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The Classical Greek Architecture

The pediments of the Parthenon are amongst the greatest and most revered works of art the architectural world has known. The monumental friezes that adorn the pediments of this building are remarkable under any artistic principle not only for their size but also for the maturity with which they were executed. Sculpture had grown particularly quickly between the archaic Greek periods and the Classical, leaving us with the foundations upon which the likes of Michelangelo and Donatello would later build their careers.

It is not only important to view these monuments of ancient Greece for their historical importance, but also to recognize the beliefs that dominated the Classical world at the time. Everything that meant anything to the Greeks was immortalized in solid stone and marble and everything they believed was revered by this discipline. The stele that were carefully constructed by the Greeks were symbolic both of the individual and of the nation and it is for this reason that they were not simply a decorative tool in monumental structures.

We look at the connection between Greek monumental structures and the Parthenon and attempt to trace the architectural and structural changes that occurred in that time. It is largely unknown how and when the Greeks first landed on Greece, but it is certain that they were situated there by 2000 BC (Branigan, 1976: 84). Greek life in ancient times centered around the polis or ‘city-state’ and every man knew the duties they had to fulfill to keep the polis functioning (Kitto, 1957: 73). Everything the inhabitants of the polis believed, was seated in this state, this including: religion, politics, economics (Kitto, 1957: 75).

Each polis therefore had its patron gods or goddesses and they were never limited to just one. To the Athenians, the penultimate deity was Athena and although worshipped in high regard by other polis’ such as Sparta, to them she was of the utmost importance (Kitto, 1957: 75). At the time the Parthenon was built, Athens had undergone great military conflict that ended with the rule of Pericles and shortly after it was built, Athens was to be thrown yet again into utter turmoil (Littman, 1974: 86). The Parthenon itself was built between 447 – 432 BC by architects Ictinus and Callicrates and consisted of Pentelic marble (Gardner: 118).

Pericles had risen to power as a great leader to the Athenians and had successfully seen them through to become one of the most powerful city states in Greece. The Parthenon marked a new era of development and was seated on the acropolis above the city. The Parthenon is surrounded by the Erechtheum, Propylaea and the Temple of Athena Nike (Bowra, 1970: 106-107). Unfortunately, Pericles was eventually to be beset with woes that included the Peloponnesian War and an outbreak of smallpox that killed Pericles himself (Littman, 1974: 86). In 229 BC the Parthenon was finally restored after a fire had devastated her realms (Ferguson, 1973: 48).

She was also given as a gift to Demetrius Poliorcetes in 307 BC as a palace because the Athenians thought him to be a god (Ferguson, 1973: 137). However, the people to be credited with the building of the Parthenon were entrusted with the monument to patron goddess Athena as a means of thanks-giving for having rescued Athens from the brink of collapse. These men were seen as the masters of the Hellenistic age and included Ictinus (already mentioned), Phidias and Praxiteles (Ferguson, 1973: 153). The Parthenon was credited with many architectural feats that included the strange fact that the building was not straight.

The architects used geometry certainly to build the monument, but were equally concerned with how it looked from a distance. Entasis essentially meant that since the whit marble would appear warped from a distance, the architects must counter this by making a curvature on the building (Gardner: 125). The construction techniques were by all accounts innovative, as cramps and dowels similar to what we use today were used to keep the column drums in place (Gardner: 122). The Doric order was a specific column used at the time and required a stylobate at the bottom mounting of the column.

The entasis is visible on the shaft of the column that gradually dissipates to the necking and the capital. The capital then uses an abacus mounting onto the architrave above which the metopes and triglyphs are embedded into the entablature (Gardner: 125). The cornice then supports the pediment. The pediment friezes are attributed to the great Phidias, the horses that adorn outer corners of the pediment were meant to be the steeds used by the moon goddess Selene and 92 different panels of battle scenes were depicted across the various pediments (Casson, 1983: 63-64).

