breton Connelly as "showing 378 human and 245 animal figures... the largest and most detailed revelation of Athenian consciousness we have ... this moving portrayal of noble faces from the distant past, ... the largest, most elaborate narrative tableau the Athenians have left us."
The Parthenon's design employed precise mathematical proportions, based upon the golden ratio, but as Mendelsohn noted, "There are almost no straight lines in the building." The columns employ entasis, a swelling at the center of each column, and tilt inward, while the foundation also rises toward the façade, correcting for the optical illusion of sagging and tilting that would have resulted in perfectly straight lines. Aesthetically, though, as Mendelsohn explains, "[T]he slight swelling also conveys the subliminal impression of muscular effort...Arching, leaning, straining, swelling, breathing: the over-all effect...is to give the building a special and slightly unsettling quality of being somehow alive." The building has been highly praised since ancient times as the 1st century Roman historian Plutarch called it "no less stately in size than exquisite in form," and in the modern era, Le Corbusier called it "the basis for all measurement in art."