The Statue of Athena Parthenos: Everything You Need to Know

One of the most monumental ancient Greek sculptures was called Athena Parthenos and was created for the famous Parthenon.

Mar 7, 2024By Miles McMorrow, BA Art History
athena parthenos statue


Athena Parthenos (meaning Athena the Virgin) is a large-scale chryselephantine sculpture created during the High Classical Greek period in the 5th century BCE. This era of Greek sculpture differs from the Early Classical or the Severe styles primarily in its characteristics of serene facial expressions, defined fabric drapery, and stark attention to detail. Athena here represents all of these traits, seen in her composed yet powerful face and stylized dress. She depicts the glory of Athens and her power as the goddess of war and wisdom.


Who Is Athena Parthenos?

varvakeion athena sculpture
Varvakeion Athena, a replica of Athena Parthenos. Source: National Archeological Museum, Athens.


Sculpture in Ancient Greece was particularly remarkable due to the intensity of the material. The common substances of marble and bronze are hard, expensive, and volatile. Therefore, being a sculptor requires extreme skill. Similarly, Athena’s materials of ivory and gold are just as risky and costly, especially due to her monumental size. The lineage of early Greek statues was highly inspired by Egypt and the Near East before it delved into its own, unique style of art. The High period represents the peak of Greek art, with statues like Laocoön, Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. These sculptures are extremely important in the art historical canon, as they inspired famous artworks such as David by Michelangelo, or The Thinker by Auguste Rodin.


Where Was the Athena Parthenos Statue Located?

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The Parthenon in Acropolis, Athens. Source: UNESCO


Athena was built to be the centerpiece of the Parthenon, a structure located in the Athenian Acropolis. The creation of the Parthenon began in 447 BCE and took thirteen years to complete. Though it is commonly referred to as a temple, its design aligned more with that of a treasury. Financed by the riches of the Delian League, one of the purposes of the Parthenon was to house the monumental Athena.


After the Hellenic victory over the Persians during the Greco-Persian wars, the Athenians built the Parthenon to give thanks to their leading goddess of war and wisdom. Though it is temple-like in structure, the Parthenon had no official priestess, and the only cult ritual held here was the Panathenic procession that occurred annually. This festival celebrated the birth of Athena, wherein the climax of the procession happened with the redraping of the Athena Parthenos. Inside the Parthenon, Athena stood on a decorated platform, raising her even higher above the spectators. In front of her was a water basin that worked to maintain the humidity of the building; it also cast a glittering light on the statue when reflected by the sun, creating a more godly appearance.

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Who Created the Athena Parthenos Statue?

Panathenaic festival procession frieze
Temple relief depicting the Panathenic procession. Source: The British Museum, London


The Greek sculptor, Phidias, who is known for designing the Parthenon as well as The Statue of Zeus in Olympia, also created Athena Parthenos. Phidias’s life is relatively unknown, but many of his works survive, either in their original form or through Roman replicas. Famous writers such as Plato and Plutarch have spoken about Phidias, heavily praising the exceptional ethos present in his works. Greek politician Pericles was the one to commission the Parthenon and Athena, built on the site of the ‘Pre-Parthenon,’ which was a structure created in 490 BCE that was destroyed by the Persians during its construction.


How Tall Was the Athena Parthenos Statue?

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Sculpture of Heracles on the east pediment of the Parthenon, Phidias. Source: The British Museum, London


Athena Parthenos was grand, about 40 feet tall. This makes it one of the largest sculptures in the ancient world. Her height was important in creating her dominating aura as the goddess of war and wisdom. The height of the Parthenon was around 42 feet, therefore, Athena’s head stood a mere two feet below the ceiling. This factor allowed for the statue to command the space, filling up the room with its size and crafting a presence of grandeur.


What Did the Athena Parthenos Statue Symbolize?

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Athena Parthenos replica in Nashville. Source: The Nashville Parthenon


Overall, as a depiction of the goddess, Athena Parthenos symbolizes war, wisdom, and the glory of Athens. She is meant to portray the goddess as strong, warfaring, and victorious. Placing her in the context of the Parthenon, she was surrounded by Doric columns. This Greek order represents strength and stability, symbolizing the power of Athens after their victory. Athena’s pose was also willful and commanding, though quite uncommon for sculptural depictions. Her left leg was slightly bent, which was mimicked in the curve of her right arm, yet, her weight was not shifted, as in the typical contrapposto stance of Greek statues, seen in works like Polykleitos’s Doryphoros. This attribute is most likely due to her monumental size, as this unbalanced weight would create strain on her large-scale form.


What Materials Were Used to Create the Athena Parthenos Statue?

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Roman replica of Doryphoros, Polykleitos. Source: Wikimedia


The statue is a chryselephantine work, meaning it was made of ivory and gold. Both of these materials are extremely volatile and expensive, and therefore apt in their depiction of the goddess. She was not made of solid ivory though, as it would be impossible to create this monolithically in the scale of the sculpture. Instead, Athena had a core made of cypress wood, which was then covered in thin sheets of pressed ivory. Gold was added as ornamentation, most likely to emphasize certain features such as her helmet, face, and drapery.


