Seeing the Evolving Philosophy and Spirituality of Ancient Greece in Its Art and Architecture

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Porch of Maidens, Acroplis, Athens / Wikimedia Commons


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By Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

The art and architecture of the Early Geometric, Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greece stand as representations of a culture that occupied only a wrinkle in time in world history but left an enduring legacy.  “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds,” wrote T.E. Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “wake in the day to find that all was vanity…”  Many words can be used to describe the ancient Greeks, but humility is not one of them.  From its earliest beginnings with Indo-European nomadic settlements on mainland Mycenea and Minoa, their pride as initially separate and warring people continued into their unification as the world around them closed in and necessitated a single front.  The groundwork had been laid for what remains regarded as one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known, and they forged their identity and legacy in the annals of history.  The Greeks came to view themselves as the finest example of humanity, and it was upon this self-perception that their culture was founded at its peak.  The spirituality and philosophy of ancient Greece was one of structure, order, and perfection, which is readily apparent in how the prehistoric Aegean environment from which they emerged affected their art and architecture, the stylistically arranged representations of a melding of culture in their structures and temples, and ultimately the recognition of their own humanity in Greece’s waning Hellenistic years until its subduction into the Roman Empire.

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Figure of a Woman, from Syros (Cyclades), c.2500-2300 BCE / National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Cycladic, Minoan, and Mycenaean art was directly affected by the environment in which they lived, and it was in this environment that the philosophy and spirituality of Greece was born.  These lands were situated in the Mediterranean Sea with Minoa comprising what is today the island of Crete, Mycenea to the north of it in the southern Greek mainland, and the Cyclades composed of a group of small islands north of Minoa and east of Mycenae.  It was in 2nd century BCE Cycladic sculpture that the basic structure provided by shape began to be represented.  A figure of woman discovered in the Cyclades, dating to between 2500 and 2300 BCE[1], takes the shape of a triangle from top to bottom with the figure’s armed folded across the abdomen.  Women at the time were seen as the objects that symbolized them.  Their purpose, signified by efforts of the sculptor to emphasize the breasts and pubic area, was reproductive.  The head is also unnaturally triangular to match the proportions of the body.  To present it as more naturally round would have gone against the social system in which they lived.

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Plan of the Palace at Knossos (Crete) as Constructed c.1700-1400 BCE / Wikimedia Commons

More than figural representation, Aegean architecture reflected the mythology in which ancient Greece’s spirituality was based.  The palace at Knossos in Minoa, built between 1700 and 1400 BCE, is a testament to the power of architecture to give birth to such mythological stories.  The palace contains a network of mazes,[2] and it was this labyrinthine construction that led to the story of King Minos and the bull-man Minotaur.  The king had waged war against Athens and upon his success was said to have demanded seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls be sent each year for the Minotaur to devour.  Theseus was storied to be one of the boys who took the place of another voluntarily and slew the Minotaur.  Being recognized as a hero, he was later recognized as the founder-king of Athens.  The maze was said to have been built by Daedalus for King Minos in which the sacrificial Athenians would simply wander aimlessly until meeting their fate.  Much of Greece’s heroic idealism and mythology was founded upon the influence of such architecture.

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Snake Goddess Figurine, from Palace at Knossos, c.1600 BCE / Archaeological Museum, Herakleion

Minoans particularly had a nearly invincible view of themselves, and the openness of their architecture was one result.  Though people were seafaring by that time, it was primarily a function of settlement and had not yet developed into seaborne warfare.  Located on an island, the Minoans felt relatively secure.  Their architecture was very open and adapted to the environment rather than manipulating the environment to adapt to their needs.  But an ordered construction was important.  Rectangles and squares led in definitive directions.  Corridors were largely equal in length with columns spaced equal distances apart.  In Minoan sculpture is found the beginning of the Greek tendency to make their gods in their image.  A statuette popularly known as the Snake Goddess[3] was discovered at the Knossos palace and dates to around 1600 BCE.  The figure is a bare-breasted female holding a snake in both hands and a leopard atop her head to represent her dominance over the animal world.  The Greeks began to see themselves early on as the best representation of their deities – a self-perception of perfection.

