The Parthenon as a church dedicated to the Theotokos (Mother of God) / Credit: Greekingme.com, https://greeking.me/blog/greek-history-culture/item/129-the-parthenon

Ancient History: How the Parthenon Was Once a Medieval Christian Church

The Parthenon

The Parthenon today exercises a function very similar to that which it was first endowed with back in the mid 5th century BC. There are various theories about its precise purpose and usage in classical Athens. Possibilities include a conventional temple to Athena, a treasury of appropriated money, or a gesture of competitive city-state pride.

These possibilities all point to a directive involving the glorification of Athens, and an actualization of Athens’ retrospective “Golden Age”. The Parthenon still performs this service. In fact, today, it not only glorifies metropolitan Athens, but all of Greece. For many others, it also dignifies the classical heritage for all the world to behold.

However, the Parthenon has far more glory to offer from its history, much of which isn’t classical.

This photo is successful at capturing the masterful optical illusions built into the Parthenon. From a distance, the corner columns do not appear to bend out; instead, they appear to rise straight up. / Credit: GreekReporter.com
This photo is successful at capturing the masterful optical illusions built into the Parthenon. From afar, the corner columns do not appear to droop out or stand further apart from the other columns. To achieve this, the Athenians built the corner columns closer to their neighbors, and curved inward. / Credit: GreekReporter.com

Historical cliffhanger

The Parthenon didn’t cease to exist after Athens’ Golden Age in the 5th century BC. It continued as a temple to Athena, and became, along with the city of Athens, a major tourist attraction for the Roman Empire. Athens in general was highly respected by Roman visitors, along with the rest of classical Greek culture and heritage. The Romans treated cultivation of Greek culture as a mark of distinctive excellence amongst the Roman elites. Many preferred to write and communicate in Greek rather than Latin.

The history of Christianity in the Roman Empire is a fascinating and tortuous one. For our purposes, it interrupts the anodyne tourism of the Romans, and compels us to elaborate on the later history of the Parthenon. One question in particular burns bright. What happened to the pagan Parthenon with the spread of Christianity?

The Parthenon, fast forward

Damage from Late Antiquity

In the face of the rising tide of Christianity, the Parthenon didn’t lose function. In fact, the Greeks reconfigured over time to serve new functions.

Structural changes to the Parthenon didn’t only begin under pressure from Christianization. In fact, changes resulted earlier, from at least one devastating fire in the 3rd century during the late Roman Empire. Some credit one of these fires to the Germanic Heruli tribe in 267 AD. In their attack, they incinerated Athens to the ground, and with it, the entire Acropolis. Many other cities suffered similar fates throughout this period of Roman flatlining.

The Parthenon resuscitated

In the following years, Athens’ citizens and Emperor Julian (the Apostate) led many efforts to finance repairs. However, a combination of frugality and weakened stone (from thermal fracturing) resulted in an incomplete restoration. They only gave the inner space of the Parthenon a new roof. This roof was likely more practical in design and choice of material, compared to the original, white marble Periclean roof.

Repairs to the Parthenon after 3rd century AD fires. Here, the outer colonnade is visibly detached, while the inner sanctum was given a new roof. / Credit: "Parthenon"_Hellenic Ministry of Culture & Hellenic Culture Organization
(Imagined) Repairs to the Parthenon after 3rd century AD fires. The outer, main colonnade was left exposed, while the inner space was given a new roof. / Credit: “Parthenon” by Costa-Gavras, Hellenic Ministry of Culture & Hellenic Culture Organization

The first Christian changes

Reversing the entrance

The outer colonnade was thus detached from the inner temple, and remains so to this day. This detachment laid the groundwork for the structure of the Parthenon as a church. The Parthenon was converted and dedicated to the Virgin Mary around the 6th century AD. The outer colonnade was partially filled in to form a screening wall which only opened in the west. This forced medieval Christians to enter the Parthenon on the opposite side from antiquity. This also confused visiting antiquarians, who expected the monument to reflect Pausanias’ descriptions of the temple back in the 2nd century AD.

Diagram by Adolf Michaelis (1835-1910) of the Parthenon's layout as a church. The eastern sight (right) was the former main entrance in antiquity, and was converted into an apse. The medieval main entrance is on the west (left). / Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Diagram by Adolf Michaelis (1835-1910) of the Parthenon’s layout as a church. The eastern sight (right) was the former main entrance in antiquity, and was converted into an apse. The medieval main entrance is on the west (left). / Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In ancient times, the western side of the Parthenon also had a proper entrance into the backroom (opisthodomos). However, when the Christian Athenians prioritized the west side for entry, they forsook the main western entrance. Instead, they opted for a smaller opening beside it. Evidence for this includes “graffiti” which is closer to this side door than the original western entrance. The Christian Athenians also converted the backroom into a narthex, and supplied it with all the equipment needed for baptistry. Windows were also cut high into the walls for more light.

