Read this article to learn about the art and architecture of Periclean Greece.
“Greek art is reason made manifest. Greek painting is the logic of line, Greek sculpture is a worship of symmetry, Greek architecture is a marble geometry.”
The Greeks had an extraordinary feeling for pro portion and order, for form and rhythm, for precision and clarity. To a Greek art was a supplement and was subordinate to life. It was not art for arts’ sake.
‘I would not choose the power of the Persian King’ was no empty exclamation of an Athenian, He meant it as did every Greek and particularly Athenians of Periclean age. The good, useful and the beautiful were closely bound together in the thought of a Greek as was in Socratic philosophy. The Greek took a utilitarian view of art and beauty.
The Athenians under Pericles, and in fact every Greek, had a sense of belonging to the state and they identified themselves with the glory of the city and a thousand artists worked for the beautification its public places, to commemorate victory, to honour gods or goddesses, to ennoble its festivals.
Naturally, the Greek arts of the fifth century were not meant for the museums but for the actual interest of the people. The Greek artists were not recluses working in silence away into the studios of their own but they were artisans who toiled with their labourers in workshops. Athens brought together, from all the Greek world, a greater concourse of artists, as well as of philosophers and poets than, any other city except Renaissance Rome.
The Greeks were expert cutters and engravers of metals and gems. Their work was so fine and delicate that a microscope is needed to see the details. Copper and silver wares, Greek mirrors, Greek potteries carrying figures of men, women, gods and godesses are a class by themselves. Figure carving style reached its zenith in the first half of the fifth century in the Achilles and Penthesilea, Aesop and the Fox, Orpheus among the Thracians, etc.
The most eminent of the vase painters in the Periclean age were Brygus, Sotades and Meidias. They chose scenes from actual life for depicting on the vases. Light and shade effects were also produced by them, showing the contours and depths of figures including the folds of feminine drapery.
In sculpture the Greeks had their greatest delight. Sculpture The Greeks filled their homes, temples, public places, their graves with terra-cotta statuettes arid images of gods and goddesses of stone. The sculptors’ sense of proportion, knowledge of human anatomy made stone statues life like.
The restraint exercised by the sculptors is of special nature and even the most romantic expressions show the classical restraint at its best. The Periclean sculptor shows a marvellous understanding of the physical forms and shapes in different postures. The Greek sculptor uses a variety of materials to work upon stone, terra-cotta, wood, bronze, marble, silver, gold, ivory, etc.
The Greek sculpture in the fifth century recorded so great achievements because the sculptors belonged to a school and long line of masters and pupils carried the art and handed it down to the next generation. In Periclean Athens five schools performed these functions.
These were the schools of Rhegium, Aegina, Sicyon, Argos and Attica. One Pythagoras of Samos who came over to Rhegium cast a Philoctetes which was so wonderful in its expressions of passion, pain and old age that Greek sculptors began to imitate him. At Argos the sculptural technique begun by Ageladas reached its apex in Polycleitus who became famous by designing the temple of Hera, and a gold and ivory statue of the matron goddess.
Pheidias, Cresilas, and Phradmon were the renowned sculptors.Polycleitan canon of sculpture became almost a law with the sculptors of the Peloponnesus, and even Pheidias was partially influenced by him. Polycleitan sculpture represented strength and vigour than grace. But it was Praxiteles who overthrew Polycleitan system and begun the rival canon of tall, slim elegance which survived via Rome throughout Christian Europe.
The most famous statue made by Polycleitus was that of a male Discus Thrower which showed every sign of an athlete at the job, including posture, tension of the muscle, tendons, etc. Myron’s Athena and Marsyas, and Ladas were excellent achievements. His statues were so life like that his carved Heifer, the Greeks said could do everything but moo. The Attic school was, however, particularly important for it gave beauty, tenderness, delicacy and grace to sculpture.
Pheidias was first a painter then became a pictorial sculpture. He also studied bronze technique of Ageladas. Patiently, Pheidias made himself master of every branch of his art. His Athene Parthenos stood thirty-eight feet high in the interior of the Parthenon as the virgin goddess of wisdom and chastity. It was made of ivory and gold, and adorned with precious metals.
The statue was placed in such a way that sun would shine through the great door directly upon the brilliant drapery and face of the virgin and would be seen from miles on the sea. Pheidias was in favour of large size statues. His seated Zeus was sixty feet high. The work was listed among the Seven Wonders of the world.
After Pheidias his work was carried on by his pupils with equal success. Alcamenes made an Aphrodite of the Gardens, Agoracritus made the famous Nemesis. These were regarded as highest masterpieces of statuary. In Pheidias and his followers, art had earned perfection, strength was reconciled with beauty, feeling with restraint, motion with repose, flesh and bone with mind and soul.
It is possible to trace clear divisions in the growth of painting in Greece. In the six century B.C. painting was mainly ceramic, devoted mainly to the task of decorating vases. In the fifth it became architectural, painting public buildings, statutes, etc.
In the next it became domestic, decorating dwelling houses, making portraits. Polygnotus was as famous as a painter as Pheidias as a sculptor or even Ictinus as an architect. At the bidding of Cimon he painted the public buildings with murals. His Sack of Troy, The Rape of the Leucippidae, Odysseus in Hades, etc., are masterpieces of the classical art of painting. By the end of the fifth century painting had advance sufficiently and Panaenus, brother of Pheidias succeeded in making recognisable portraits of the Athenian and Persian generals in his Battle of Marathon.