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Lion Gate, Entrance to Citadel at Mycenae, 13th Century BCE (left) / Mantiklos Apollo, from Thebes, c.700-680 BCE (right) / Mantiklos at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Mycenaean architecture was more invasive upon the environment.  It was located on southern mainland Greece and concerned with invasions from northern nomads.  But more than the heavy walls and revolutionary corbelled galleries, their sense of protection issued from use of guardian figures represented on their structures.  The Lion Gate[4] at the Mycenaean entrance exemplified architectural sculpture used to intimidate those who would consider invading.  Such deities were represented as half man and half animal, and they were intended to instill fear in the hearts of those who would consider invading.  The ordered composition of architecture and the belief that humanity was the image of perfection reserved for deities found its beginnings in the prehistoric Aegean world of Cycladic, Minoan, and Mycenaean art and architecture between 3000 and 1200 BCE.  Though the individual nations of which Greece was comprised never clearly unified politically, they did exhibit cultural cohesion by the Early Geometric period around 900 BCE.  The Mantikles[5] Apollo statuette from Thebes, ca. 700-680 BCE, continued the geometric focus on basic shape in triangular representation as was seen in the Syros female statuette from the Cyclades nearly 1,800 years earlier.  They saw their world in line and shape and reflected that in their art.  Their pottery broke with the specific iconography of early Minoan and Mycenaean art, but they retained attention to shape in meanders around vases and abstract patterns of shape in between.  The individual local styles based on such geometry continue to this day[6].

Their attachment to structure seen in their geometrical art translated into how they began to politically organize.  Just as line and shape were constructed meticulously to form each part, so too were states organized so that each need was addressed.  Aristotle[7] wrote in Politics, “Let us then enunciate the functions of a state and we shall easily elicit what we want:  First there must be food; secondly, arts …. Thirdly, arms.”  From the basic shapes of the Syros statuette to the labyrinth in the palace at Knossos and eventually the Mantikles Apollo, structure and organization were the basis upon which early Greek cultures began to build, eventually leading to the same ideas being implemented in how they organized themselves into coherent units.

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Kouros Figurine, c.600 BCE (left) / Dying Warrior from Temple of Aphaia in Aegina, c.480 BCE / Kouros at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York / Warrior at Glyptothek, Munich

By the time the individual Greek city-states and populations began gathering for games at Olympia in 776 BCE, geographical significance and cultural orders began to take shape and reflect a spirituality and philosophy that had matured.  It was during the Archaic period between 600 and 490 BCE that Greek art began to reflect a shift in thought.  Perfection was no longer reserved for the gods and goddesses but perfectly attainable by humanity.    Defining their view of perfection at the beginning of the Archaic period in 600 BCE was the Kouros[8] statue.  Young men were represented with flawless muscle tone and locks of hair still reflecting their attachment to structure and shape.  Noticeable on the sculpture was the “Archaic smile.”  Whether a figure was represented competing in an athletic sport, simply standing in pose, or dying in battle, this smile was seen on every sculpture of the period.  Greek focus on art was not on how a person felt, but how a person looked.  External appearance was of vital importance.  An architectural sculpture[9] from the east pediment of the Temple of Aphaia in Aegina ca. 480 BCE exemplifies the ultimate importance of the heroic idealism with which Greek art had become intertwined.  The belief that inner perfection is represented by outer appearance was perhaps represented more in Greek architecture than any of their art.  It was upon that basis that Pericles raised the Acropolis.

Greek city-states continued to be independently operating units, but it was at this time that the story of Athens became the story of Greece.  The classical period of Greece from 490 to 323 BCE found its peak in the rhetoric of Pericles as he held Athens up to be the best example of not only Greece but of humanity entirely.  Thucydides quoted Pericles as saying of Athens, “Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves.”[10]  The impact Pericles had on Athenian society was so great and their view of him so grand that Thucydides called him “the first Athenian citizen.”  In the Acropolis is found the influence of early attention to structure and detail now combined with an ideal view of their gods and goddesses and the stylistic orders that comprised the culture.  The hill served as a fortress for the Mycenaean kingdom in the 13th century BC, and the same walls that surrounded it became the home of the Acropolis.[11]

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Restored Illustration of the Acropolis / John Burge (Kleiner, 126)