The Panathenaic procession is a particularly important and dramatic scene, carved out of the marble. Athenian youth are depicted on horseback, sprawling across the length of the piece in various positions and in various stages of movement (Casson, 193: 63-64). Although still quite heavily stylized, the subject features are quite sophisticated given the time period in which they were constructed. The horses manes are still geometrically shaped and the horsemen also still have stylized hair, but the introduction of muscular definition is a departure from the archaic styles that had been visible in the kouros and kore of era’s before.

What is important to note is the necessity of these people to the Greek culture. For the Greeks, these gods and goddesses were not merely powerful figures in their existence, but were also worthy of remembrance- their battles being the most important of all. Their beliefs also lead them to become concerned with the after-life, which made the burial process an elaborate affair. The pediments of the Parthenon are monumental relics of a national belief system, but this painstaking deliberation occurred also in their funerary processes. Grave markers were used to recall a memorable death, one that they considered to be good (Hightree: 38).

These grave markers were termed stelae, and the idea behind the burial was that if the burial process was not properly undertaken, then the boatman Charon would not deliver the dead across the river Styx (Hightree: 38). The stelae were always complimentary of the dead person, as seen in the case of the grave stele of Eupheros (c. 420 BC). This grave marker was found in the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos in Athens (Hightree: 39). The idea behind the stele is that the young man, only 15 years old, be remembered in the best possible light and also be depicted as a good man, dying a good death (Hightree: 39).

It is necessary here to note that the comparison between this relief and that of the friezes on the Parthenon are similar stylistically. The man is seen in profile relief, holding the strigil in order to associate him with athletes and young men (Hightree: 39). This is a typical practice in Classical sculpture in that there had to be something that symbolized who you were. Apollo is seen as the charioteer while Athena is seen in armor that allows the viewer to immediately identify who she is. This was iconographic and extremely important if the person wished to be remembered in a certain way.

If we can compare the grave stele of Dexileos (c. 394-33 BC) to Phidias’s horsemen, the similarities are evident. Dexileos was to have died in Nemea at age 20 during the Corinthian war and shows the heroic man astride his beautiful steed, slaying his enemy (Hightree: 39). The theme of the rearing horse above the cowering enemy is evident in the same fashion in Panathenaic procession of the Parthenon. There is also emphasis placed on the victory of order over chaos in grave stelae and the same is evident in the Parthenon (Hightree: 40).

The Parthenon friezes placed particular emphasis on the triumph of the gods over the chaotic human race. The Periclean era was also marked by a certain advancement in style as seen in the Marble Gave Stele of a Girl with Doves (c. 450-440 BC). There was to be, during this time, a formal harmony that would be visible in balanced composition (Metropolitan Museum of Art: Publication: 35). It is noted in this stele that the girl has remarkably adult physical features that was not uncommon in art until the Renaissance period.

The clothing is elegantly draped over the small body to provide the impression of translucency. She is also posed in the same way as the stele of Eupheros, with one foot forward and the other behind. A platform similar to that of the pediment cornices provides a horizontal point of reference upon which the subject is able to stand. The emphasis on geometry and balance is also important at a later stage where we are able to examine the Parthenon pediment structure in formulaic terms. These formulae were important to allow the entire frieze composition to fit into the somewhat restricted pyramid shape.

If we look closely at the Temple of Zeus, West Pediment, we see just this structural phenomenon. Apollo is the tallest figure reaching the highest point of the pediment and the other figures radiate from this center point. Of particular interest in the side-ways motion of Apollo which is comparable to the grave stele of Eupheros. Apollo is seen reaching sideways towards the Lapith and the Centaur, who are below him in stature. Here is what Laurie Adams (2006) describes as ‘geometric clarity) and pertains also to the geometric system used in the stele (Adams, 2006: 165).