(Imagined) The Parthenon as a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Theotokos), depicted from the west. The screening wall in between the columns is visible. One can also see the many pagan sculptures removed by Christians. / Credit: "Parthenon" by Costa-Gavras, Hellenic Ministry of Culture & Hellenic Culture Organization
(Imagined) The Parthenon as a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Theotokos), depicted from the west. The screening wall in between the columns is visible. One can also see the many pagan sculptures removed by Christians. / Credit: “Parthenon” by Costa-Gavras, Hellenic Ministry of Culture & Hellenic Culture Organization

The Apse

The eastern side, according to Christian tradition, now had to contain the apse, a semicircular (conch) space characteristic of many churches across Europe. The apse forms the architectural backdrop of the indoor altar. In cathedrals, like the medieval Parthenon, the apse also houses the bishop’s throne.

The Christian Athenians demolished part of the eastern wall, and remade it into an apse. The apse was compiled using recycled stone from other classical monuments (a phenomenon known as spolia: architectural fragments removed from their original structural context, and reused in new buildings). Just before (Archbishop) Michael Choniates’ tenure in the 12th century AD, the Christian Athenians enlarged the apse. They also demolished a section of the eastern frieze to fit it.

The 12th century enlarged eastern apse. / Credit: Smarthistory (Manolis Korres 1996_ From Pentelicon to the Parthenon: The Ancient Quarries and the Story of a Half-Worked Column Capital of the First Marble Parthenon)
The 12th century Parthenon church (eastern view). The Christian Athenians removed a section of the frieze to make way for the enlarged apse. / Credit: Smarthistory (Manolis Korres 1996_ From Pentelicon to the Parthenon: The Ancient Quarries and the Story of a Half-Worked Column Capital of the First Marble Parthenon)

Handling of pagan iconography

Athena’s statue

The Athenian Christians likely didn’t have to do much with the famed statue of Athena. There are several theories about the fate of this statue.

Statue of Athena Parthenos ("virgin warrior goddess") in the Nashville, TA Replica of the Parthenon. / Credit: GreekReporter.com
Statue of Athena Parthenos (“virgin warrior goddess”) in the Nashville, TA Replica of the Parthenon. / Credit: GreekReporter.com

One theory is that the fire(s) of the 3rd century AD destroyed the statue. It’s possible that the late Roman Athenians crafted smaller, cheaper replacement statues to allow dedications for Athena to continue. In fact, the Parthenon continued as a temple to Athena at least until Emperor Theodosius II ordered the closure of all pagan temples in the 5th century AD. However, the effectiveness of this ban is highly debatable, and varied by region. For more context, Emperor Justinian ordered the closing of all pagan philosophy schools in 529 AD. However, even after that, traditional Greek religion almost certainly continued in myriad ways under varying intensities of pressure from (Eastern) Christian emperors to terminate.

The biography of the neo-Platonist Proclus describes Athena ordering him to ready his house for her move-in. This happened after she was evicted from her home, the Parthenon, by Christians.

Another theory about the fate of Athena’s statue is that it was already looted by a Roman emperor, and taken to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. It was safely stored there, until destroyed, along with the city of Constantinople itself, by the 4th Crusaders in the 1204 AD Sack of Constantinople.

Metopes and Frieze Sculptures

diagram of the triglyph and metopes in a Greek Doric temple / Credit: Khan academy
Diagram of the triglyphs and metopes in a Greek Doric temple / Credit: Khan academy

The metopes of the Parthenon featured extensive sculpted scenes from Greek mythology. The sculptures weren’t necessarily inappropriate. However, they weren’t compatible with the aims of the Christian religion. Therefore, the Christian Athenians defaced the sculptures, perhaps 3/4 of the metopes, until they were unrecognizable. Interestingly, they left many of the inner frieze sculptures intact.

There are theories about why this happened. One possibility is that the Christians interpreted Biblical messages from some of the sculptures, perhaps once modified. A famous example of this would be the famed “Metope of the Annunciation”, supposedly defaced in an incomplete manner, due to an interpretation of its sculptures as showing the Annunciation.

"Metope of the Annunciation"/ Credit: Acropolis Museum
“Metope of the Annunciation”/ Credit: Acropolis Museum

Christian iconography

Icons

Michael Choniates himself embellished his favored cathedral, which he called “light and airy”, no doubt thanks to the achievements of the classical Doric architectural order. Like many Orthodox churches, Michael may have funded substantial decoration of the church interior. Such decorations included icons of angels, saints and bishops, in addition to paintings of famous Biblical moments.  However, very little of the Parthenon’s walls survive, so little of this decoration survives with them. Supposedly, much more of this Christian decoration was visible up to 1880, as noted by the then Marquess of Bute. Luckily for us, he commissioned a series of watercolor paintings to record whatever he could of their content.

Watercolor depiction, commissioned by the Marquess de Bute, of the remaining Christian icons on the Parthenon's western walls. / Credit: Greek Reporter
Watercolor depiction, commissioned by the Marquess de Bute, of the remaining Christian icons on the Parthenon’s western walls. / Credit: Greek Reporter
Watercolor depictions, commissioned by the Marquess de Bute, of the remaining Christian icons on the Parthenon's western walls. / Credit: Greek Reporter
Watercolor depictions, commissioned by the Marquess de Bute, of the remaining Christian icons on the Parthenon’s western walls. / Credit: Greek Reporter.

