Achievement In Greek Architecture

GREECE, before your pillars and temples we stand in awe. We worship the pristine purity of your marble figures. Your every touch perfection breeds. From your lowliest cup posterity drinks beauty. Before you we stand and cry, “Whither goes civilization!”

We have seen something of the high artistic achievement of Crete and Mycenae in the early days of Greece. Greek civilization, however, was interrupted about the year 1000 B.C. Like birds of prey the Dorian mountaineers of Thessaly swooped down on the Ionian farmers of Attica and the Peloponnesus. Where peace and civilization had reigned they left a trail of ashes and blood.

Many among the population fled to the islands and mainland of Asia, there to sow seeds of their advanced culture. Athens was able to withstand the barbaric invasion. Mycenae and other fine cities lay in ruins. Sparta became the Dorian center. Greece had to begin anew to build up her civilization and her art.

How she went about it and what she produced makes one of the most interesting tales in history. Yet to me it is even more thrilling to contemplate a people’s mind and heart back of such achievement. What a driving force must have been there! What holy zeal! What ideals! Behind such superb national self-expression think what there must have been to express. For a nation can never quite say all it wants to any more than you can. All the world is emotionally tongue-tied. Ponder then on how the Greeks must have been a-tingle with their great story: how they thrilled with it.

What is it the Greeks had to tell about? Love of country—love of gods: intense religious feeling and a deep patriotism. They fairly worshipped beauty; they idealized physical perfection. How, then, did they deliver their message? In stone. In temples to their gods they expressed their great thoughts: temples on which the eyes of the world have gazed with longing ever since. In beautiful sculpture did they give vent to their feelings: sculpture which has remained the standard of excellence for all time.

Let us now see what Greece has done in architecture. To begin with, she borrowed what suited her from the Orient and molded it with her own artistic sense. The result has been an architecture beyond criticism—one that has remained the model for all that is good.

As far back as 3000 B.C. we find in Greece huge buildings, rough, massive, not altogether lacking in skill. An example is the palace of King Minos at Knossos, built some five thousand years before your portable garage. It was just about five acres of palace, with a central court ninety by a hundred and eighty feet. It was several stories high. Fine frescoes adorned its walls and colored plaster its ceilings. But it also had a real drain-age system, with terra-cotta drain pipes.

From Knossos we skip a couple of thousand years to the period just after the Greeks had that little argument with the Dorians—and lost. Artistic efforts of that time, known as archaic, were inclined to stiffness and severity of outline. Yet they had the charm which comes of dogged striving, of simple sincerity. Gradually refinements were introduced. Buildings took on grace. Architecture was blossoming forth as an art. With that was ushered in the first distinctly Greek style, or order, of architecture—the Doric.

The Doric order was evolved from the temples of Egypt. Its chief characteristics are derived from its columns. From columns, mind you, which started out with no other purpose than to hold up the weight of masonry: from common supports for roof and ceiling come refinement and beauty, systems of art and aesthetics. The Greek column which originated then is our highest standard of taste. Utility and self-expression, you see, still go together.

The Doric column started with the Egyptian square pillar. A bit of chiseling and the square became octagonal. Some more mallet work and it became sixteen-sided. But it did not yet fill the bill. The Greeks wanted to make the column serve a special purpose. They had a mission for this stone shaft. Hence they made it taper at just the right angle. Between the square edges they cut sixteen hollow grooves or flutings. The effect was to carry the vision upward. They built a toboggan slide with direction reversed for the eye to travel on. When you face a number of these columns you cannot help but take in much of the building’s beauty at a glance.

What grace and charm are in the column itself! What impressiveness in a row of well-proportioned columns. Picture a stately colonnade partly lit up by the rays of the sun, the rest in shadow. Visualize it in tender moon-light.

Columns also serve the ends of unity. Nothing is more effective in holding a large temple together than its surrounding band of symmetrical columns. Yet with all their refinements they were put close together for effective support of masonry. Here we have an ideal illustration of beauty combined with utility: of the primary need for self-expression asserting itself in the midst of practical considerations.

