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Exploring ancient Greece in Nashville, TN: The Parthenon

The Parthenon, dedicated to Athena Pallos in Centennial Park, Nashville, Tennessee

The Parthenon, dedicated to Athena Pallos in Centennial Park, Nashville, Tennessee. Click to view more images

Nashville, Tennessee has been called the Athens of the South since the mid 19th century. In a part of the country which at the time, wasn’t renowned for educating its citizens, Nashville could boast not only a public school system, but several colleges and universities as well. By century’s end, Belmont University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, Montgomery Bell Academy, St. Cecilia Academy and Vanderbilt University were all churning out graduates.

This appellation was front and center in people’s minds when the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition rolled around in 1897, held in celebration of the state entering the union, a hundred years prior. Dominating Centennial Park was a reconstructions of the Parthenon in Athens, which served as the pavilion.

Like most building created for events of this time, such as world fairs for instance, the Parthenon was never meant to be a permanent structure. But due to its massive scale – identical to the original, the cost of demolition was prohibitive. In addition, the people of Nashville just liked the building. So it remained, often used as a backdrop for plays and pageants.

The state of Athena Pallos in the Parthenon, Nashville, Tennessee

The statue of Athena Pallos in the Parthenon, Nashville, Tennessee

The original Parthenon in Athens was created by the architects Ictinos and Callicrates, under the direction and watchful eye of the sculptor, Phidias, who was also charged with creating the sculptures and reliefs which decorated the building. The structure itself was built in only fifteen, years, but Phidias didn’t finish with his work till a year later, in 431 B.C.. When finished, the Parthenon was considered to be the most perfect example of Doric architecture ever built – a distinction it still enjoys, even in a ruined state. Its footprint measures 228 x 101 feet. The massive foundation of the Parthenon was constructed of limestone, with the columns marking the introduction of Pentelic marble.

Not wishing to compete with the original in terms of longevity, the Nashville Parthenon was built of brick, plaster and wood. By 1920, it was in pretty shoddy condition. Wanting to keep the structure, it was rebuilt, this time in concrete, and completed inside and out by 1931. Since that time, the Parthenon has been the backdrop for a number of Nashville celebrations, events and of course theater. Several local colleges present productions of Greek plays, usually free to the public. Most are held outside on the steps, some inside. Nashville’s Parthenon also serves as art museum, housing both a permanent collection as well as other exhibits.

Dedicated to the virgin patron of Athens, the Greek goddess Athena Pallos, the centerpiece and some say reason for it’s existence, was the massive state of the goddess inside, known as the Athena Parthenos, from which the Parthenon takes its name. The Chryselephantine sculpture was built by covering an underlying wooden frame with thin strips of ivory, overlain with gold leaf. This was the only piece of sculpture which was known to be created by Phidias, and it is unfortunately lost.

The function of the Parthenon is somewhat cloudy as well. It didn’t seem to be the center of religious life, no mystery cults associated with Athena were in practice here, and according to some historians, the great statue itself might have acted as a giant piggy bank, as all the gold leaf was removable and could be used for the treasury. In fact, one of the rooms of the Parthenon was used for a storing treasure. The actual statue of Athena that was venerated was a much more modest affair, and stood in another temple on the Acropolis, which was a massive complex, dominating the city of Athens below.

In 1982, Alan LeQuire was commissioned to recreate the Athena Parthenos, full size and as much as possible, according to the most recent scholarly information available. Finished in 1990, Athena stands 42 feet high, weighing over 12 tons and holds a six foot tall statue of Nike, goddess of victory in her right hand. Ivory was ditched as a building material, as it would take a lot of elephants to cover this framework, but it does boast an impressive amount of gold leaf. Athena holds a shield in the other hand, with a more than 20 foot tall cobra rearing it’s head between the shield and her body.

The shield of Athena Pallos in the Parthenon, Nashville, Tennessee

The shield of Athena Pallos in the Parthenon, Nashville, Tennessee

Scenes from three great battles adorn the statue, the Greeks defeating the Amazons, centaurs and the giants. The outside of the temple was decorated with sculptures and friezes, depicting these same conflicts, as well as the Trojan War. Dotting the halls are direct plaster casts of the originals of these sculptures, known as the Athenian or Elgin marbles.The originals were long ago looted and though some remain in Athens, many are to be found in some of the largest and most renown museums of the world. One curious aspect is that these conflicts represent the Athenians victory over the Persians, but there are no direct mention of them in the adornments to the temple. Visitors to the Parthenon would have realized the symbolism immediately, so there was no need to rub it in, especially as for the first time in years the two were at peace.

After negotiating the complex of temples and buildings of the Acropolis, you’d find yourself approaching the Parthenon at a three quarter angle, with the sculptures located along its length and situated in the pediments gradually becoming clearer, the detail more pronounced. Mounting the steps you could get as far as the front doors. Nashville’s Parthenon contains reproductions of the originals, 24 foot tall and 6.5 feet wide, made of bronze one foot thick and weighing 7.5 tons each. They are thought to be the largest pair of matching bronze doors in the world.

That’s as far as you could go, as the average Athenian citizen wasn’t allowed to step foot inside the Parthenon. You would see Athena at the far end of the expanse, reflected in water kept on the floor to protect the ivory, lit only by torches and indirect light. The site would no doubt have been not only awe inspiring, but somewhat mystical.

The Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial park doesn’t quite have the same effect, though it’s still awe-inspiring, both inside and out. You actually go down into the basement of the building, where the gift shop is located as well, before climbing a short flight of stairs which enters the museum, followed by another which brings you into the temple itself.

Bronze doors in the Nashville Parthenon

Bronze doors in the Nashville Parthenon

Entering through the bronze doors would no doubt have been more imposing, as coming towards Athena from the side, hidden from her gaze by columns seems, I don’t know, a bit furtive. One should only approach a god or goddess from the front, I firmly believe that. I suppose I expected a more somber atmosphere, being a temple, but in that, this being the 21st century and tourist season at that, I was sorely disappointed. Modern times didn’t creep in at first, as the structure and Athena herself is powerful enough to create a mood, regardless of what is taking place on the floor. Which was mainly people posing for photos at the foot of the state, generally milling about, and trying to corral kids who were experimenting with the way their screeches echoed in the great hall. Those shrieks, as well as the occasional sound of basketball shoes squeaking on the floor, gave one the impression of being in a very elaborate gymnasium.

But you can’t fault the building nor those running it for that. People are people, and this ain’t no golden age. And in the end, if you just find a bench and shut it all out, and gaze into the face of Athena, it all slips away. Our western eyes, used to seeing Greece in ruin are surprised by the colors and realism of the statue, and to some I heard references to tacky and cheesy. But in my unlearned opinion, I’m guessing they pretty much nailed it. This was five centuries B.C. after all. I’m sure it wasn’t as well lit either, and I found myself wishing to have the place to myself, with control over the light switches as well.

In short, the Athenian Parthenon, reconstructed in Nashville’s Centennial Park is an awe-inspiring, faithful reproduction of the original, and for that it’s a must see stop. Visiting historical attractions is always part time travel, and it’s rare to have the opportunity to travel back in time this far, and on this continent. In that sense, it’s a perfect time machine, marred only by the civilization that inhabits this era.

Official website: http://www.nashville.gov/parthenon/

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