Mosaics

The Christian Athenians also built mosaic into the apse’s upper, semi-domical part in Michael Choniates’ time. The British Museum’s Parthenon Collection contains 188 tesserae from this mosaic. These tesserae were unearthed in the 1830s, and acquired in 1848 from a Briton in Athens.

Medieval impressions of the Parthenon

The Parthenon’s fame as a cathedral

Athens, and the Parthenon, were no less famous to the people of the medieval world than in antiquity. In fact, the Parthenon, known by some as the “famed” Temple of Theotokos Atheniotissa, may have been more popular for the pilgrims of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in its Christian context. It also received imperial attention. In 1018 AD, Emperor Basil II the “Bulgar Slayer” visited the city, particularly to celebrate and worship in the Parthenon cathedral. He also gifted the cathedral’s decorations, including a golden dove. This dove hung down from the inner ceiling, and circled around the cross, representing the Holy Spirit in the Parthenon. Another impressionable item in the church was a continuously burning lamp.

In fact, the most well-recorded ceremony known to have taken place inside the Parthenon was the inauguration of Michael Choniates as archbishop. In a sense, this is hardly surprising, since most ancient pagan ceremonies of many cultures took place outdoors. However, it does speak to the fact that the Athenians didn’t discard or neglect the Parthenon’s ancient importance in the medieval Christian world – they transformed it.

Michael Choniates’ thoughts on the Parthenon and Athens

To Choniates, Athens had a special existence and destiny. Around 1175, he delivered a sermon which greatly referenced ancient warrior mythology and classical history. He recounted Athens’ role as “queen of cities”, and the “nurse of reason and virtue…exalted in fame not just for monuments, but for virtue and wisdom of every description”. To Choniates, the Athenians of his day hadn’t degraded, they were better. Most importantly, they no longer worshipped the false virgin, Athena, but the true virgin, Mary. He also labeled Athens the “peak of heaven”, and “the new Mt. Horeb”.

However, Choniates himself notes that he lost his words to the crowds he preached to, for he may as “well have been speaking Persian or Scythian”. At other times, he complained of their speech, ignorance, bizarre wine, and parochial character. Nonetheless, Michael took care of his flock, speaking against excessive tax-collectors and imperial demands. And throughout it all, he loved his cathedral, which he called light, airy, and lovely.

What the Parthenon could’ve been

For more than a whole millennium (roughly 500-1687 AD), the Parthenon’s medieval structure would have resembled the modern condition of a nearby, smaller temple in Athens – the well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus and Athena Hephaistia (formerly known as “Theseison”). The Christian Athenians, like the Parthenon, also converted this temple into a church in late antiquity, dedicated to St. George. Today, some regard the temple as the best-preserved example of ancient Greek Doric-ordered architecture. The outer colonnade and inner walls are almost intact, and still connect to each other in many places through their original marble lintels.

The Temple of Hephaestus (and Athena) in Athens, near the Acropolis / Credit: World History Encyclopedia
The Temple of Hephaestus (and Athena) in Athens, near the Acropolis / Credit: World History Encyclopedia
Many of the original coffered marble lintels still connect the outer colonnade to the walls of this temple. Other features are also well-preserved, such as the frieze sculptures / Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Many of the original coffered marble lintels still connect the outer colonnade to the walls of the Temple of Hephaestus. / Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

If Fortune had been kinder, the Parthenon could have survived to modernity in a state comparable to the Temple of Hephaestus. However, the 3rd century fires likely damaged too many marble lintels between the colonnade and walls. More importantly, in 1687, the Venetians, under Swedish commander Otto Wilhelm Königsmarck, laid siege to the Acropolis as part of the Morean War. During the siege, the Ottoman garrison utilized the Acropolis as a natural fortress, and as a powder magazine.

The Venetian bombers besieging Athens fired cannons towards the Acropolis, and a few stray shots ignited the powder in the Parthenon. After all the dust had settled, it was clear that the explosion had obliterated the entire midsection of the structure, along with the minaret that had replaced the Christian bell tower following the Ottoman conquest of Greece. Only a few years earlier, the monumental gateway of the Acropolis, the Propylaea, suffered a similar tragedy for similar reasons.

1687 explosion in the Parthenon from ignition of stored powder.
(Imagined) 1687 explosion in the Parthenon from ignition of stored powder. / Credit: “Parthenon” by Costa-Gavras, Hellenic Ministry of Culture & Hellenic Culture Organization

Had this devastation not occurred in 1687, the Parthenon’s condition today might be as commendable as that of the Temple of Hephaestus. If the Parthenon had survived until today, one may wonder if it would have the title of “best preserved temple”, in addition to all the other glory bestowed upon it through construction, longevity, and endurance.

Works Cited

Beard, Mary. “The finest Mosque in the world” In Parthenon, 49–82. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

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