At this point I want to dispose of three technical terms in architecture. Let me give you in a nutshell the distinguishing features of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders. For the rest I shall steer clear of textbook terminology. If you must know the meaning of words like astragal or echinus you will find their definition in a score of good books on architecture. It is all I can do to portray in colorless words something of the spirit of the monuments which Greece has left to posterity. If I man-age to convey a bit of that, enough.

But to my orders. The Doric portrays sturdiness, solidity, strength. The Ionic, clear-cut beauty. The Corinthian is characterized by florid detail. The Doric column has no base; it shoots up without interruption from the floor to a simple capital. The Ionic column stands on a base with a series of moldings and rises to a capital carved with spiral ornaments not unlike drooping ram’s horns. The Corinthian is a development of the Ionic except that its capital is ornamented with elaborately, carved acanthus leaves.

These features were a matter of growth and development. So was all else in Greek architecture. Incidentally, the Greek temple differed from that of the Egyptian in that it was wide open. With the prevailing intensity of religious feeling it directed its appeal to all the people. Its aim was simplicity. That is why it had no arches, vaults, or domes. For stability the laws of gravity were carefully considered. For artistic effect some very unusual points were taken into account.

Refinements were introduced to correct optical illusions. Long cornices or architraves, which if absolutely straight would look as if they sagged in the middle, were by slightly convex outline made to seem straight. Vertical features were inclined inward so they would not appear as though they were falling out. Even inscriptions on a wall were sometimes treated after this fashion, the letters on top being made larger than those at the bottom so they would all appear alike. Buildings were finished off with fine sculpture. Color and gilding were widely used. The whole was carried to the utmost refinement with the aid of plentiful, excellent marble.

At first the Dorian invasion retarded the artistic development of Greece. Yet in the long run it undoubtedly helped. The great classic period might never have been achieved but for the mixing of the virile red blood of the barbarian conqueror with the somewhat finer but weaker blood of pre-Hellenic Greece. Be that as it may, two hundred years after the Dorian invasion we find in this little section of the world a bee-hive of artistic effort which in three centuries was to produce some of the finest achievements of all time. The driving force was religion.

The oracles of Apollo at Delphi and Olympia became national centers for religious devotion. In time other religious shrines sprang up. Delphi and Olympia each had a great temple and many smaller buildings. There was a wealth of votive statuary. Structures for recreation were there, for games, for the drama. All were within a vast enclosure, at its entrance a great gateway.

Treasuries, erected at these religious centers by various Greek cities, served as meeting places for the home folks and depositories for offerings to the gods. The treasury of Athens, excavated and restored in recent years, is extremely beautiful.

In some treasuries belonging to the Ionian cities of Asia architrave supports, instead of the usual columns, are sculptured figures of girls. These figures show the progress to the time of their erection in what were to be three centuries of tenacious experimentation. Slow progress, perhaps, but the goal was very high. Great things are built slowly. And the Greeks stayed true to type. They were building, building.

On great occasions—and they were many among these intensely religious people—the treasuries at Delphi were visited by immense crowds. Excellent historical memorials of Greece were these small structures. Today they serve for the study of the times. Thus again art survives and carries the banner of ages past. It bridges the gap of time. It is the eternal teacher.

The most important structure at Delphi, naturally, was the Temple of Apollo. From all Greece and Ionic Asia people came there to receive advice, instruction and consolation from the great oracle. Carved out of the rock are the tiers of a theatre, its stage facing the valley below. On a natural terrace likewise is the stadium, which was used for races and games, with tiers of seats on both sides. One end was curved to make turning of horses and chariots easy. The other end was enclosed by a facade with five monumental entrances. Separating the tracks inside the structure was a low wall ornamented with statues. Victors in games and races were allowed the privilege of dedicating a statue or an inscription on this wall to commemorate their triumph.

