World Culture and the arts

From its perch on the Acropolis, overlooking the city of Athens, the Parthenon represents one of the greatest architectural achievements of the ancient world.  Constructed in the fifth century B.C., the Parthenon was mainly built as a temple replacing two earlier temples of Athena that were previously built on the Acropolis and destroyed when the Persian Empire invaded (George, 2003).  Similar to the earlier temples, and representing the goddess that signifies the city that bares her name, the Parthenon is a temple that pays tribute to the Athena.

The historic structure features a Doric peripteral temple designed with a rectangular floor plan and with a series of low steps on every side; it features a colonnade of Doric columns that extend around the periphery of the entire structure, with an additional six columns in front of each entrance (George, 2003).  This architectural wonder was build with combined elements of the Doric and Ionic orders.  Large overlapping marble tiles were used to cover the roofs.  The notable decorative sculptures found within are attributed as one of the high points of Greek art and culture.

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Inside this temple were rooms, the larger interior rooms that are the “nao” housing the cult statue.  The smaller room is the “opisthodomos,” which was used as a treasury to house valuables, and the site was converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary during the 6th century A.D.; the Ottoman conquest of the 1460s turned the temple church into Islamic mosques adding a minaret, which is a distinctively Islamic feature often seen on mosques with spires and onion-shaped crowns (George, 2003).  Besides the religious uses of the temple church converted to Islamic mosques, the Parthenon was also used as a dumping site for the Ottoman’s ammunition, and in 1687 it was detonated by a Venetian bombardment; the large explosion that ensued blew of the roof and severely damaged the sculptures and columns of the building.  Some surviving sculptures became known as “Parthenon Marbles” and were sold to the Museum of London in 1816 (George, 2003).

The Pharsalia is a compilation of Roman epic poems written by the poet M. Annaes Lucanus.  This is among the most well-known literary works that comes from the height of the Roman Empire.  The Pharsalia is also known as “De Bello Civili,” (“On the Civil War”), which tells the events during the influential Battle of Pharsalus (Epics for Students, 1998).  The important battle marked the time when Julius Caesar and the army of the Roman Senate, under the leadership of General Pompey, met in a decisive batter near the northern Greek city of Pharsalus, in 48 B.C. (Lucanus, 1905). The Pharsalia celebrated the victory of Caesar and recalled the reaction to this monumental moment in the history of Rome.

The literary masterpiece used the styles so strong in the poetic traditions of Latin literature.  Lucanus uses punctuation in his verses with short pithy lines of slogans known as the “sententiae.”  The epic poems echo the style of the Golden Age of Greece by using discontinuity to present narratives as a series of discrete episodes often without any traditional or scene-changing lines.  Lucanus also showed the influence from Virgil’s epic style of writing, which usually made inversions to undermine the original and heroic purpose of the work.  The poet’s despair over the loss of the Republic is inherent in the first seven lines of the poem, which is often described in terms of insanity and sacrilege (Lucanus, 1905).

Lucanus described most of the main characters as terrible flawed and unattractive, giving the feeling of an undesirable occurrence.  For example, Caesar was pictured as cruel and vindictive, turning into as a greater tyrant after his victory than during it.  The defeated general, Pompey “the Great” was seen as ineffective and uninspiring.  The battle scenes are bloody and brutal, and the poem seems to represent an ugliness overall that Lucanus saw in the events depicted.   Though the work of Lucanus remained incomplete until his death from suicide, the compiled works totalled ten written books.

Visual arts in Japan began at a remarkably early period, and in fact is believed to have started over twelve thousand years ago.  Unlike any other people that are known to Western art students, the Jomon culture that inhabited Japan developed ceramic long before any other culture.  It is traditional in anthropology to consider pottery to be a human development that occurs only after the invention of agriculture around the world.  Pottery, along with agriculture, is what traditionally separates Mesolithic from Neolithic cultures (Hooker, 1996).  However, several thousand years before any human being ever engaged in any activity remotely resembling agriculture, the hunter-gatherer Jomon culture were not only crafting pottery, but crafting pottery of incredible complexity and design.  The pottery itself was crafted from stacked coils and the raised lines that mark the boundary of these coils give the pottery a “roped” look, which is actually where the Jomon derive their name (Hooker, 1996).

