The Acropolis – or upper city – is the ancient citadel of Athens situated at the top of a hill 80 metres above sea-level (it measures 300 x 130 metres). The famous buildings on the Athens Acropolis were constructed in the second half of the 5th century BC after the victory achieved by the Greeks at the end of the Persian Wars (500-449 BC). The idea underlying the whole ensemble was that of Pheidias, one of the greatest architects of Ancient Greece.
The triumphal gateway into the Acropolis was located on its west side: the Propylaia – or Great Gate – was embellished with two Doric porticoes. To the right of these on a rocky outcrop stood a temple dedicated to Athena Nike and the top of the hill is crowned by two splendid temples – the Erechtheum and the Parthenon.
The small Erechtheum (421-406 BC) was dedicated to the deities Athena and Poseidon and also to Erechtheos, the early mythical king of Athens. It has four porticoes which differ in size and shape. The southern portico with statues of maidens – or Karyatids – instead of columns has been reproduced life-size in this Gallery. The uniform arrangement of the figures, the deep descending folds of their peploi reminiscent of the flutes of columns add to the harmony of these architectural forms.
The central space in the arrangement of the Athens Acropolis is occupied by the majestic temple of Athena Parthenos – the virgin Athena – built by the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates in 447-338 BC. The temple was badly damaged by an explosion in the 17th century during the period of Turkish rule, when the Venetians, having laid siege to the Acropolis, started firing at the Parthenon, which the Turks had been using as a powder magazine.
The small model-cum-reconstruction provides us with an idea of what the Parthenon would have looked like originally. In plan the Parthenon is a peripteral octastyle Doric temple measuring 70 x 31 x 13 metres and surrounded by forty-six columns. The perfect proportions of this temple, the harmonious unity of all its parts and the precise calculation of the building's measurements in relation to the hill of the Acropolis made it a masterpiece of Greek architecture. The south-eastern corner of the temple has been reproduced life-size in the Gallery: the columns are 10.4 metres high. The sculptural compositions on the pediments of the Parthenon (437-432 BC) were the work of Pheidias and his pupils and they recreate the legend of the goddess Athena, protectress of the city. On the east pediment the master sculptor depicted the scene of the Athena's birth from the head of Zeus, the God of Thunder. The subject portrayed on the west pediment is the contest between Athena and Poseidon to decide who should rule the land of Attica. In antiquity there were as many as fifty statues on the pediments but only eleven have come down to us today and even those are in a damaged state.
While work was in progress on the marble sculptures for the Parthenon, Pheidias was also creating his chryselephantine sculpture of Athena from gold and ivory over a wooden core, which was to stand in the main hall of the temple. The statue was twelve metres high and was draped in 1,200 kilograms of gold. A description of this sculpture was left to us by the 1st-century Roman writer, Pliny the Elder. A whole range of Classical statues reflect to some extent the original appearance of this Athena. The one which corresponds most closely to Pliny's description is a small statue of the goddess Athena Varvakeion (approximately one metre high) which was carved from marble in the 2nd century AD. This cultic statue of the goddess, which had stood in the Parthenon, had been placed on a high pedestal decorated with reliefs. Athena had been depicted in a majestic and solemn pose, in a long garment shimmering with gold. On her head she wore a helmet decorated with sphinxes and winged horses and her chest was covered by an animal skin or aegis with a depiction of the head of the Gorgon Medusa. On the palm of the deity's hand stands a two-metre high figure of the winged goddess Nike, while Athena's other hand rested on her shield next to which was the depiction of the sacred snake, Erichthonios, made of gilded copper. The shield was decorated with depictions in relief of a battle between Greek heroes and Amazons (Amazonomachy) and another between Olympian gods and giants (Gigantomachy). A Roman marble imitation of the shield of Athena Parthenos with its depiction of the battle against the Amazons has survived (at the British Museum in London). In the 5th century AD the statue of Athena Parthenos was taken away to Constantinople by the Byzantine Emperor, Theodosius II, where it was destroyed by fire a hundred years later.
On the Athens Acropolis there also stood a statue of Athena Lemnos – another work by Pheidias. It acquired its name from the island of Lemnos, where the group of Athenians settled, who had donated to their native city this statue of the goddess, the patron of their polis. The statue is known to us from Roman marble copies, casts of which are to be seen in this Gallery. In the Greek courtyard visitors can see, together with the creations of Pheidias, a sculptured portrait of Athens' outstanding political figure, orator and military commander, Perikles, a work by the sculptor Kresilas. Pheidias was a personal friend of Perikles and they shared many ideas. On Perikles' initiative the popular assembly decided in Athens that a group of temples and statues should be erected on the top of the Athens Acropolis and subsequently Pheidias and his pupils made this plan a reality.
The Gallery also contains a whole number of casts from works of Pheidias' pupils and followers fashioned in the third quarter of the 5th century BC, which had been preserved in Roman marble copies. These include a large statue of Athena which would appear initially to have been sculpted using the chryselephantine technique by Kolotes for the temple of Athena at Elis. The influence of the majestic and noble style characteristic of the work of Pheidias can be felt in statues of Asklepios the god of healing, the principal Greek deity Zeus and the goddess of peace Eirene holding in her hands Ploutos, the God of Wealth. A statue of the goddess Eirene was cast in bronze and stood in the market-place (agora) in Athens. The work of art clearly expresses the idea of peace, bearing wealth and prosperity. The creator of this statue, Kephisodotos the Elder was the father and first teacher of the celebrated sculptor of the 4th century BC, Praxiteles, who expressed vividly through sculpture the ideals of a new stage in the development of Greek art – the Late Classical Period.