The Parthenon is the symbol of Athens. This temple, dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena Parthenos reflects the mastery, precision and perfection. Sitting atop the acropolis, overlooking the city of Athens for over 2400 years, for many it incorporates the golden mean, the ideal ratio in nature and science. It is the culmination of decades of study and learning in geometry, engineering and art. Ironically though, this “perfect” temple only looks perfect to our eyes because the ancient architects understood that in order to perceive perfection, the structure must be imperfect. What? How can that make sense?
The architects during the Golden Age of Greece knew that subtle tricks or hidden devices incorporated into the columns and pedestal would create the needed balance. This visual balance was required for perceived strength, straightness and proper alignment. In order to prevent the stone temple to appear as if it sagged in the middle, the stepped base that the supports the structure is domed, rising ever so gradually to the middle. Likewise, the columns, standing straight and tall, are actually leaning slightly inward instead of at right angles. Additionally, the corner columns are slightly larger in diameter and lean diagonally towards the middle. Finally, in order to avoid the optical illusion that the columns appear slenderer in the middle, each Doric column has “entasis,” actually swelling in the middle.
Standing atop this rocky platform, the Parthenon is a marvel. The history and culture that it represents reveals its incredible scholarship and learning required to accomplish. It is a thrill to see this sacred site centering the geography of modern Athens. Even more, it is awe inspiring to see it lit up at night. For all who visit, it is be unforgettable to stand in its shadow and glimpse the past.
What can we learn from this great accomplishment? What message does this work of stone offer us as travelers today? I imagine it can have a different lesson for each person, but it seems one lesson is clear. Perfection arises from imperfection. Tiny adjustments in degrees and carving create the counter perspective needed to enjoy the perceived perfection. The Parthenon sits majestically, stable and strong not because it is constructed at right angles and straight lines, but without them, on purpose. What else in our lives outwardly can look like perfection when it is actually not?
Visiting Greece in 2019 was a highlight I will never forget. Climbing the “high city” or Acropolis was a profound experience for me. I paused walking up the ramp, considering the sandaled feet that would have ascended as I was. Along the switch backs, through the Propylaea, onto the remarkably uneven, traffic worn marble surface of the elevated outcrop. I loved viewing the structures from every vantage point. I marveled at the Caryatids gracefully supporting their marble entablature, without any sign of weariness or age.
Destruction of 1687
I appreciate the huge undertaking that Greece and other organizations are engaged in to reconstruct this edifice. The patience, skill and understanding are clearly as advanced as Ictinus and Callicrates. While the years have certainly worn down the monument, it is heartbreaking to learn that this extraordinary survivor was doing relatively well until the Turks decided to use it for gunpowder storage in 1687. When Captain-General Morosini made a direct hit to the ammunition, the gunpowder exploded, collapsing the cella and destroying most of the Phidias freeze.
Our final view of this incredible group of buildings was from Mars Hill. An equally rocky, but much smaller outcropping to the north-west of the Acropolis. Besides being a spectacular view of the Parthenon and Erectheum, this site, known in Greek as Areopagus, is also considered sacred. As Christians, we recognize this hill as the location of Paul’s sermon to the men of Athens about the “unknown God.”
Imagining the apostle Paul standing here, pointing south-east to the masterful works, still intact and functioning, as the ultimate visual aide for his elite Athenian audience. Acts 17:16-34. Tradition teaches that this speech was to help Athenians listening to understand that this unknown god is actually Jehovah, the God of the Hebrews and Savior of the world. Knowing that Paul’s sermons were often unappreciated, I reflected on his unwavering dedication. While the Athenians on the 1st century BC must certainly have been proud of their monuments and the perfection they display, Paul’s message was about a perfect Redeemer. The Son of God that offered his life for ours.
Visiting Greece Today
Thankfully tourists and pilgrims alike can still walk among the somewhat preserved ruins, contemplating history, science, religion and art of the ancient Greeks. Today, the message of Paul is embraced by most many modern Athenians, as Greece remains predominantly Christian and followers of the Greek Orthodox Church.