Despite the very early appearance of pottery, the Jomon people were very slow to develop different visual designs, instead using their fingers or strings to impress repeated designs on the surface.  In the Middle Jomon period, 2500-1500 B.C., the Jomon people became more settled and began producing figurines.  The simple decorations of their ceramics developed into energetic decorations in this middle era.  While the figurines of the Middle Late, 1500-1000 B.C., and the Final Jomon, 1000-300 B.C., periods are identifiably human, they continue to remain highly stylised and abstract in nature (Hooker, 1996).

From the Yayoi period onwards, Japanese visual arts are not easily separable from Korean or Chinese arts.  The tumuli and the haniwa of the Kofun period are notable exceptions, but on the whole the visual arts were derivative of the continental models of the time (Hooker, 1996).  This derivative nature would seem to become outright slavishness in the seventh and eighth centuries when the Japanese visual imagination began to explode into a variety of visual genres.  This explosion of the visual imagination in Japan was at its most dynamic in the building of its temples.  From what is known of early Shinto, very little emphasis was placed on building in, and at most, some places were considered sacred and small shrines were built.  However, full-out temple worship and architecture seems to have been alien to the early Shinto.  The contact with the mainland introduced the idea and practice of temple worship, mainly through Buddhism.


The art of the Middle East is often the least known and most misunderstood of all art studied in Western schools.  The areas conquered by Muslims immediately after its emergence as a religious community were full of the architectural remnants of earlier cultures, which stood as standing memorials to their past glory.  Arabs, which had the dominant political and cultural influence in the early phase of Islamic society, must have felt disturbed by the imposing monuments of the conquered peoples.  Their rulers certainly would have wished to build such lofty buildings, which may be representative of their cultural experience, rather than being that of the subjugated nations.  On the other hand, the creation of the environment in accordance with its spiritual vision is almost a natural necessity of tradition.

In the history of Muslim art, Umayyads started to build early, however their earliest building, the fort-palaces in the Syrian desert, expressed little of the lines Islamic art was to take in its maturity; in fact, many of these structures were examples of earlier Byzantine traditions juxtaposed with some elements of Arab taste and the needs fulfilled by the purpose of the building and the environment (Faruqi. 2008).  However, it was the building of the Dome of the Rock, by Abdul Malik, along with the construction of the Umayyad Mosque under Sulaiman bin Abdul Malik that the beginnings of genuine Islamic architecture can be traced (2008).

The artistic activity in the Islamic architecture can be observed in three main areas: in the architectural forms like arches, domes, minarets, etc.; in the design and plan of buildings; in the surface decoration and beautification of the buildings (Faruqi, 2008).  Arches, pillars, domes, parapets, just to name a few, were used with the designs and plans conditioned by the spirit of the Islamic vision of Tauhid, were transformed into becoming not only the vehicles to diffuse the same spirit, but were also means to reinforce it.

The plan of the Islamic building almost invariably employed the use of symmetry and balance in its structures, giving the impression of an equilibrium whose centre of gravity was indicated to lie in Alam-e-Ghaib, or the “Unseen World” (Faruqi, 2008).  Similarly, with the use of expansive space of the arches, courtyards, and porches, the repetition of filled and empty spaces and structural forms like pillars and domes, all helping reinforce the feeling of eternity and everlastingness.  The Arabesque and floral, geometric or calligraphic patterns in their denaturalised or abstract forms, repetitive and seemingly infinite lines in the surface of the Islamic buildings created the same feeling of eternity and limitlessness of beauty as a divine attribute.

