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Rhythm and Order in the Aesthetic Reality of Classical Athens

One of the approaches to studying a culture in its fullness and complexity is conceptualization of its representatives’ reality. Attempts to imagine and recreate systems of beliefs of past civilisations based on material and literary sources abolish temporal and cultural borders and promise immunity from applying modern worldview models to historical communities. A crucial indicator of a society’s ideological frame is a characteristic set of aesthetic norms, existing in mutual interference with its values and traditions. The cultural heritage of ancient Greece has profoundly influenced the European artistic tradition and keeps its key position in the aesthetic code of a diverse range of modern societies. The following article suggests exploring the semantic significance of rhythm and order in the ancient Greek aesthetic reality using one of the most influential centers of the Hellenic world – Athens – in the zenith of its power – Classical period – to generate a cohesive model for analysis.


In the 5th century BCE Athens was a rapidly developing centre of influence on the Hellenic world, producing intellectual and artistic creations whose outstanding significance gave name to the whole period – Classic. The evolution of the art of the period was, nevertheless, based on a set of rules that had developed over time. The system in which the Greek art and architecture existed was the result of natural causes (i.e., climate and topography) and the conservative nature of the society, whose culture was built on rituals, rules and principles (Tucker, 1907).

Figure 1. Pheidias' workshop, Fragment of the north frieze of the Parthenon, 442-438 BCE. [Marble]


Religion and mythological tradition were crucial sources of influence on ancient Greek art. Temples, statues of gods, precious votive offerings placed in sanctuaries, mythological motifs in reliefs and vase painting - the direct connection of art and religion was not explicit, but mostly implied. Thus, the artistic perception of the ancient Greeks existed in accordance with religion. Manifestations of philosophical views in the artworks of the corresponding period have been well studied and defined, mostly proving the correlative character of ethics and aesthetics in ancient Greek culture (Chandrinou, 2015). Other speculative research proposes theories of the existence of a comprehensive mystical significance of the ancient Greek creative production, eliminating mere decorativeness as the initial aim of the artists (Richter, 1994).


Architecture developed into three distinct orders – Doric, Ionic or Corinthian – which, in turn, were most likely determined by earlier wooden buildings. Even after losing practical relevance in regards to stone buildings, the orders were still indispensable in construction of places of cult value (Barletta, 2001). This regulation of architectural choices acted as a visual embodiment of the tendency of Greek society to systematise, which manifested itself not only in the development of rules and canons, but also in an uncompromisingly clear division of society into classes (Tucker, 1907).

Figure 2. The Temple of Hephaestus, 449-415 BCE. (Own photo).


Adherence to tradition, nevertheless, did not deprive classical Greek architecture of its high artistic qualities. Alternation of architectural volumes and empty space, sequence of light and shadow, attention to landscape features, anthropometric proportions and thoughtful sculptural design created poetic imagery, which, in turn, acted as a tool in the formation of public worldview. Temples dedicated to different gods had distinctive visual characteristics and the choice of an architectural order itself could have borne a message. Dominant in the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens, the Doric order with its severity and imposingness, in combination with the impressive size of the temple, emphasized the greatness of the polis, over which it proudly towered. The emphasized logical structure was meant to draw attention to the building among others in the Acropolis and accentuate its superiority (Scranton, 1962).


Cult traditions are normally based on the principle of repetition: prayers, chanting, ritual actions (Perry, Polito & Thompson, 2021). Ancient art in its mystical symbolism personified this principle using, among other means, the frieze ornament. Athenian cult architecture of the classical period, closely connected with historical tradition, embodied the principle of repetition in many details. The alternation of triglyphs and metopes, lines of antefixes, slender rows of colonnades and flutes of columns creating a simultaneously lively and harmoniously ornamental play of light and shadow - all this acted as an incarnation of the balance of movement and stillness manifested in a clear structure, ubiquitous as an aesthetic (Scranton, 1962) and the ethical ideal of beauty. The ambivalence of the meaning of rhythm, being the expression of both movement and monumentality, lives in the word itself deriving from the verb rheîn, “flow” (Nagy, 2020).

Figure 3. The Erechtheion, 421-406 BCE. (Own photo).