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Detail of Athena Parthenos’s shield. Source: Wikimedia


While the core was the least splendid of her construction, there was something special about it as well. The wood came from a forest dedicated to the god Apollo. This wood was sacred, reserved only for use with religious purposes. Ivory then encased the wood, and gold was gilded for aesthetic adornment. Stones and gems were inlaid as well, adding to the decoration, as well as casting shadows on hinge spots in the ivory.


Though the ivory is an opulent substance, the gold holds a richer meaning in this work. Gold was a material that was attributed to the goddess Athena herself, and any improper usage of it would call for divine retribution. It also relates back to the primary purpose of the Parthenon as a treasury—the gold could be removed, melted down, and reminted in a time of economic need.


What Happened to the Original Athena Parthenos Statue?

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Reconstruction of the Parthenon. Source: Britannica


The Parthenon stood as a temple and treasury for many years, until it fell to the Byzantines. The first Christian empire, this regime outlawed paganism, leading to the fall of Greek rule. When the Byzantines took over, they converted the Parthenon to a Christian church. By this time, it is said that the Athena Parthenos statue was already gone. It is largely suspected that it had been damaged by a fire during the third century, though some reported that it was restored. Therefore, many also say that it is likely that the statue was destroyed in an iconoclastic manner by the Byzantines. The fate of the Athena Parthenos is still, unfortunately, unknown.


Are There Any Replicas of the Athena Parthenos Statue?

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Lenormant Athena. Source: Wikipedia


Luckily, though, many replicas of the Athena Parthenos exist. The best-known reconstruction is located in the copy of the Parthenon located in Nashville, Tennessee. Alan LeQuire recreated Athena in the 1990s, referencing Greek sources, such as Pliny the Elder, that detailed the statue in her original state. Some recreations were also created during Athena’s lifetime, as she was immediately deemed an iconic work of art. The Varvakeion Athena is a faithful reproduction of the Athena Parthenos crafted by the Romans, in the 3rd century CE. The Lenormant Athena is a 1st-century, smaller-scale statuette meant to depict the monumental Athena sculpture, which allowed scholars to study how the original statue may have looked.


What Details Were Depicted on the Athena Parthenos Statue?

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Detail of serpent, spear, and the backside of shield at The Parthenon, Nashville. Source: Nashville Parthenon


Athena was highly decorated with many symbolic features that all point back to her main purpose as the patron of the city. In addition to her size, material, and pose, her dress holds a lot of meaning as well. She was adorned in a peplos dress, not unlike the common depiction of the Peplos Kore in Greek sculpture. This highlighted the figure’s depiction of Athena, as well as her femininity. Her facial expression was stoic and neutral, with slightly parted lips that may have represented the breath of life. Her eyes were inlaid with gems, giving her a life-like appearance when lit by the sun.


As for her ornamentation, her helmet, shield, and pedestal, all hold symbols of important stories and motifs associated with the goddess. Her helmet was of the attic style, decorated with a guardian figure of a sphinx, flanked by victorious winged horses. This iconography emphasized Athena’s part in the triumph of the city during the war. The aegis was a symbol of protection in and of itself, while motifs of a gorgon repeat throughout her decoration. The most famous gorgon known from Greek mythology is Medusa, who was created by the acts of Athena herself.


In her left hand, Athena held a spear while a shield rested in front of it. This shield was decorated with both an Amazonomachy and Gigantomachy, both elaborate scenes of battles between the gods and monsters. The opposite hand carried a small statue of Nike, the goddess of victory, representing the power of both Athena and her triumphant city. Athena stood on a platform decorated with the story of Pandora, which represents the goddess’s virginal aptitude. Together, the symbols of gorgons, amazons, giants, and women represented Athena’s glory as a feminine warrior and savior.


Why Is Athena Parthenos Significant in Art History?

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Detail of Athena Parthenos’s face, chest, and statuette of Nike in The Parthenon, Nashville. Source: Nashville Parthenon


Athena Parthenos is an iconic figure that stands as a hallmark of Greek sculpture. Highlighting the best attributes of the goddess, scholars can get a sense of how the Athenians revered her as their patron figure. The statue’s intricate design and symbolism allow researchers to study it like a book of Greek beliefs from that period. She stands as an attestation to the glory of Greek art, showing off their renowned artistic and technical abilities. The Athena Parthenos is glorious, awe-inspiring, and a true spectacle of fine art.

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By Miles McMorrowBA Art HistoryMiles holds a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from Juniata College. They specialize in Modernism, primarily in Expressionist and Dadaist works. As a recent college graduate, they are exploring the fascinating work force within the art world, with a particular interest in writing and criticism. While history is their greatest passion, Miles also enjoys reading classic literature, listening to a wide array of music, and trying out new meals to cook.