University of Kansas, Lippincott Hall

Parthenon - Frieze

Sculpture from the Parthenon

All the Wilcox casts of Parthenon sculpture were apparently purchased from the Caproni cast company of Boston, according to the small metal oval set in most of the casts.

Summary, History of the Parthenon

The Parthenon was built 449-438 BCE; it was dedicated in 438 when the chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos inside was also dedicated. The pedimental sculptures, however, were installed in 432.

The building consists of an inner set of rooms (the 'cella' divided into a large east room and a smaller west room) surrounded by a colonnade. Above the colonnade were sculpted panels, "metopes," depicting a battle of Greeks and Centaurs on the south (the Wilcox has two panels from this set, South 28 and South 30, height 1.40 m), a battle of Greeks and Amazons on the west, the sack of Troy on the north, and the battle of gods and giants on the east.

Around the exterior top of the cella wall was a continuous sculpted frieze (3 feet high and over 500 feet long), depicting the Panathenaic procession of all Athenians that took place every 4 years. The purpose of the procession was to give a new gown to the cult statue of Athena housed in the Erechtheion, a temple on the north edge of the Akropolis.

The Wilcox possesses a couple of slabs of the north frieze showing young men on horses, and almost all of the east frieze depicting the gods assembled while the old gown is being folded up for storage.

Sculptures in the west pediment depicted the contest of Athena and Poseidon for control of Athens, while those in the east depicted the birth of Athena. The Wilcox possesses one of these statues, the reclining figure of the young Dionysos from the south corner of the east pediment.


The Parthenon is a temple-like building on the Akropolis at Athens, dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena (Roman Minerva). It was built from 449 to 432 BCE at the instigation of the chief military officer (polemarch), Perikles, to replace a building the Persians had burned in 480 BCE; that building, the pre-Persian Parthenon, had not yet been finished, but it too had replaced an earlier, 100 foot long building on the site, the Hekatompedon. The Parthenon, built entirely of local Pentelic marble, is Doric in style, and was the largest building in mainland Greece (larger, Ionic, temples were dedicated in the Greek east). The Parthenon has 8 columns across the façade and 17 down the flank. Inside the colonnade is a large building (cella or naos) with 2 rooms, each fronted by a 6-column porch. The larger front room, with a colossal statue of Athena, was entered from the east and the back room (the Parthenos) was entered from the west.

The Purpose of the Building

The Parthenon and its predecessors were not sacred temples to Athena on the Acropolis. The holy area is north of the Parthenon, where, in the Bronze Age, the Mycenaean palace was, and in the 6th century BCE the "Old Temple of Athena" (O.T.) which the Persians also ravaged. The Old Temple was replaced in the 420s by the Erechtheion. The Erechtheion and its predecessor held the small olive-wood cult statue of Athena that had fallen from the sky, sent by the gods. This statue was the one the Athenians revered. The back room of the Parthenon held the Athenian treasury, 1/60th of the tribute that Athens' "allies" paid to the city annually. In that room and also in the east room were stored the many items that the Athenians dedicated to Athena Polias, the protective goddess of Athens whose cult statue stood in the Erechtheion.

The Sculpture of the Parthenon

The Parthenon was the most decorated building in Greece. Pheidias designed the sculpture. Above the columns were 92 sculpted metopes (square panels); above the east and west entrances, the pediments (or gables) held three-dimensional sculptures larger than life-size; within the colonnade at the top of the exterior wall of the cella ran a continuous sculpted frieze. The west metopes depicted Greeks fighting Amazons (Amazonomachy); the north had Greeks fighting Trojans (Ilioupersis); the south had Greeks fighting centaurs (Centauromachy); and the east had gods fighting giants (Gigantomachy). In the west pediment the sculptures illustrated the contest between Athena and Poseidon for control of Athens; and the east pediment showed the birth of Athena. Besides the sculpture on the exterior, there was a colossal gold and ivory (chryselephantine) statue of Athena, over 35 feet tall in the cella. Today a replica of statue and temple stand in Nashville, Tennessee.

Later History of the Parthenon

The Parthenon was dedicated in 438 BCE, but the pedimental sculptures were installed in 432. The Roman emperor Nero rededicated the Parthenon to himself (ca. 60 CE). In 429 CE Theodosius ordered all pagan temples be converted to churches or be destroyed: the Parthenon became the Christian Church of Holy Wisdom (Haghia Sophia). In 1204 the Franks captured Athens and the Parthenon was rededicated as a Catholic church to the Virgin Mary, seat of a bishopric. When the Turks captured Athens in 1456, they installed a mosque inside the Parthenon; they also stored gun powder in the Parthenon, which blew up during the Venetian assault on the city in 1687. In 1801 Lord Elgin received permission from the Turks to remove sculpture from the Parthenon; this is now in the British Museum. Recently, the Greek government finished a complete cleaning and study of the building. The Parthenon is now a World Heritage site.

The Parthenon Sculptures in the Wilcox

On display are 2 metopes from the south side of the Parthenon (nos. 28 and 30), slabs from the frieze, and, from the East pediment, a young male reclining on an animal skin, either the god Dionysos (sitting on a panther skin) or the hero Herakles (sitting on a lion skin).

