The Parthenon Frieze

The Parthenon frieze, which runs on a continuous line around the exterior wall of the cella, is 1 meter high and 160 meters long. The sculptures are executed in low relief and depict the people of Athens in two processions that begin at the southwest corner and parade in opposite directions until they converge over the door of the cella at the east end of the Parthenon. Almost certainly it represents the Panathenaic procession that was a central celebration in Athens during Classical times.

The iconography of the frieze makes this interpretation highly probable. A small controversy remains with some scholars debating whether it represents an ideal or a specific Panathenaic procession. The sculpted marble depicts the Olympian gods seated while the citizens on Athens carved in low relief move stoically in the procession towards the central point around a scene depicting the folding of the peplos. The peplos was a central item in the Panathenaea and was woven by the virgins dedicated to the goddess Athena exclusively for use during the procession.

A large number of cavalry dominates the west end of the frieze, while a host of elders, musicians and people escorting sacrificial animals, fill the spaces towards the east end. The frieze over the door places the “peplos scene” at the center, while gods, and heroes, and women flank it on both sides. The gods are seated, making them twice as large as the rest of the figures who are standing or riding, and they appear in the typical realistic mortal form we are accustomed to seeing in Classical art.

The inclusion of a continuous Ionic freeze is not exclusive to the Doric Parthenon. What is unique however is the depiction of mere mortals as the subject in the decoration of a temple in Ancient Greece. If we accept that the frieze depicts the Panathenaic procession we are confronted with the fact that the line between the divine and the human has been deliberately blurred not only through the formal aesthetic conventions as with other sculptures, but via an intentional thematic narrative that places the gods among the mortals or the humans among the divine. Perhaps in the Parthenon frieze we finally glimpse the definitive formulation of Greek thought into concrete iconography: the natural world and the human being as a divine entity worthy of exploration and immortality through the arts.

In ancient times all the sculptures as well as the buildings were vividly painted and were complemented with metal attachments in the form of spears, swords, horse reins and other appropriate accessories. The result must have been a dazzling, (if not gaudy) array of three dimensional paintings, with a much different visual interpretation than the one we derive today trough the “sterilized” museum exhibits of white stone at eye level.

Also see: Parthenon Frieze Pictures



The Parthenon Frieze today is divided among several museums in Europe:

  • 50 meters in the Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece
  • 80 meters in the British Museum, London, UK
  • One fragment at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France
  • Several smaller fragments in museums in Palermo, the Vatican, in Vienna, in Copenhagen, in Munich, and in Wurzburg Germany.
The Acropolis