The stadium at Olympia was one of the most important buildings in all Greece. It held about forty-five thousand spectators, a capacity well needed for great festivals. Here were celebrated every fourth year the famous Olympic games. Of the other structures at Olympia, the most notable was the great temple dedicated to Jupiter.

The Athenian Acropolis, long used as a stronghold, was given over to religious purposes somewhere during pre-Hellenic times. I cannot tell you how the buildings on the Acropolis were arranged before the Persian War. There may even have been but one temple. But this we do know: Themistocles, seeing no hope of making an effective stand against the Persian invaders, advised the Athenians to leave their homes. Of their two female deities he urged that one be left on the Acropolis to guard the city and the other, a wooden image known as Minerva Polias, be taken along for their bodily protection. In due course they returned. The Acropolis was a mass of ruins. There was no trace of the goddess left in charge.

Themistocles used wreckage from the old temple or temples as a foundation for a new one on top of the hill. His plan involved placing the sacred Minerva Polias in a new spot. A howl of protest arose from conservatives and the superstitious. The temple’s construction was suspended. Themistocles fell from power. Later came Pericles.

Pericles was a man of high attainments and rare aesthetic sense. With him beauty was a religion. He loved Athens and he loved art. He set out with a vim to make Athens the intellectual and artistic center of all Greece.

His first step was to seize all the money left over from the Persian War belonging to the cities in the Hellenic League. This high-handed piece of business made enemies at home as well as abroad. Still, his object was a worthy one. Phidias, whom he chose as director-general, had dabbled in the various arts and finally decided to be a sculptor. Between them they changed Athens from a second-rate city into the cultural center of Greece. And they created what many still believe the highest art yet reached by mankind.

Phidias directed architectural work and busied him-self with sculpture of his own. Some of his products are among the most famous works of antiquity. His Promachos, or “the great bronze Minerva,” heroic in size, with spear in one hand and shield in the other, towered on the skyline of the Acropolis.

Thus was ushered in the great classic period of Greek art. It began in the middle of the fifth century B.C. and lasted for two hundred years. Athens now became the soul of Greece. During this period the Parthenon was built. With all the other great structures, it made of that little hill in Athens, the Acropolis, the beacon of art for all time.

The Parthenon, “dwelling place of the virgin,” is one of the outstanding examples of architectural perfection. Doric in style, it was the home of the goddess Athena Parthenos, the virgin Athena. It took nine years, from 447 to 438 B.C., to complete this building.

Nine years to build the Parthenon—I wonder how long it would take properly to describe it? How many months, or years, would it require for Keats to do justice to this most perfect work of man? Keats, who wrote that masterly epitome of Greek art in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Or Gray, who worked on his “Elegy” for nine years? None but a great poet may attempt it. As for me, I will but point at it.

Stand with me atop this hill overlooking the city and feast your eyes. See this thing of living marble flanked by seventeen chaste columns on either side and eight more at each end, on a base two hundred and twenty-eight feet long by one hundred and one feet wide. The principal doorway on the east leads to the vast sanctuary containing the statue of the goddess Minerva, with a double row of Doric columns on three sides and three more columns across the western end. Next to that, protected by a huge doorway and four Ionic columns en-closed by walls four feet thick is the virgin’s chamber. This chamber and Minerva’s sanctuary originally served as treasuries; between their columns high metal grills rose from floor to roof.

Including its base, that gold and ivory statue of Athena Parthenos is forty feet high. The Athena, an object of public worship, was once fully armed—with spear, helmet, aegis and shield. In her right hand she held a winged Victory. Her face, hands and feet were of finest ivory. Precious stones were her eyes. Her drapery, armor and other details, immense sheets of solid gold, were removable in case of danger. The Greeks must have thought a good deal of this goddess, and they were unstinting in their expression of that regard.

