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Photographer's Note

THE DIVINE PROPORTION IN ANTIQUITY shot May 1975

This photograph is almost 33 years old. It was an overcast day, and I had shot a 36-exposure roll of Kodachrome-25 slide film, when suddenly a shaft of light broke through the clouds and selectively illuminated the Parthenon. I shot another roll of 36 slides.

I've always felt that the best vantage point for photographing a building is from a corner, since "two point perspective" is immediately evident. The "parallel" lines defined from the roofline, base, etc. all converge at a pair of vanishing points on the horizon line. Indeed, this particular image, shot from a lower point than the base, illustrates "three-point perspective," with the lines of the columns all appearing to converge at a high point in the sky above the Parthenon.

The Greek army in 479 BC defeated the Persians at Plataea, ushering in a period of peace and prosperity, the Golden Age of Greece. The period saw an unprecedented explosion in artistic creativity that included the development of the Athenian Acropolis in honor of the city's namesake and patron goddess Athena. In 447 BC work on the temples astride that massive stone outcropping commenced. Fifteen years later in 432 BC the Parthenon was completed, although work on the other buildings continued for another thirty-five years.

Collaborating on the design of the Parthenon were Athens's premier sculptor/architect Phidias and the architects Callicrates and Ictinus. The columns — fluted shafts topped with capitals of the Doric order —supported a pediment with Phidias's sculpture, carved as no stone had ever been carved before. The friezes consist of ninety-two metopes in low relief alternating with vertically fluted triglyphs. The sculpture in the pediment, depicting the Olympians after their victory over their dreaded enemies, the Titans, is meant to be emblematic of the victory of civilization over barbarism. The east and west facades of the Parthenon both form golden rectangles, or exhibit length-to-width ratios of phi, or 1.618, (where phi is inspired by Phidias's monogram).

The architects introduced several imaginative measures to eliminate unfavorable optical illusions. For example, a perfectly straight horizontal line would normally appear to sag in the middle, because it would naturally be sighted against the horizon, which itself has a convex curvature; columns which are cylindrical would appear to be concave midway up. In order to counter these effects, the Parthenon was built on a convex base of 5.7-km (3.5-mile) radius of curvature. Columns rising perpendicular to a convex curvature, however, would diverge slightly at their tops, an effect that would be barely visible, but a source of subtle discomfort. In order to avoid a splayed appearance the columns were aimed or sighted to converge at a common point approximately 2.4 km (1.5 miles) in the sky. The midsections of the columns incorporated a slight bulge, entasis, negating the optical illusion in the other direction. How they arrived at these happy numbers is a mystery, but the scheme clearly works! Finally, they used fluted columns, grooved vertically, as opposed to plain cylindrical columns, which would have appeared lumbering and heavy.

On a personal note, I have visited the Parthenon many times. On one occasion, I was there with a friend, an academic dean. At the end of the day, when we were just about to leave the site he bent over, pretending to tie his shoe laces, and picked up a loose stone as a souvenir. Clearly nervous, he confided to me his utter terror of being discovered in stealing a piece of the hallowed edifice, “Who knows what part of the building it came from?” he mused in a whisper. But just then a large truck appeared and dumped tons of stones for tourists visiting the next day.

Nikon F, Kodachrome-25 (slide film). 50-mm fixed focal length lens, f/1.4, 1/60th second exposure.

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Additional Photos by Bulent Atalay (batalay) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 5971 W: 457 N: 10312] (34571)
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