The Acropolis[12], the “Sacred Rock” or “high city,” served as a religious center for Athens and an example of their increasingly prideful self-perception.  It is comprised of five structures:  the Parthenon (Temple of Athena) built between 447 and 438 BCE, the Propylaia (gateway to the Acropolis) between  437 and 431, the Pinakotheke (art museum) around 432, the Erechtheion (temple with shrines to multiple gods and goddesses) between 421 and 405, and the Temple of Athena Nike (Athena as a bringer of victory) between 427 and 424.  The birth of science and reason in combination with belief in and respect for religious icons in classical Greece is clearly seen in the construction of the Acropolis.  In keeping with the importance of external appearance, Greek architects had to have an understanding of mathematics so that the “golden ratio” could be applied.  In particular, the “golden rectangle” was believed to be the most visually appealing arrangement with proportions of exact equality in width of each side and column height.[13]

An important task of Athens to hold itself out as the best of Greece was to incorporate aspects of wider cultural contributions in their architecture.  The early beginnings of Greece in the Cycladic Islands, Minoa, and Mycenae gave way to invaders from the north and northeastern mountainous regions of Macedonia (Dorians) and from Asia Minor to the east (Ionians).  These two developed into the prevalent cultural ethnic groups who ultimately clashed in the Peloponnesian Wars of 490 and 480 BCE.  Following those wars, Pericles knew that unity was of great importance, and two architects were appointed for the Acropolis.  Iktinos and Kallicrates shared responsibility to include both Ionic and Doric elements in the design of the structures as well Corinthian and Lydian characteristics.  Different canons (assigned artistic and architectural methods and techniques) from each order were combined in a singular High Classical canon formally established by the sculptor Polykleitos.[14]

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Generic clipart of Dorian, Ionan, and Corinthian Orders / Clipart.com

The Dorian and Ionian orders issue directly from the environments of early Greece.  Mycenae on mainland Greece was focused on security and warfare, and their architecture was sturdy with a perception of strength and power in reflection.  Ionian designs resembled the solitude of island cultures that were free to delve into the aesthetic aspects of architecture with less fear of invasion.  Strong columns supporting triglyphs and metopes around the tops of buildings in the Acropolis directly signify Dorian influence, while more ornate capitals and friezes reflected the Ionian attention to that which was pleasing to behold.[15]  The unification of Greece in spirit if not in a general political sense was nothing short of miraculous, but even through creation of the Athenian League there remained Sparta on the outside of general “Greek” culture as a tyrannical warrior society.  As Athens continued to grow in strength and prosperity and establish itself as an empire in its own right, Sparta felt increasingly threatened.  A new wave of warfare from 431 to 404 BCE resulted between Athens and the Peloponnesian empire led by the Spartans and ushered in the declining classical years of Athens followed by a completely new shift in their self-perception.  Following the conflict and the end of classical art and architecture, the Hellenistic period dawned and with it a recognition of the imperfect nature of their humanity.  The emphasis on structure and order in early Aegean civilization years, along with the presentation of perfect anatomical tone as well as the invincibility that Athens felt as a leading force with the gods and goddesses on their side, faded away and new artistic forms were born that held up a new ideal – common, everyday life and humility came to be seen as far more representative of all that was “good” about humanity instead of unnatural heroic representations, ideals, and myths.

War had taken its toll by the 300s BCE, and Greeks came to recognize a need to the “simpler” things in life.  Science and reason had continued to progress to a point that the stories of gods and goddess and heroic heroism exemplified in Homer’s stories were largely still honored but recognized as the stories they were.  Architecture moved away from building temples with plain interiors and lavish exteriors to instead buildings that were useful such as theaters and town halls.  The inner person, not the outer, was of vital importance.  Indeed, characteristics assigned to deities came to be based upon the recognition of what was divine about human beings.[16]  But what was divine about humanity?

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Seated Boxer, c.100-50 BCE / Nazionale Romano-Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome

The Olympian Games and heroism in warfare had long represented the Greek attachment to that which they felt held up the flawless nature of human beings expressed in the divine.  Athletes, like warriors, were shown as images of strength without physical flaw.  But Hellenistic sculpture found a new direction.  A statue of a seated boxer dating to the period shows the honor to be found in defeat.[17]  The early rhetoric of Pericles and the intellectual pontifications of the likes of Socrates became much less admired as artists focused much more on that which appealed to human emotion.[18]  The scars on the boxer’s face are apparent and his exhaustion after a severe beating are easily seen.  But pity and sympathy are not the emotions evoked.  Rather, the viewer gains and admiration of the boxer’s attempt and his honor even in loss.  This was a diametrically opposite perspective of earlier periods.  The philosophy and spirituality of Greece had matured and with it the art and architecture that represented it.