The figures on the pediment of the Temple of Zeus were carefully labeled from A-V with Apollo situated in the middle (Adams, 2006: 165). The scene is clearly iconographic as it depicts both the importance of Apollo as a god and the subordination of the lesser beings around him. Part of the structure however, was due to this awkward construction of the pediment which although effective architecturally, did not lend itself easily to sculptural relief’s. The meanings of monumental structures such as the Parthenon are well documented, but perhaps the greatest departure between the grave stelae and the mega-buildings is social.

The grave stelae were largely important to families whereas the temples were intended for the state. We know that the Parthenon was constructed in order to pay homage to the gods when they had been brought into a successful period. The Attic grave stelae on the other hand were used to depict individuals in the best possible light. It is not surprising that they may have used influences from these monumental structures because there would have been no better remembrance for the deceased than to share some of the glory of the gods.

Leader (1997) explains that despite the loyalty Greeks had for their polis, there was a great deal of friction between the polis (city) and the oikos (family) (Leader, 1997: 683). The gods were omnipotent and immortal and the friezes that depict their heroic themes were what influenced individuals to create grave stelae that were indicative of a good life (Leader, 1997: 684). The Greeks are widely known for their need to have a ‘good death’, but in this death also there needed to be a memorial to the heroism of the person.

The stelae were therefore idealistic, depicting the person as they would have been seen in their ideal lives (Leader, 1997: 684). The next great difference is that grave stelae that were erected in the cemeteries were private commemorative tools and were not made at the states expense (Leader, 1997: 685). Temples and public monuments were clearly state funded properties that were erected whether or not they were particularly wanted by the individuals. The private cemeteries also housed those that died in battle or were acknowledged by the state, meaning that the public and the private were to an extent mixed (Leader, 1997: 685).

Within the cemeteries were also monuments to gods and goddesses as is seen in the important Athenian cemetery at Kerameikos and this made the private area also an indelibly public area. This meant that a question arose as to the civic nature of cemeteries that clearly worried families (Leader, 1997: 686). It is not surprising therefore that some of the stylistic quality of stelae were originated from the monuments to the gods. The gods and goddesses depicted in popular Greek architecture and sculpture have imagery that denoted who they were: Athena and her helmet, Hermes and his winged sandals, Artemis and her bow and arrow.

The same is true in stelae such as the grave stele of Hegeso. Hegeso is seen seated on a high-backed chair with her servant (slave) preparing her robes. The Greek houses were divided in space between the men and women and this portrait solidifies her place in the home (Leader, 1997: 689). The presence of the slave is used to reveal her status as a free Athenian woman and a wealthy one, as she is surrounded by jewels which she holds in her hand (Leader, 1997: 689). This is a similarity between the depictions of the gods and the depictions of individuals in Athenian state and is no doubt similar in all Greek states at the time.

Women are identified by the man to whom they belong and the inscription on the tablet reads: “Hegeso, daughter of Proxenos” (Leader, 1997: 690). This also means that she is defined by men and her stele is crafted by men – thus depicting her the way they would ideally have her remembered (Leader, 1997: 690). In a sense she possesses the slave and the jewels but is shown to also be possessed by men. It cannot be said therefore that that is what Hegeso looked like, because she is identified solely by the inscription on the tablet and the actual scene.

The same is seen in male stelae, where the man was shown rather in his vocational capacity than as a true reflection of the self (Leader, 1997: 690). There is much contained in the stelae about the way in which the Greek culture performed and it is revealing of a nation that was profoundly based on idealism. The Attic grave stele found at Propontis shows two horsemen who are too large for their horses, but classically cut using a sunken relief (Hambelt, 2004: 191). The horsemen wear the chitoniskos (which is also evidently seen on Phidias’s Parthenon horsemen) and a chlamys.

The inscription on the stele reads: “Dionysophanes and Poseidippos, sons of Polydingos. ” (Hambelt, 2004: 191). During the period of the fifth century BC, boar hunts were popular scenes for grave stelae particularly in the Anatolia and Thrace, but the pediment structure of the stele is quite Attican (Hambelt, 2004: 191-192). Similarities in another sarcophagus, the Lykian, are drawn both in the quality of the workmanship and the scene itself between the riders and the Epheboi of the Parthenon which was considered far superior than other works of the time (Hambelt, 2004: 193).

