Art and Architecture through the Centuries

Greek art spans two millennia and encompasses diverse cultures, political systems, and approaches to envisioning the world. What linked the arts of Greece was the shared culture of the people living in the various geographical regions where these arts were produced. That is, the lands around the MediterraneanSea from southern Italy to turkey and the islands in between as well as the coasts around the black sea. Although each region had its own history and traditions, they all shared language, religious beliefs, and mental outlook. This outlook included a propensity to visualize larger concepts and ideas through ever more naturalistic forms.  Much of Greek art was centered on the human figure and human experiences that were at once idealized and tangible. As they sculpted and painted human figures or constructed temples Greek craftsmen often relied on proportional systems that helped in making the individual universal. This combination of a focus on man and the ordering of concepts and forms made Greek art an enduring model for western civilization.

This paper is going to describe the arts and architecture of various periods of time including the Aegean period, The Classical Greek, The Roman Civilization, The Christianity Period, and the Middle Ages, as well as The Hellenistic Period. To achieve this, the essay is going to give a brief history of art and architecture in every period, provide common forms of architecture and arts that are distinctive to these periods as well as describe the motivation, intention and thought behind these arts and form of architecture.

The Aegean Era

Aegean art represents art that originated and was crafted in the area around the Grecian lands and the islands in the Aegean Sea. It is thought of as machinated byvarious art historiansfor the reason that it encompassed the broad capricious art of many different cultures that were predominant in this area during that period. Aegean art encompasses the Mycenaean art, the art of the Cyclades and the Minoan art. The Aegean was considered a center of architecture and technology. Apsidal, ellipsoidal, and rectangular constructions on Lesbos, Crete, Andro, and Tinos numbered among the first outstanding buildings dating from the dawn of Greek history. It was in this period that the forerunner of the temple in Antis and the temple with colonnades first took shape.

Mycenaean art was prominent during the period 1600 and 1100 B.C for the period of the Late Helladic age of Greece. It is so-called after the populaces of Mycenae descendent from the early Greek tribes of 200 BC. It is well-known for its gold masks, the war faring imagery as well as the sturdy architecture encompassing citadels resting on hills with walls rising up to 20 feet thick with passageways into the bedrock. Mycenaean era sculptures were mostly located in royal palaces, and shrines meant for the gods were the most widespread form of sculpture. They were richly carved, portraying an aura of flexibility in movement.

The art of the Cyclades is celebrated for its modest Venus figurines that were carved in white marble.  It originated between 2600 and 100 BC. Cycladic art encompassed a significant number of idols made of marble, taking the form of a vertical standing nude figure, typically taking the form of a female figure with arms folded across the chest. The female form isconsidered to represent the fertility goddess and mother goddess. Cycladic nude figurines were primitive, but still distinctive to the region. They were characterized by flat, wedged bodies, oval bland faces and columnar necks as well as skillfully defined noses. The figures had restrained curves and markings of knees and abdomen that were understated.

Minoan art is famed for its animal descriptions, images of harvest, and buoyant, brisk, unwarlike architecture that is virtually the converse of Mycenaean art. Minoan civilization was distinguished by an absence of continuity, progress and development. However, Minoan art is deemed spirited and struts rhythm and motion. Minoan architecture is famous for its great palaces, mostly Knossos, Malia and Phaistos which are thepredominant source of information on Minoan architecture. Minoan architecture is characterized by its many porticoes, storerooms, staircases, and air shafts that provided the structure with a sweeping aura. Minoan architecture was believed to have been a place of administrative and commercial activity as well as royal residence. Minoan paintings and pottery was defined by their technical flawlessness anddynamic twirling ornaments while its art is exemplified by its naturalistic and cadenced movement. Many of the murals and reliefs comprised of scenes from the environment depicting sea creatures, birds and animals in lush vegetation. Most images were dreary in form and silhouetted against backdrops of solid color.

TheClassical Greek

Greek architecture is credited as having sown the seed of European architecture, and determined the future form and growth of most subsequent European art. The art of ancient Greece exertedcolossal influence on the ethos of many countries from ancient times until the present, especially in sculptural and architectural spheres.