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Sleeping Satyr (Barberini Faun), c.230-200 BCE / Glytothek, Munich

This newfound redefinition of perfection was applied even to the supernatural.  The Barberini Faun is a sculpture of a satyr who has fallen into a drunken sleep.[19]  Such a depiction would have likely been seen as sacrilege during the height of Athens and the construction of the Acropolis, but people by the time of Hellenistic Greece were no longer seeing divinity as something higher than themselves to which they could aspire and whose perfection they could maintain but rather saw in themselves the very representation of divinity.  Sports and warfare had given way to an attempt to enjoy life in a post-war period with theaters and celebrations, and the satyr represents this completely normal, human characteristic as equally normal for the divine.  Those viewing the sculpture at the time would gain at the least a sense of approval for their activities and ideally and admiration of it.

The early Aegean period from which the Greek city-states emerged set the foundation for a society that would find its way to a heightened sense of what it meant to be human and how those traits coexisted with the natural and supernatural world around them.  Structure and order, whether it was the fortified sort of Mycenae or the more liberally arranged but no less organized system of the Minoans and Cyclades, were early examples of the effect of something as simple as line and shape on an entire philosophy and system of belief.  As those early civilizations were melded into the Greek city-states established by increased settlement and incursion, a new philosophy emerged in the heart of Athens that took those basic foundational concepts to a self-perception of perfection.  Art and architecture, instead of simply resting on shape and structure, represented the warrior and athletic figures that were seen as the heroic ideal.  Greece’s golden age of science and reason elevated humanity to the ideals symbolized in their gods and goddesses.  But war and famine brought with it in later years the need to redefine what constituted the ideal.

Their spirituality had come full circle and had matured to a recognition that the divine could be seen in themselves instead of something above them to which they could only aspire.  “But the dreamers of the day,” continued T.E. Lawrence, “are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.”  That, in the end, is the sum of ancient Greek spirituality and philosophy as represented in the art and architecture through each of its cultural periods.  They dreamt early on of a perfection that could be attained and was represented as nearly non-human.  But they exited the stage of world history with open eyes, absent any religious dogma or unwillingness to change their perception that may have prevented reaching an understanding of the synthesis between human and divine.

REFERENCES

[1] Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 82, Figurine of a woman from Syros, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, ca. 2500-2300 BCE.

[2] Kleiner, 84, Plan of the palace at Knossos (Crete), Greece, ca. 1700-1400 BCE.

[3] Kleiner, 89, Snake Goddess from Palace at Knossos, Archaeological Museum, Herakleion, ca. 1600 BCE.

[4] Guide for Tourists, Visit Ancient Greece, Lion Gate, http://www.visit-ancient-greece.com/mycenae-citadel.html.

[5] Kleiner, 103, Mantiklos Apollo, Thebes, Greece, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, ca. 700-680 BCE.

[6] John Nicholas Coldstream, Greek Geometric Pottery: A Survey of Ten Local Styles and Their Chronology, 126.

[7] Aristotle, Politics, Translated by Benjamin Jowett, 152.

[8] Kleiner, 106, Kouros, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ca. 600 BCE.

[9] Kleiner, 118, Dying Warrior, Temple of Aphaia east pediment, ca. 480 BCE, Glyptothek, Munich.

[10] Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, 2.34.

[11] Ioanna Venieri, Acropolis of Athens History, http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh351.jsp?obj_id=2384.

[12] Kleiner, 126, Restored view of the Acropolis.

[13] John Benjafield, The Golden Rectangle: Some New Data, 737.

[14] J.J. Coulton, Ancient Greek Architects at Work: Problems of Structure and Design, 124.

[15] Clipart.com generic image of Dorian, Ionian, and Corinthian column construction.

[16] Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?, 62.

[17] Kleiner, 151, Seated boxer, Museo Nazionale Romano-Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, ca. 100-50 BCE.

[18] Kleiner, 151.

[19] Kleiner, 150, Sleeping satyr, Glyptothek, Munich, ca. 230-200 BCE.

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