This cribbing of styles and scenes was due more than anything to the need for Greeks to produced heroized versions of death and the people concerned, but strangely where the Parthenon is concerned, the gods depicted have little need of a heroic death. This means that to an extent the individuals wanted to be seen in the same immortal light as their gods. Numerous connections can be made between Christianity and Greek belief that stem from the way gods were perceived. They were omnipotent; they were immortal and man was made in their image.

The difference lies in their imperfect nature which individuals tried not to make evident in the stelae they produced for the dead. While it was admirable for a god to misbehave, the same formula was not used in mortals. Part of the appeal of Athens lay in its ability to assert power over other city-states. By default they became the ‘daughter’ city of Greece. She was therefore also the religious capital of Greece owing to her imperial nature (Murray, 1988: 125). It is also for this reason that a number of architectural pieces were also politically orientated, as is seen in the Parthenon.

The friezes of the Parthenon that depict the cavalcade largely serve as a propagandist memoriam to the founders of Athens and in some way invoke constant gratitude in those residing under it (Murray, 1988: 125). Boardman (1988) writes that prior to the Athenian state, these buildings were confined to sanctuaries and temples and that it was in Pericles’ rule that the Agora was built and made popular (Boardman, 1988 :95). This relates to the previous section where funerary monuments were in contestation with the public arena, where cemeteries were both public and private.

This is a reason for the funerary art to be influenced by the monumental structures of old also considering that the same artists could have been responsible for both works. There is one thing that is blatantly familiar in both the stelae and the monuments and that is the horse. The horse is a symbol of strength and nobility but is also closely related to the gods. Markman (1969) compares the sculptures of the Nereid Monument to that of Dexileos monument and although the Nereid frieze was constructed before the stele of Dexileos, it shows the same overlapping and implications of the equine fraternity.

The workmanship is far superior in the Dexileos piece but they both have the same stylistic values as that of the Parthenon (Markman, 1969 : 88). In fact Markman states that the flowing robes and delineation of the horses seems to be directly related to the Parthenon friezes (Markman, 1969 : 89). If we look at the way in which the horses are rearing and the overlapping of the limbs we see that the mastery employed to create this piece is defined by the movement of the horses in a forward position.

Although there is clearly an influence from the Parthenon visible in Dexileos, Dexileos was better executed (Markman, 1969 : 89). According to Markman the eyes of the horses in the Dexileos stele are more subtly crafted, whereas the Parthenon displayed rather more exaggerated styling (Markman, 1969 : 89). Skin textures were first experimented with on the Parthenon and are continued in the stele of Dexileos with fine detail placed on the presentation of skin and hair (Markman, 1969 : 89).

The essential reasons for such differences are seen in the movement from archaic art to classical works where the artistic style matured with continued indulging in inquiry. If we consider monumental artworks in comparison to their smaller counterparts we are left with the idea that the influences of monumental works on stelae works were due to the public impression on the private world. The Temple of Athena Nike, situated next to the Parthenon houses the relief of Nike fixing her sandal. In this piece, remarkable care has been given to revealing the body through the drapery.

The same care is given to the frieze of the Birth of Athena at the Parthenon (Gardner: 145). However on the Northern side of the Parthenon lies the Jar Carriers who are not created with the same enthusiasm as the other two works. What we see is added care placed on anything that edifies the gods or goddesses and not much interest placed on mere mortals. In fact, it can be seen that the drapery of the jar carriers is considerably less realistic than that of Athena herself or Nike. The Eastern pediments consists of the Three Fates who are at this time, headless.

The drapery is magnificently constructed and the bodies are well composed. Originally finest details were painted onto the frieze (Gardner, :143). Phidia had been the master of sculpture at the time and the same careful detail and opulence of design can be seen in the sculpture of himself (or the sculpture thought to be of him) (Gardner, :141). The Athena Lemnia was created during the Ionic period and is rather masculine in her features. She also sports extremely stylized hair that was common before the construction of the Parthenon (Gardner, :141).