Greek architecture predominantly referred to the Greek’s public buildings. In contrast to the Aegean predecessors the Greeks of the historical period devoted less attention to their private dwellings, whether houses and palaces for the living or tombs for the dead.  For the Greeks, among the public buildings, those of religious characters occupied the most prominent place, especially their temples and altars, to which were subsequently added the treasuries, propylaea, votive monuments, stoas, theatres, and other adjuncts of the sacred temenos. Public buildings of secular character were of later development. Buildings for educational or athletic purposes, such as the gymnasium and palaestra and stadium, were at first unpretentious or temporary structures.

The artistic feelings of the Greeks led them not only to express the symbolic meaning, attributes, and achievements of their countless gods in sculpture, but also to surround their sacred statue with quantities of votive offerings of every description, in this way, the buildings dedicated to their divinities were decorated and furnished, and a wide field was opened to the artists and a magnificent opportunity given to the development of art. Earth and sea and sky, mountains and rivers, which the pantheism of the Greeks personified and idealized, had to be represented in sculptural form.


With the Hellenistic age, the classical restraint in art was abandoned. The tendencies of the age were in its sculptures:  lack of repose, self-consciousness, romanticism, realism even to ugliness, and individualism. Architecture was not the medium through which the artistic originality of the Hellenistic age was most effectively expressed. For the most part, Hellenistic architects perpetuated, refined, combined, and occasionally varied the forms of classical Greek architecture, and even those modest developments which could be termed formal innovations often had their roots in the earlier period. Nevertheless, there were several distinctive and typical trends within the Hellenistic architectural tradition which deserve attention because they further illustrate how Hellenistic art was an expression of the experience and mentality of the age. Three trends are of particular interest in this period:  first, a theatricality in planning and design, which was primarily a reflection of the theatrical mentality of the age, but in some instances, particularly when it involved an increasing interest in the manipulation of interior space for emotional effects, but may also be an expression of that tendency toward mysticism which was an aspect of Hellenistic individualism. The theatrical mentality in Hellenistic architecture is expressed in the choice of dramatic settings for temples, in a fondness for dramatic vistas and exciting, unexpected spatial changes within buildings, and, although the evidence for it is scanty, in what seems to have been a taste for a kind of façade architecture. Secondly, almost the antithesis of the above, a didactic tendency in the planning and proportions of buildings which was clearly an expression of the ‘scholarly mentality’ of the age and lastly, an ever expanding use of the Corinthian order to express a variety of religious and political ideas.

The Hellenistic age was not an age of decadence in sculpture: the winged victory of Samothrace alighting on the prow of a ship, the Aphrodite from Melos and the frieze depicting the war of the gods and the giants from the altar of Zeus at Pergamum influenced in composition and details by the pediment sculptures of the Parthenon and the largest monumental sculpture of Greek art to survive, belie any such idea. This was the golden age of portraiture, but Hellenistic sculptors never abandoned the idealization of their subjects, a feature distinguishing their work from the real life work of roman artists.

Presently, very little of Hellenistic paintings or architecture survive.

The Roman Civilization

According to tradition, Rome was founded in 753 B.C and by the end of the sixth century BC it was already a blossoming city. The first monuments and public works such as the Cloaca Maxima (The Great Drain) began to spring up in the city center during this period.

Roman art in this period was characterized as aristocratic and impersonal art. It represented a quest for perfection in technique and form and has been celebrated as a high point of roman art. It was an expression that was appropriated from the official and political world it served.Roman civilization art and architecture is to a large extent credited to the age of Augustus. His era represented the coming of age of roman architecture. Until then, roman buildings had been a somewhat rough and ready mix of roman engineering techniques and Hellenistic veneer. Augustan art sought to build a link between the traditions of the Hellenistic kingdoms and the roman republic. Nonclassical elements, mostly from italic and Hellenistic traits remained in local artisan traditions, emerged only occasionally in the Augustan style. Neoatticism, a revival of Greek styles, was an artistic current in the first century BC that copied and was inspired by Greek works from the fifth and fourth centuries BC.  There was never the chance for a new, autonomous artistic current to form. What resulted were works of cold elegance, a particular slant toward retrospective tastes, and an eclecticism that mixed general italic concepts with diverse decorative solutions derived from the artistic trends of Hellenism. During his reign, Augustus rebuilt the entire city of Rome and his ambitious building programme resulted in a major influx of foreign craftsmen and architects. Outside influences, particularly Eastern and Greek were a constant factor in Augustan art and architect. He had determined that his mix of art would that of classical and HellenisticGreek art. The Prima Porta statue of Augustus in full armor was modelled upon the fifth centuryDoryphorus of Polycleitus. The walls of the Farnesina house were decorated with copies of mid-fifth century classical Greek paintings, with delicate outline figures on a white ground. A series of terracotta plaques found on the palatine in the vicinity of the temple of Apollo contained figures in an electric style which combines features of the late archaic and classical Greek art. The Ara Pacis drew its inspiration from both the classical and the Hellenistic period. Another example of Augustan classicism is the forum he built in Rome and dedicated in his own name. The deeply carved Corinthian capitals are the works of Greek craftsmen, as were the Caryatid figures which adorned the surrounding colonnades.