The canon of sculpture developed by Polykleitos, a sculptor in the 5th century BCE, serves as evidence of the common desire for structure and systematic correlation as embodiments of the ideal world order. The features of a depicted body were thoroughly calculated and mathematically harmonious. All parts of the ideal body, according to Polykleitos, were proportionately agreed. Despite a lack of a direct source, it is supposed that Polykleitos used the distal phalange of the little finger as the basic module of his system. Other dimensions were calculated accordingly in continuous progression (Tobin, 1975).


Rhythmic harmony as the embodiment of the ideal was also characteristic of classical Greek literature. The poetic meter, developed in Greece, as well as the architectural orders, served as tools for expressing the emotional meaning of the work (Vlasits, 2021). Different melodies of the heroic hexameter and the Ionic meter acted as catalysts for different feelings and motives in the listeners. An upbringing in sensitivity to the diversity of both literary and artistic language was probably one of the reasons for the "Greek miracle" - an incredible surge of cultural activity in the polis in the Classical period (Buitron-Oliver, 1992).

Figure 4. The Head of Homer, Roman emulation of a mid-fifth-century Greek portrait. [Marble]


Order, canon, the principle of repetition, expressed in auditory or visual rhythm - these artistic devices exist in an associative connection with discipline, which was encouraged by the philosophy of the Classical period and the philosophy of Plato in particular (Foshay, 2017). The Athenian of this time had to attend to the condition of his body and his thoughts with uninterrupted regularity. Beauty, in the sense that it was understood by classical Greeks, had to be ubiquitous and could only be achieved in the constant pursuit of the ideal in all aspects of the citizen's activity. Moral qualities existed in the indissoluble connection with external ones in the philosophical views of the period, which makes the creative production of the Classical era the source of crucial illustrative material for understanding the common mindset of the time.


Thus, order and system expressed in rhythmical repetitions were at their core not only an expression of aesthetic preferences of the Athenians of the Classical period but served as declarations of the values characteristic of society. The monumentality of schematically clear and logical structures, the meditativeness of visual and audial rhythms, the comforting stability and grandiosity of the system – all this was both a product and a tool of ideology, forming the Athenian society.


Bibliography

Barletta, B.A. (2001). The origins of the Greek architectural orders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Buitron-Oliver, D. (1992). The Greek miracle: Classical sculpture from the dawn of democracy, the fifth century b.c. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.


Chandrinou, Th. (2015). Classical Greek philosophy and visual art: Aesthetics forming the personality. Review of Artistic Education, 9-10, pp. 232-240. Retrieved November 23, 2022 from https://rae.arts.ro/filecase/filetypes/documents/archive/rae10/31._Theodora_Chandrinou-vol-9-10-2015.pdf


Foshay, R. (2017). Plato at the foundation of disciplines: Method and the metaxu in the Phaedrus, Sophist, and Symposium. IAFOR Journal of Arts & Humanities, 4(2), p. 15-23. Retrieved November 24, 2022 from http://iafor.org/archives/journals/iafor-journal-of-arts-and-humanities/10.22492.ijah.4.2.02.pdf


Gardner, E.A. (1902). Ancient Athens. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.


Nagy, G. (2020). Language and meter. Center of Hellenic Studies. Retrieved November 24, 2022 from: https://chs.harvard.edu/curated-article/gregory-nagy-language-and-meter/


Perry, G; Polito, V; Thompson, W.F. (2021). Rhythmic chanting and mystical states across traditions. Brain Science, 11(1). doi: 10.3390/brainsci11010101.


Richter, J. (1994). Sacred geography of the ancient Greeks: Astrological symbolism in art, architecture and landscape, (Trans. Ch. Rhone). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


Scranton, R.L. (1962). Greek architecture. London: Prentice-Hall International.


Tobin, R. (1975). The Canon of Polykleitos. American Journal of Archaeology, 79(4), pp. 307–321. doi: 10.2307/503064


Tucker, T.G. (1907). Life in ancient Athens: The social and public life of a classical Athenian from day to day. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd.


Vlasits, J. (2021). Plato on poetic and musical representation. In Julia Pfefferkorn and Antonino Spinelli (Eds.), Platonic Mimesis Reconsidered (pp. 147-166). Baden-Baden: Academia. doi: 10.5771/9783896659798-147

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Eugenia Ivanova

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