Friday, August 26, 2011

Appetitive/Reasoning: The Mystery of the Propylaea

Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons {{PD-1923}}
The Propylaea (ca.437-432 BCE) was the gate into the Acropolis built during the Periclean building project in the mid-to-early fifth century BCE. It is the gateway into the complex of shrines and sanctuaries on the Acropolis. It consisted of five different entryways (shown in a reconstruction above) to let large amounts of foot traffic and animals for sacrifice into the ancient sacred spaces. Large wooden doors were fitted behind the gateway that could be opened on festival days to allow passage to the maximum amount of traffic (see below). It is a magnificent gateway, tall and huge with its details highlighted in dark Elysian marble, but it was never finished.
Photocredit: Cerinthus
By never finished, not only does it mean that there were wings possibly lever built that were originally planned for the Propylaea-- builders left on the nodules used to lift the marble stone. It is difficult to find a picture that demonstrates this clearly, but If you look closely at the wall on the left and the rightmost column in the picture below, you can see these little bumps on the surface of the marble that are used to lift the marble into place. So why would a talented architect like Mnesikles, who tackled the challenge of building a grand entrance on severely sloping ground that left the Cyclopedean walls and other surrounding monuments in tact, leave evidence of poor workmanship?
Photocredit: Wikimedia Commons

The truth is, we don't know. Some scholars suggested that it was due to lack of funds from the Peloponnesian War that the Propylaea was never finished, but Jeffrey Hurwit convincingly argues that "frugality does not explain why the finishing touches were not applied to the Propylaia later. A city that could in 434/3 allot 20 talents a year to get the Acropolis in shape (one of the provisions of the Kallias Decrees) and that in the last third of the fifth century could afford to complete the Erechtheion and Nike sanctuary and create the Nike parapet could surley have afforded to return of the gateway and shave off a few unsightly lumps of stone from its walls" (Hurwit 160-161).

Hurwit and my professor both contended that the Propylaea, being a secular structure, did not merit the same attention, especially during hard times like the Peloponnesian War, and hence it was abandoned for more more important sacred buildings (Hurwit 161). I am not convinced. The old Propylon, which was destroyed by the Persians, was one of the few buildings repaired before the Periclean building project (where it was replaced witht he Propylaea) (Hurwit 157-158). Even the sacred temple to Athena Polias, the guardian goddess of the city was not rebuilt. Clearly this gateway is important. So why not add those finishing touches (even if the possible extra wings that were planned were too expensive to complete)? I don't know. I have a theory-- although it's a bit strange: all of the other buildings on the Acropolis are beautified, even though the Periclean building project left windows into the past (sometimes literally) to demonstrate the historical significance of the sacred ground. Maybe the Propylaea was left unfinished as a monument to the Persian sack-- showing that buildings that seem timeless in their majesty and beauty were actually new and replacing something that came before and was so sacrilegiously destroyed. It might incur the wrath of some god to show the marks of barbarism on his/her temple, but on a secular structure there was no such fear of retribution.

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