Temple of Athena Nike – Classical period (5th century BC)


With this post on the Temple of Athena Nike, I am returning to my favorite subject: Greek Art. This temple has an eminent position since it is at the entrance of the Acropolis. In the Archaic period, the access to the Acropolis had been modified, and the bastion that was there was probably also modified at this time. The Athenians decided to make it a historicist bastion (a mix of old architecture and new) with a window on the North wall which allow people to see and touch blocks from the Cyclopean wall. This was meant to remind them of the ancientness and the importance of the place. According to myth Aegeus jumped from this place when he saw the black sails of Theseus’ boat.


The chronology is complicated and not all the specialists agree, so I will summarize it the best I can. Around 448 BC, a decision was made to create a new sanctuary. Then, between 437 and 434 BC, Mnesikles built the famous Propylaea, and the plans for the temple were probably created at that time since everything fits perfectly together. In 434/2, a new terrasse was built and a direct access to this part was maintained. The Peloponnesian War interrupted the construction, but in 425/4 the temple was finally built.

This temple of ionic order is amphiprostyle (meaning there are porticos in the front and the back) and tetrastyle (with four columns). The temple is located as far north as possible to make it more visible and as far west as possible to leave some room for a separate staircase not going through the propylaea. It sits on a three level crepidoma, and on top of the wall there is a smooth molding that used to be painted. It was underlined by painted palmettes and lotus flowers. The temple had a lot of painted decor and was known as such a success that it was reproduced on the Erechtheion in sculpture. The columns are monoliths four meters high. The ratio of height to diameter is 7.6, which means they are slender but less slender than usual for the ionic order (usually between 8 and 10).

athena nike + stairs  athena nike east

The entablature is composed of a three faced architrave and a sculpted frieze 25 meters long. On the East side (the entrance) there is an assembly of gods, such as the one on the Parthenon. On the North side we can see a battle between Greeks, and on the South, a battle between Greeks and Persians. It might be a depiction of the Persian wars, maybe Marathon or Plataea. It is thus a historic scene, which is rare in Greek art. Pediments were sculpted with a gigantomachy in the front and probably an amazonomachy in the rear. The acroterion depicted a group, possibly Bellerophon and Chimera, while the acroteria angularia were Nikai in golden bronze.

                                      top temple east

            Capture d’écran 2015-07-01 à 22.59.44

Around the bastion’s terrasse, there was a parapet that went all the way to the south and then ran along the temple on the west and north until the staircase. The plates composing it where found propping up fortifications. The parapet was made of 32 plates, the total length was 41 meters long and plates were 106 centimeters high. On the top of the plates there are holes which allow  the placement of iron rails to enhance protection. About sixty figures (Nikai and four Athenai) were sculpted on the parapet. The closest Nike to the staircase is depicted going up a step, therefore we have an illusion created by iconography, architecture, and action. The Nikai are with sacrificials animals or furnishing trophies, and it is probably a depiction of Niketeria (grace action after a given victory). The parapet was certainly done after the temple since its style (Mannerism) is more pronounced and it sits on the temple’s base and west side first step, which makes us think of a secondary project (possibly after a few accidents). This iconography is linked to victories. When the construction began again, after the Peace of Nicias, the Athenians could celebrate many battles. This favorable phase put them in great conditions to depict Nikai between 409 and 406 BC. Therefore, the parapet is contemporary of the Erechtheion frieze.

       Capture d’écran 2015-07-01 à 23.00.35     1st nike

As you can see, the temple of Athena Nike is the fruit of a long process (decision in 448, temple in 425/4 and parapet in 409/6), and you can observe the evolution of sculpture. The construction also reflects Athenian history, which always influenced artistic production.


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