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Category Archives: Ancient Greek Art

Walk Like an Egyptian: Early Greek Art

by February 5, 2013

It easily falls into the ‘conspiracy’ category – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun story to tell.
We are all taught that empires rise and fall and that every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt were no exception. The year was 1336 BC and the Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaten, had just died.
Akhenaten was a strange Pharaoh who shook many of the essential foundations of Ancient Egyptian culture. For one thing, Akhenaten was a monotheist. He only believed in Aten, a Ra-like sun God, a fact that drives some scholars to debate whether he is a founding father of judaism.

His wife, Nefertiti

Akhenaten was also a romantic, conferring unusual, elevated status to his wife, the famed beauty Nefertiti. He also may have had a strange syndrome or disability which he passed on to his children… something that may have resulted in the early death of his son, Tutankhamun or King Tut.
One the strangest things about Akhenaten though, was that he changed the way art was done in those ancient days. He shunned the rigid rules that maintained 3000 years of artistic stability. Depictions became more naturalistic, especially of plants, animals and commoners. They showed a sense of movement and action.
Akhenaten with his children

Akhenaten with his wife and children

The royals too were depicted differently. Instead of showing the Pharaoh as god-like, immobile and eternal, the artists began producing tender images of him. He is drawn playing with his daughters beneath the rays of the Aten, while showing his wife affection. The lines surrounding the king are soft and curved. The hard straight features of the previous pharaohs are banished.
But then Akhenaten, the man who is considered “the first individual in history”, died.
Change at first was gradual, but eventually all the reformations faded away and returned to the previous, traditional way of doing things. The time referred to as the ‘Amarna period’ came to an end.
But what happened to all those artists who had just tasted creative freedom? The return to regulation meant the end of artistic liberalism. Did they stay in Egypt after the reversion to the mean? Or did they, perhaps, make their way up north, across the mediterranean?
Around this time, we start to see, for instance, the emergence of Etruscan hieroglyphics, in the land of the Minoans, a pre-Greek civilization.
Eventually, around 750 BC, we come to ‘Archaic’ Early Greek Art.
This time period is characterized by statues that are free standing, frontal and solid. They wear the strange, so-called archaic smile. One foot is placed forward, the fists are clenched. There are three types of figures, the standing nude youth (kouros), the standing draped girl (kore), and the seated woman. All of the different types of sculptures emphasize and generalize the essential features of the human figure.
Now these Greek statues look a lot like the Ancient Egyptian statues.
A comparison of Early Greek Art to Ancient Egyptian Statues

Ancient Egyptian on the Left, Ancient Greek on the Right

Of course this story of runaway sculptors, bringing an artistic renaissance and revolution to Ancient Greece, has a lot of holes. The time periods, for instance, are vastly contradictory. It is difficult to imagine keeping this new artistic approach alive for 500 years. The Ancient Greek Kouros also look more like the traditional Ancient Egyptian art, rather than the unique Akhenaten style.
So why did Ancient Egyptian-like statues start emerging in Ancient Greece? Could this just be a coincidence?
We, unfortunately, do not know. They are many other potential explanations, such as the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which was founded in the 6th century BC by Cyrus the Great. This huge empire, which encompassed approximately 8 million km and spanned three continents, would have brought Egypt and northern Greece, Macedonia, under the same umbrella.
The Achaemenid Persian empire also instituted infrastructures, such as road networks, a postal system, and an official language throughout its territories. It even had a bureaucratic administration which was centralized under the Emperor, as well as a large, professional army and civil services.
Maybe the famous Egyptian memorials made their way on these new found roads to Greece’s fledging shores. It is, after all, in this time period when the first Archaic sculptures start to appear.
Or maybe not. History is not an exact science. Dots that seem important might only stick out with hindsight, and connections between them weakened by improbabilities. All we do know, is that Early Greek art starts getting even more interesting from here on out.
“Walk Like an Egyptian: Early Greek Art” was written by Anya Leonard

Not Just Another Column

by January 28, 2013

What’s in a column? To the Ancient Greeks, the standing pillar was more than just a way to hold up the roof. Every section, from capital to base, was integral to the entire structure. It was a piece of art that followed very detailed specifications, an architectural order. In fact, you only need a fragment of molding to recreate a whole building.
The ancients weren’t just constructing a safe place in the rain, they were attempting to achieve perfection in architecture.
This meant nothing was left up to chance. It was never, Kyriakos – the average workman and heavy, choosing to put the pediment a “little the right”. The buildings were carefully designed using principles in harmony and symmetry and all overseen by a respected architect. The man in charge presided over every detail, from materials selected to choosing expert sculptors.
The order of the universe, believed so fervently by the Ancient Greeks, was reflected in the buildings themselves.
In fact, this is no exaggeration. The proportional ideals employed by these mathematical architects was the so-called Golden Mean, a ratio also found in natural spiral forms like Nautilus shells and fern fronds.
Here is the actual formula cherished by those men of yore:
Formula for the Golden Mean
Creating a perfectly proportional building had other desired consequences. It created an optical illusion. The end goal was, after all, how the building looked. They wanted perspective and concave results. Consequently, the major lines in the structure were rarely straight. This is most obviously seen in all the different columns’ profiles, whether they be Doric, Ionic or Corinthian.
But let us quickly review those three, very distinctive, major architectural systems, called orders.
Comparison of Ancient Greek Architectural Orders

Comparison of Ancient Greek Architectural Orders

The first and most primitive order is termed ‘Doric’. It is the serious, manly system that originated from wooden structures. It follows basic rules of harmony. Each column has to bear the weight of the beam laid across it. All the Triglyphs, or vertically channeled tablets, are arranged regularly. The columns themselves, short and stocky, stood initially without a base, and at a height of about six or seven times the diameter. The capital on the top of the pillar is basic.
The next architectural order is referred to as Ionic, due to its origination in Ionia (present day Turkey) in the mid-6th century BC. The southwestern coastline and islands of Asia Minor had been settled by the Ionic Greeks, who were distinguished from the Doric greeks by their Ionian dialect.
The Ionians’ more effeminate column design, however, proved popular amongst all the Greeks as evidenced by their construction on the mainland in the 5th century BC.
Ionic columns are most often fluted, and usually numbered at 24. This standardization was quite handy as it kept the fluting in a familiar, almost fragile, proportion to the diameter of the column… and at any scale. The system as a whole is characterised by its continuous freezes, and the scroll-like capitals, called volutes.
Corinthian Capital

Corinthian Capital

The third and final architectural order is termed Corinthian, from the ancient city of Corinth. It is the most elaborate and engraved system of architecture, distinguished by the stylized acanthus leaves and stalks found in the Corinthian capitals. These columns appeared much later and were more popular in subsequent periods than its own.
Overall, the disciplined and ordered approach to architecture was clearly effective … as it has been a major influence for the past two millennia. All three major architectural orders, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian can all still be seen in buildings, both public and private, throughout the world today.
But these systems of architecture did more than just beautified edifices globally. The western world also inherited from those brilliant mathematical architects the idea of a building as more than a space to live or worship. It can have another function: To be beautiful through harmony, balance and proportion.