The Parthenon

One of the most famous monuments of the ancient world is the Parthenon in Athens. Less well known, however, is the fact that this temple on the Acropolis was a victim of early Christian iconoclasm.

The Acropolis of Athens. Photo: TMK, March 2003.

During its conversion to the church of Agia Sophia in the 5th century CE, parts of the sculptural decoration were destroyed. The metopes, mainly on the western, eastern and northern sides of the temple, were especially targeted. As can be seen in the photo below, the figures have been chiselled away.

North metope no. 25. From Brommer 1967, tafel 105.

It is therefore lamentable that we know so frustratingly little about the Christianisation of the Acropolis because of the destruction of the post-classical layers in the 19th century (see the excellent article by McNeal in Antiquity 65 for an account of this sad story).

J. Boardman. 1985. The Parthenon and its Sculptures. London.
F. Brommer. 1967. Die Metopen des Parthenon. 2 vols. Mainz.
R. McNeal. 1991. “Archaeology and the destruction of the later Athenian Acropolis”, Antiquity 65: 49-63.

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  1. You must diferentiate between the Christians destroying sculpture they saw as pagan – the metopes – and the sculptures they seem to have restored – the frieze.
    Also the Athenians were generally iconophiles, and later came up with a mad plan to dethrone a Byzantine emperor who was an iconoclast …
    I cover a lot of the material in my book, The Elgin Marbles, out later this year …

  2. Thanks for the comment. Indeed there is a need to look at the variety of Christian responses to pagan sculpture, including the Parthenon material.

    I look forward to seeing your book. Hurwit did a poor job of dealing with the late antique period on the Acropolis, although this is of course partly because of the destruction caused by the 1830s ‘excavators’.

  3. And I look forward to reading your thesis one day !

    Hannestad influenced me a lot when he gave a lecture in Athens when I was I was a student – he’s a great man, and really openned my eyes to later restoration of sculptures, which so many people ignore.

    I guess my main new finds on the Late Antique Parthenon are the interior Palm Capitals in the re-built cella (which I published a long time ago), and the more recent theory I came up with that the frieze was restored in the early Christian period (which will be in the book).

    I love Hurwit’s book, and think he did a great job. No-one can cover everything !
    Regan Baydoun did a good MA thesis on the Byzantine Parthenon, if it interests you.

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