Agatharchus was employed by Aeschylus and Sophocles to paint the scenes of the plays and he using light and shade created an effect of nearness and distance in the scenery. Anaxagoras and Democritus look up a scientific attitude and made the use of light and shade more effective.
The supreme figure of the Greek painting in the fifth century was Zeuxis, pupil of Apollodorus. He gave away many of his masterpieces to kings and cities as gifts on the ground that no price would do them justice. Parrhasius of Ephesus was the only rival of Zeuxis. Zeuxis’ Runner, his mural of The People of Athens were most faithful representations of the realities.
Of the many temples and buildings that bore the excellence of the architectural skill of the Greeks in the fifth century only a few Ionic temples chiefly the Erectheum and the temple of Nike Apteros on the Acropolis survive. Attic architecture remained mainly Doric, yielding to Ionic insofar as the inner columns of the Propylae, and a frieze around the Theseum and the Parthenon.
The architects of Parthenon were Ictinus and Callicrates, the Propylae the work of Minesicles. The whole Greek world was busy in building temples in this period and the statuary and architectural competition and rivalry between them made the cities almost bankrupt. The Parthenon cost seven hundred talents, i.e. $4,200,000.
In one generation Athens was rebuilt after the damages done to it in the Persian War. New council chambers rose, new homes, new porticoes were built, new wharves, new ports, etc., were also constructed. A mile North-West of the Acropolis smaller Parthenon known as Theseum, i.e. the temple of Theseus, was built. Ictinus aided by Gallicrates worked under the general supervision of Pheidias and Pericles.
In the Western end of the structure a room was built for the maiden priestesses, called the room of the virgins or ton Parthenon. White marble from Mt. Pentelicus was chosen by Ictinus as his material for the temple, no mortar was used. Each block of marble was so chiselled and sized that when placed on the other the two looked like one. Such was also done in case of the columns.
The style of the Parthenon was purely Doric and of classic simplicity. The design was rectangular as was always chosen by the Greeks. Polycleitan canon of architecture was observed and the dimension was fixed at 228 X101 X 65 ft. For creating optical illusions metopes were adjusted in such a manner as to appear square although they were not so. This needed advanced knowledge of Mathematics and optics.
The Parthenon had some technical features which made it a combination of science and art. High reliefs depicting wars of the Greeks and the Trojans, Greeks and the Amazons, Lapiths and Centaurs, giants and gods. Over the entrance were statuary carvings showing birth of Athena, a fine figure of Iris, the female Hermes with clothes clinging yet blown by the wind and many others.
Here was also Hebe, the goddess of youth, and the figures of Fates. In the left corner four horses’ heads with flashing eyes, foaming mouths and snorting nostrils, in the right corner the moon driving her chariot to her setting, drawn by horses. These eight horses are the finest in sculptural history. Likewise on the pediments of different sides are statues of men and women adding to the magnificence of the Parthenon.
But more attractive are the figures of men and women on the frieze. For 525 feet along the top wall within the portico ran this famous reliefs showing the youths and maids of Athens bearing homage to Athena. Seldom have men, women or animals been honoured with such painstaking art. Interior of the building was rather narrow; the roof was supported by double-storyed colonnades.
The marble tiles of the roof were made thin so as to admit some light. The cornices were decorated with careful details. Today, shorn of its colours, the Parthenon is most beautiful at night, when through every columned space come changing vistas of sky or the ever worshipful moon or the lights of the sleeping city mingling with the stars.
Yet the Greek sculpture was too physical and architecture narrowly limited to simple rectangle of Mycenaean type. In secular field these achieved almost nothing. There was no vaults, no arches. The essence of the Greek style was order and form content with simplicity. But we shall find instruction and stimulus in that art which was the life of reason in form and in that classic style which was the most characteristic gift of Greece to mankind.
On the south-western slope of the Acropolis Periclean artists erected an Odeum or Music Hall which was a unique achievement of architectural skill for its cone-shaped dome. On the southern bastion Gallicrates raised a miniature Ionic temple to Athena as Nike Apteros or Wingless Victory, the exterior of which was decorated with elegant figures.
These figures of Victory called Nikai were the works of Pheidias, less massive than Athena of Parthenon but more graceful. Specially Victory tying her sandals is one of the triumphs of Greek art. The Acropolis was with five openings before each of which there was a Doric portico.
Within these gates was the Erechthenm, not more than half of which could be completed when the disaster of Aegospotami ruined Athens. On the two wings of the construction one was dedicated to Athene Polias whose temple was destroyed during the Persian War and the other wing was dedicated to Erechtheus and Poseidon.
The Erechtheum was strangely Oriental in its make up, it was one of the strangest works of Greek architecture. There is an opinion that it was a completed structure but its peculiar shape was due to the necessity of including a number of ancient sanctuaries on a very irregular piece of ground.
It was begun on the eve of the Peloponnesian War and finished sometime between 409 and 406 B.C. after a long interval. It was an Ionic structure with Ionic columns and rectangular cella. The elaborate details of the decorations which are of incomparable elegance and charm but for all its beauty, it is depressing to look at the Erechtheum after the Parthenon and the Propylaea.
Columns with Attic bases and decorated neck-bands have extremely elaborate capitals. The capitals were adorned with inlaid glass and gilt bronze. The most noteworthy features of the Erechtheum were the extremely elaborate ornamental carvings.