During this civilization, the sculptures and building were constructed using the best materials and this contributed to the powerful influence this period architecture exerted upon later periods. It made the use of marble carvings which transformed Rome into a gleaming white marble building.


The development and adoption of visual arts by Christians was regarded as having delayed. Christian art began on a modest scale in the third century, but only after the Tolerance Edict of 313 did it burst into full bloom. Architecture immediately became the dominant art, and the great basilicas of Romeand gothic cathedralsit’s most forceful expression.However the development of Christian art was faced with setbacks. It was faced with the problem of tradition and innovation in early church buildings. The representational arts, however, caught up with architecture and began flourishing in every possible medium.Early Christian art was indebted to the imperial and classical traditions, along with its development of an independent repertory and style that would become the foundation of medieval art.

The position that was articulated by Thomas Aquinas, that the church alone dispensed through its sacraments the addendum of grace people needed to got to heaven, helped to encourage a tightly controlled environment for the creation of ecclesiastic art. The art of the high middle ages had a fundamental purpose in mind: to consciously articulate the liturgical language of the Christian faith. Art was a sacred writing. What the planners envisaged was more than a building, more than a place of worship. These were not dead stones. They were intended as living stones embodying a sacramental function. The sacred spaces were intended as places where God and man could meet. Therefore, artists and craftsmen were commissioned to do more than reflect theology in art: they set out to create a theology of art.

To achieve this, it was believed that sculptors and painters had to avoid personal creativity and abide by the exact scientific formulations of art as defined by the church. Bishops saw art and architecture much along the same lines as they viewed doctrine, something to organize and to control. Art was created out of the same passion for order and abstraction as that which motivated the creation of mediaeval, scholastic theology.To accomplish this goal a prescribed method and style of art composition had to be followed. The artistic representation of sacred objects was considered a science governed by fixed laws, which could not be broken at the dictates of individual imagination. The church made certain that its artists observed these scientific laws of creativity and remained within the fold.

Artists were also required to abide by a type of sacred mathematics: orientation, numbers grouping and symmetry. The orienting of churches so that they sit from the rising to the setting of the sun was a practice mandated by the Apostolic Constitutions. The foundations were disposed in such a manner that the head of the church lied exactly to the earth, that is, to the part of the sky in which the sun rises at the equinox. The placement of the cathedrals allowed the east and west facades to serve a liturgical purpose: Old Testament figures were placed in the north façade where it was cold, connoting distance and mystery, while New Testament figures were placed in the south façade where it was warm, signifying presence and knowledge. Grouping and symmetry were regarded as the manifestation of an enigmatic inner harmony.

TheMiddle Ages

The architecture of the middle ages in Italy was too often treated with contempt, as if it were merely a debased gothic, a bad and unsuccessful imitation of a barbarous style, possessing in itself no claims to originality, no peculiar character, no share in the successive mutations from which the complete gothic was derived.

Perhaps the best representative of architectural style in the middle ages was gothic buildings. These buildings exhibited pointed arches, pinnacles, buttresses, tracery and clustered columns, rib vaulting and lofty towers. Gothic buildings possessed a lightness and elegance and beauty in details, although they missed the decided character of the Grecian school of architecture.


In conclusion, in can be observed that art and architecture unlike other forms of social sciences does not have definite boundaries. It is a continuous happening that endlessly borrows from previous art epochs and improves on them. Each period has a distinctive characterization that makes it unique and easy to distinguish from the other yet at the same time has features that are similar to art and architectural forms from other periods. This makes architecture and art an interesting field to study.


Works cited

Noble, Thomas, DeWitt Platt and Roy Matthews. Experience Humanities Volume 1: Beginnings Through the Renaissance. 8. Vol. 1. McGraw-Hill, 2013.

Platt, DeWitt and Roy Matthews. Readings to Accompany Experience Humanities. McGraw-Hill , 2013.

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