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Parthenon Metope: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history, interpretation and significance of the metopes on the Greek temple called the Parthenon and test your understanding about ancient Greek architecture and art.

Metopes

The Parthenon metopes are a highly significant program of ancient sculpture created by the Greeks of Athens in the 5th century BC. They were one of the first works of truly great marble sculpture in European history and made a profound impact on the world of art. Unfortunately, after millennia of pollution, war, and erosion many of the original metopes have been lost.

Reconstruction of the Parthenon metopes
Parthenon

Background Information

In ancient Greek architecture, the top of a temple was divided into three sections. The middle section was called the frieze. In the oldest style of Greek architecture (lasting roughly 750-480 BC), called the Doric Order, the frieze was decorated with an alternating pattern of triglyphs and metopes. A triglyph is a marble panel with three vertical lines that represent the end of wooden beams. Metopes are simply the spaces in between triglyphs. In most buildings, the metopes were plain, but in very important buildings; like treasuries, the metopes could be decorated.

The Parthenon of Athens
Parthenon

The Parthenon was one such building. Built in 432 BC in Athens, it was a massive temple to Athena that also served as the treasury for a coalition of Greek cities called the Delian League. Later, when Athens took control of the Delian League, it was the treasury of the First Athenian Empire. The Parthenon is remembered as one of the best examples of Doric Order temples and had some of the finest marble sculptures in European history. The 92 metopes of the Parthenon were originally covered with marble panels featuring scenes from history and mythology.

Style and Technique

The metopes of the Parthenon are carved panels of a soft stone called marble that was very popular due to its workability and natural beauty. The metopes are carved in high relief. Relief, in sculpture, is when the background in a panel is carved deeper than the images, giving the impression of depth or that the figures are raised out from the wall. High relief means that more than half of the sculpted figure is raised, as opposed to low relief which has less dramatic depth. In high relief, parts of the figure like arms are often completely free-standing. At this point, the figures were carved just like any statue. The original metopes of the Parthenon were likely painted in vibrant colors to help viewers distinguish them from a distance.

Parthenon metope in high relief
Parthenon metope

Design

The metopes of the Parthenon feature reliefs with different subjects on each side of the building but together with the rest of the sculptures in the temple represented a complex cosmology in art. The East metopes, the fourteen panels above the main entrance, depict the final battle between the Olympian gods and the Giants, their powerful rivals. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hera all appear riding chariots as the gods defeat the Giants and begin a new era of peace, symbolized by the sun-god Helios rising from the night. Although scholars have not yet found Heracles (Hercules in the Roman spelling), most believe that he would have been included in this battle. A battle scene with Giants is called a Gigantomachy scene.

Remains of the east metopes of the Parthenon
Parthenon

The South metopes depict a battle between the Centaurs, mythological half-man/half-horse, and the Lapiths, a mythological race of humans. This is called a Centauromachy scene. The story traditionally involves a wedding and the excessive consumption of wine resulting in a battle after one group insulted the other. The Centaurs fight with tree branches while the Lapiths hold swords or spears. The moral of the legend is the superiority of civilization over savagery, although these scenes are likely from the early part of the story when the centaurs are winning.

Centauromachy
South Metope

The West metopes depict an Amazonomachy scene, or a battle between Greeks and the legendary female warriors called the Amazons. In this set of metopes, the Amazons are invading the powerful city of Athens where the Parthenon stood. Although most Greeks wrote about the Amazons as living in modern-day Ukraine, these Amazons are dressed in Middle Eastern clothes, so this scene is probably a reference to the Persian Wars with Greece.

West metopes of the Parthenon
Parthenon

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