The frieze of the Parthenon is a long sculpted band of Pentelic marble on the top of the exterior wall of the cella (the central building inside the colonnade) and above the columns of the end porches. It was probably carved from 449 and installed by 440 BCE. The total length is 525 feet, and the height is 3 feet 4 inches. The frieze is carved in shallow relief, the 324 figures being no more than about 3 inches high off the background. The frieze was originally painted, blue for the background and various colors for the human figures and horses; there were also added bits of metal for reins and bridles and other objects. Most of the slabs are in the British Museum; some pieces are in Athens or elsewhere. Currently, the Greeks are seeking the return of all the Parthenon sculptures to Greece.

The frieze runs thematically from the southwest corner first along the south as well as along the west and north sides towards the east. On these three sides the first subject is young men on horseback (all of the west and half of the north and south sides). After this "cavalcade," the north and south sides present chariot racing, then old men carrying branches, musicians (lyre players and flautists), young men carrying water jars and trays, and finally men bringing bovines and sheep. The east frieze is symmetrical flanking the central "peplos folding scene." From both ends walk young priestesses, then there stands a group of pairs of men in conversation, then gods sit on either side of the "peplos" scene (on the left are Hermes, Dionysos, Demeter, Ares, Hebe or Iris, Hera, and Zeus; on the right are Athena, Hephaistos, Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Eros). The "peplos" scene has 5 figures: at left, a young girl (the Wilcox lacks this figure), and in the center 2 pairs of figures; at left, an adolescent woman and a young woman face each other, and, at right, a bearded adult man and a young child fold a large piece of cloth.

The frieze concerns the procession which took place every 4 years during the Greater Panathenaia (438, when the Parthenon was dedicated, was such a year; a Lesser Panathenaia was celebrated in the intervening years). On Athena's birthday in mid-August (28 Hekatombaion, the beginning of the Athenian year), all Athenians, resident aliens and slaves too, took part in a procession that started from the main gate, the Dipylon, in the northwest of the city, and passed through the market-place (agora) up to the Acropolis. The culmination of the procession was the presentation of a new gown (peplos) to the cult statue of Athena in the main temple to Athena (the Old Temple to Athena and then the Erechtheion) on the north edge of the Acropolis (not the Parthenon). The frieze thus presents this procession in the presence of the Olympian deities, the presentation of sacrificial animals, and the folding-up of the old peplos presumably for storage.

Scholars have long debated special topics about the Parthenon's frieze. For instance, which particular Panathenaic procession is being depicted (mythical, the one at the Parthenon's dedication, or any Panathenaia)? John Boardman counts the horseman as 192, the number of the Athenian heroes who died at Marathon fighting the Persians (490). The sex of the young child folding the peplos is also debated: the "Venus rings" on its neck should indicate a girl, but no girl bares her buttocks.

The carving style of the frieze is "High Classical." Some individuals are given different costumes (e.g., some of the horsemen) and the gods are given "attributes" that identify them (Demeter has her torch, Hermes his traveling hat) or given different ages (adult Zeus and youthful Apollo). But otherwise almost all the figures are ideally youthful and given "classical" (i.e., mathematical) proportions; faces are generic, not individualized, and all are calm and impassive. Modeling of the flesh is restrained but fluid; costume ("drapery") folds are also restrained, nothing fluttery as in the Parthenon's later pediments (in place by 432).

Of the original 115 slabs on the building, the Wilcox possesses a select few: almost all of the east frieze and a few slabs from the north frieze.

North Frieze. Frieze slabs depict young men on horseback in shallow relief. The horses and riders are highly stylized. The proportions are awkward on the horses, with legs too delicate for their bulky bodies. Figures are interacting and direct the viewer's gaze in the same direction, as a part of the overall procession of the friezes. The original frieze was made in 447-433 BCE.


In the center of the East Frieze is the peplos folding scene: at right, an adult man and child folding up the peplos; at left, a woman helps two girls adjust bundles on stools that they balance on their heads. The adult man should be the archon basileus, a magistrate in charge of state religion, and the adult woman should be the priestess of Athena Polias. To either side of this scene are depictions of the gods. Immediately to the left is bearded Zeus talking with Hera, who is fingers her veil to show she is the perpetual bride. To the left of Hera is her daughter, Hebe. Then come Ares sitting impatiently, eager for action; pensive Demeter with her torch, resting from searching for her daughter Persephone; then Dionysos, whose arm is raised to lift a missing cup of wine; and then Hermes, his back to Dionysos, his traveling cap in his lap. To the right of the peplos folding scene are the other gods: first, the girlish figure of Athena sitting next to Hephaestus (part of his crutch is visible); then bearded Poseidon chatting with the young Apollo who sits next to his sister Artemis; Artemis tucks her left hand into Aphrodite's right elbow; and finally the young son of Aphrodite, Eros, stands with a parasol (foreign resident women held parasols over the heads of citizen women during the Panathenaic procession). Flanking the gods are two sets of three paiderastic couples of older men and young boys, and, towards the corners, a procession of young priestesses.

Featured item:

Duck Cup

3D Model of Duck-CupThe Wilcox Museum’s website is now offering three-dimensional digital models of several objects in the collection. See our new 3D Imaging page under "The Collection" tab!  

Follow Us on Facebook
One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
44 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
5th nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets: Colleges," Military Times
KU Today