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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).