Marvelous in grandeur, symmetry and simplicity is the structure before you. Note its delicate, fluted and tapered columns. Yet it is but a shell of its old self. The pediments or triangular spaces over each of the two en-trances were adorned with the finest sculptures of the great Phidias. A sculptured group on the western pediment portrayed the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the soil of Attica. The eastern pediment represented the birth of Athena. Great Neptune was the god-like idealization of mankind. Figures on both pediments seemed to live and breathe. They had dignity, personality. They seemed to be in harmony with the entire universe. Faces were splendid and free. Even heads of horses were idealized, given almost human expression. Some of the female garments clung to the figure in delicate folds of transparent fabric, while others streamed and fluttered in the wind.

Metopes on the four sides of the building were adorned with ninety-two sculptured groups in high relief. Here Minerva was seen guiding a battle between centaurs and Amazons, there vivid bits of the Trojan ‘War. Great sculptural works treated of the eternal struggle against the forces of nature, allegorically represented by combats between gods and giants.

In the colonnade was a frieze five hundred and twenty-five feet long and three feet four inches high, in slight relief of one and one half inches. It represented the citizens of Athens on their way to Athena’s shrine—an important civic ceremony. Athenian knights, cavalry, chariots, musicians, sacrificial animals, old men, young girls, men with jars or vases for the temple, youths on horseback, magistrates, gods—an endless line was moving forward, forward, terminating in a great central group over the main entrance. Each figure had a distinctive pose or attitude, yet all were in complete harmony. Above the east entrance were the twelve great gods and goddesses looking down upon the ceremony.

Of the sculptures of the Parthenon Plutarch says, “When they were carved they already had a beauty that made them seem old, and yet they always keep their freshness of youth. When they came from the hands of the artist they possessed a delicacy of grace such that time can have no effect on them. It is as if they were endowed with a spirit of ever recurring youth, and a soul that can never grow old.” Pericles called them an astounding miracle. Some modern critics consider them the highest artistic achievements of mankind.

From 437 B.C. on the Parthenon has looked down on quite a bit of world history. Nor was it always a calm onlooker. During the sixth century A.D. it became a Christian church. Under the Frankish Dukes, in 1204 it became a Latin church. We find it a mosque in 1456. And a powder magazine in 1687, when Athens was captured by the Venetians. That was when a shell ignited the powder and caused irreparable damage. A year later the Turks were back in power at Athens. They caused more damage to the Parthenon. Yet what is left is still one of the greatest treasures on earth.

Before leaving the subject of Greek architecture I want to tell you about one more building, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. This temple was by the ancients called one of the seven wonders of the world. By the way, I offer no apologies for what I leave out. This is not a history of Greece, nor is it a history of architecture. My concern is with expressions of taste. It serves my purpose to hit high spots here and there. If in so doing I arouse your interest to the extent that you want to know more in any given field you and my publisher are both welcome to the additional benefit. There are a great many books on Greek architecture. More can be written.

To the Temple of Artemis. Across the entire front you face a great marble stairway. Lively statues of warriors on horseback are at either end. Rising over the grand stairway are eight imposing rows of Ionic columns, their lower part bearing sculptural groups of female figures. In the pediment over the entrance a goddess presides on a throne. On either side warriors, horses and other beasts combine beauty, symmetry and action.

The temple is flanked by double ranges of twenty columns on each side. In all it has one hundred columns, thirty-six of them sculptured in the lower drum. Sixteen columns fifty-four feet high are in front of the sanctuary containing the great statue of Artemis. Here were held all public functions. This temple was a center for Pan-Ionic festivals of the Asiatic Greek colonies. It served as a museum, a treasury and a bank, and offered asylum to fugitives. It had vast revenues. It also had its own priests and priestesses, image makers, poets, soothsayers.

It was at the Temple of Artemis that the pagans took their stand against the preaching of St. Paul with the cry “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” When in 369 A.D. all pagan temples were closed by the Edict of Theodosius, its wreckage supplied materials for the Cathedral of St. John. Christianity, had won.