The same flat planes and stylization occurred in earlier stelae in Greece, which also hints at the possibility that the great sculptors of the time were employed to create grave stones. Yet it is in the philosophy of Greece that we find the most pertinent reasoning between the monumental sculptures and the idea of death to the Greek people. We have already visited the idea that having a good death was extremely important to the ancient Greeks and that it was extremely important too to be remembered, but why was this belief upheld and what does its funerary art have to do with making this belief true?

According to the Heilbrunn Timeline of Greek art the idea of the afterlife was already established in the 6th century BC, as was seen in the Odyssey (Department of Greek and Roman Art, 2008). Hades had been given the underworld to govern and took for himself Persephone as a wife. They believed that the psyche or spirit left the body after death as a little breeze departing from the body and it was considered a great injustice to deprive another human of a good burial ceremony (Department of Greek and Roman Art, 2008).

Burial occurred in three phases: the Prothesis or laying out of the body; the ekphora or funeral procession; and finally the burial of cremation of the body. During the Geometric period of Greek art, this was recorded in vases as the mourning period and was also considered essential for the integrity of the dead (Department of Greek and Roman Art, 2003). The most important aspect of the burial was that the person by remembered, thus making them immortal. After burial therefore, the bodies were marked by a mound and a stone which would later become a marble stele (Department of Greek and Roman Art, 2003).

Whether the person departed to the fields of Elysium or to the shades of Hades, the only thing that immortalized them in the eyes of the distraught relatives was the grave stone. The gods were immortal anyway and their monuments stood testament to the greatness of their being, so it makes sense that the mortals on earth would wish their relatives to be remembered in the same way. The most lavish of all the Greek funeral monuments were erected in the 6th century in Attica where aristocratic Athenians buried their dead in small cemeteries on the family estate.

Like the monuments at Olympia, the Parthenon and Nike, paint was used to detail the stelae (Department of Greek and Roman Art, 2003). Despite its use for many centuries, the large cemetery at the gates of Athens eventually gave way to more modest sarcophagi which were considerably less ostentatious. The stelae were then placed in rows along the walls rather than on the grave site itself (Department of Greek and Roman Art, 2003). This change at the end of the 5th century may have had something to do with the fall of Athens and the end of Pericles rule, when the inhabitants could return to their privacy.

The relationship between the stelae of the Classical period and the monumental structures such as the Parthenon are interwoven by years of strict belief in the power of the gods. They are also deeply linked to the philosophy of death and their understanding of the afterlife. The gods were immortalized by default and this gave them a sense of logical progression. If the gods were immortalized by stone, then so can the dead be immortalized. In the same vein, if the gods were immortalized, then it was the stone that did it. There was no other way of perceiving or conceiving of the gods but by creating their own depiction of them.

In the same way, if they were able to create their own portrayals of the gods, then they must be able to construct their own ideas of how their loved ones should be remembered. We know that the stelae were not realistic depictions of the dead, but rather representations of their ideal state. If gods were seen in their immortal ideal state, then it could have been possible to transport their dead to the same or similar level of existence. Strangely, while goddesses were held in high esteem, mortal females were seen as subordinate or beneath their male counterparts even in death.

Horses were also a connection between the gods and the mortals and are seen in both stelae and monumental structures as carriers of nobility. In the presence of depictions of the gods, the mortal subjects were not treated with as much concern although this is not true when individuals were depicted without the presence of the gods. Word count: 4131 References: Adams, Laurie Schneider. 2006. Art Cross Time Volume One. McGraw Hill. Boardman, John. 1988. The Cambridge Ancient History – Plates to Volume 4. Cambridge University Press. Bowra, C. M. 1970. Great Ages of Man: Classical Greece. Time-Life International: Netherlands.

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