© 1998 (text only) Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

An exploration of how and why places become invested with SACREDNESS and how the SACRED is embodied or made manifest through ART and ARCHITECTURE


The Acropolis (from the Greek acros, meaning high or upper and polis, meaning ''city) of Athens is a steep-sided hill supporting several temples, precincts, and other buildings. Archaeological evidence indicates it has been used since Neolithic times and that even then, as the numerous female figurines found there suggest, it was associated with female power. Although it had evidently used also as a defensible place of refuge since the Bronze Age, it appears nonetheless to have been a sacred site at all times.

During the Classical period of the 5th century BCE in Athens, following the destructions of earlier temples by the Persians, the Greek general and statesman, Pericles (c. 500-429 BCE), initiated a vast rebuilding campagin for the Acropolis. The Propylaea (gateway) and the Parthenon were completed during his lifetime, but work on the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheum was not begun until after his death.

A reconstruction of the Acropolis as it appeared in the 5th century BCE

The Parthenon (447-438 BCE)

The principal temple on the Acropolis is the Parthenon, designed by the architects Iktinus and Kallikrates. Completed in 438 BCE as a temple dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, the Parthenon celebrates her in her aspect as a virgin goddess. Parthenos, Greek term for virgin and the root of the word parthenogenesis (virgin birth), was one of Athena's epithets.

The extraordinary aesthetic impact of the Parthenon would appear to be enhanced by its so-called architectural refinements. These are slight adjustments in the design which seem to result in an improvement of the visual impression of the building as a whole. For example, lines that are perceived as horizontals in fact curve upward in the middle. The platform upon which the columns of the temple stand, for example, is slightly curved on all four sides, as if it were a small segment of a giant globe. The original rationale for this is not known for certain, but it may serve to correct the tendency of the human eye to perceive a long horizontal as curving downward in the middle. There may also be a more 'cosmic' reason for this design.

Other refinements involve the columns: all columns are tilted inward slightly, and are placed closer together toward the corners of the building. This has the effect of creating a sense of stability and accentuates the corners, resulting in an almost imperceptible frame on each of the four sides. But again, it may be wrong to assume that it was for purely aesthetic reasons that such subtle refinements, which must have enourmously inflated the cost of the building, were undertaken.

Erechtheum (421-405 BCE)

The Erechtheum is on the northern side of the Acropolis, opposite the Parthenon. This complex Ionic building is built on an uneven site. The eastern room was dedicated to Athena in her aspect as patron of the city.

The building was called the Erechtheum by Pausanias, but this was not its official name. There were two building phases. It is a strange shape, having 4 sets of columnar supports, 4 levels, and 3 structural units, each with own roof. The reason for complexity lies in the configuration of rock surface and the previous terracing in the area, and in the obvious necessity of building around the various cult spots which make this one of the most sacred places on the Acropolis.

The area contained many signs and remains of Athens' mythical past (salt-water well, trident marks). The interior was thoroughly destroyed in later times and it is now very uncertain how it was originally organized. It once contained a much venerated image wooden statue of Athena Polias. The temple also housed various other Attic deities, including Erechtheus.


  • R. J. Hopper, The Acropolis, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971

  • Vincent Scully, The Earth, The Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962.

SACRED PLACES is written and produced by Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, Professor, Department of Art History, Sweet Briar College, Virginia, 24595 USA


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