The Baroque style dominated art and architecture throughout Europe in the 1600s, lasting in some places until about 1750.  The origin of the word is not certain, though some believe it was derived from the Portuguese word “barocco” or the Spanish word “barueco,” which referred to an irregularly shaped pear.  It should be remembered that pearls, baroque or otherwise, were only brought to Europe during the age of exploration, which slightly preceded what would become the baroque period.  Baroque, or irregularly shaped pearls, would have been looked upon as exotic and very dramatic, so it is not difficult to imagine the term being applied to art that was increasingly dramatic, even if the subject matter was not; the baroque painters had an affinity for Biblical subjects, due in large part to the power of the Church as art’s main patron.

What marks baroque art and sets it apart from earlier forms is its “preoccupation with the dramatic potential of light,” a feature that is certainly a hallmark of both Caravaggio’s “Flagellation of Christ” [1606-1607], and Rubens’ “Raising of the Cross” [1611].   Despite the fact that one painter was from warm and sunny Italy and the other from a Germanic area, even though Rubens studied in Spain, they each used dramatic light to examine their subject.  However, of the two painting, Rubens work is the far more striking and the one more likely to point the way to the rococo period to follow.  In its greater use of detail and slightly overblown detail at times, it anticipates the rococo period far better than Caravaggio in that it is also much simpler than the Italian painter’s work.  Rubens’ work seems to presage the “climax of degeneration of the Baroque,” the descent of drama of the Baroque into more decoration formed of curves, lines, and bands.  It retains dependence on the emotionally charged subject matter, however, well enough to remain firmly in the Baroque tradition.

It is thusly fair to say that Rubens had not become merely a decorative painter, despite his use of dramatic and colourful detail.  In fact, Rubens’ piece is part of a commission done for the high alter of St. Wallburgis in Antwerp.  In its use of light, with the central Christ figure bathed in light and surrounded by figures weather in darkness, it very much follows the Baroque penchant for dramatic use of light.  However, the sinuousness in the diagonal of image, with Christ both draped and upheld in a sinuous curve, it remains a highly suggestive decoration.  On the other hand, the composition also expresses movement and is therefore even more dramatic than the Caravaggio work.

The art of any culture goes a long way in representing not only the culture’s aesthetic values, but also its way of life and higher ideals.  In classical Greece, order, symmetry, ancient humanism, and the Golden Mean were adhered to in every aspect of life, as well reflected in its art.  Elements of Greek art can be seen in virtually every Western, as well as Eastern, art form that followed.  The Parthenon remains one of the most striking examples of Greek architecture, if only for its emphasis on the golden mean and its use of symmetry and weight.  As it was not the first temple built to the goddess Athena on the Acropolis, the Parthenon borrowed heavily from its predecessors.  The Parthenon utilized many of the elements of the former temple, including the columns that came to define it in posterity.

The similarities the Parthenon shared with the temples built on the site before it were not only architectural in nature, but also religious.  The earlier temples were each dedicated to Athena and meant to represent the deeply held pride and religious devotion to her as she watched over the city that bared her name.  They also each included steps, similar to the ones that give the Parthenon its distinct angular appearance and weight.  However, unlike the previous temples, the Parthenon was believed to be larger in stature, and most likely meant to be more grand and permanent, which it definitely became.

The Parthenon is simply a continuation of the Greek ideals and emphasis on the power of its gods.  As it considered itself the pinnacle of human existence, Athens required something as grand as the city itself.  The Parthenon was a continuation of the golden mean, faithful to symmetry, form, line, columns, and statues of religious importance.

The influence of Persian culture on the Parthenon is seen initially in the destruction of the temples that preceded the construction of the final version of the structure.  Later, again through war with the Italians, the roof was blown off the building, again forever altering the Parthenon’s history.  However, much like Ancient Greek culture itself, the Parthenon continued to stand as an example of the origins of Western civilization and order.

The Parthenon underwent restorative work and is currently standing tall in the same spot overlooking Athens.  In its long existence, the Parthenon has become one of the most respected and imitated buildings of all time, seen in the government buildings of Washington D.C., among other famous buildings throughout the world.  The continued success of the Parthenon as an example of Greek art and culture is reflected in the millions of visitors that see it each year.  In attempts to bring the Parthenon closer to its original state, movements are currently taking place to see that the Museum of London returns the art it possessed.



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