Saturday, August 6, 2011

Reasoning/Appetitive: The Temple of Zeus at Olympia and Thoughts on Art History

Photocredit: Cerinthus
I enrolled recently in a classical art and architecture class at the university where I will be taking classes next year. I will not have time to take art history next year as language and grad school applications are my focus, but wanted to flush out my understanding of the subject to gain a greater understanding of the evolution of grave markers over time (something important to my thesis) as well as a better sense of the timeline of the Classical Era. I am really enjoying the class so far, but it is a rather strange mix of people (half of the class are classics or art history majors and half of them are various types of science majors trying to fill in one of their elective classes).

When I was in the Greece and Rome survey that I took freshman year in college, the art history days were usually my least favorite. The art was fine, but my conference was lead by a philosophy professor and there was not a single art history student in my class. Furthermore, the art history textbooks were really boring, and almost no one wanted to read them. The only great discussion we had was when we discussed the Parthenon, because we read a more interesting (and I believe slightly controversial) article called "Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretatin fo the Parthenon Frieze" by Joan Connelly. One of the textbooks for this class, Art and Experience in Classical Greece (the only one we have used in the first week) similar to my old textbooks, lacks both the engaging writing style and interesting factoids that I believe makes art history so interesting. However, one article that we read (which I believe is out of another introductory textbook) grabbed my interest. I will discuss it below under the heading "The Temple of Zeus at Olympia."

The lectures themselves are better in this class than they were in the introductory class at my Alma Mater (see previous blogpost), but to be fair, they are two hours instead of 50 minutes and the class is concentrating solely on the art and its context. One of the best parts of the lectures is discussion of how the pieces were constructed. My professor actually discusses the artistic methodology in depth for (thus far) marble sculptures, bronze sculptures, and Attic black and red figure vases. I thought the black on the vases was paint that was essentially polished [1], but in reality the black is a watery slip that is painted over the piece and turns black and glass-like when fired at very high temperatures (the process heats it at various times between 800-950 degrees C).

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia: The article we were assigned was "Early Classical Architectural Sculpture: The Temple of  Zeus at Olympia" in An Introduction to Greek Art by Susan Woodford. Most of the chapter talks about the evolution from the stoic patterned forms of the archaic to the greater movement and personal differentiation that appears in high classical. This is especially evident as the East pediment [2] was made perhaps a decade later than the West pediment and demonstrates a great movement toward early classical styling. This was useful, and I especially like that the author chose to provide a reasonable detailed summery of all of the myths involved.

My favorite part of the text was the section on the metopes [3]. The metopes over the porches (the ones under the pediment were left blank) depicted the labors of Herakles. Although there are many stories associated with the hero, the number of metopes (6 on each side) restricted the number of scenes. These are the canonical twelve labors of Herakles depicted by most mythology books, but according to Woodford, "it is probably...that they were first assamebled as a group for the metopes at Olympia, for in their earlier history they varied greatly" (Woodford 99). I thought that was fascinating.
Photocredit: Cerinthus
1. In high school in my "archaeology" class (which was vaguely a Greek art history class) we had to make tiles to show us the difference in the difficulty level of black figure and red figure vases. I picked the Amphora by Exekias depicted Ajax and Achilles playing a game. I really love this vase. We used a stone to polish the image before firing, but I think I was so worried about chipping the paint that I didn't do a good job with the polishing:

This is the original image from the vase:
Picturecredit: Wikimedia Commons.
2. A pediment is the triangular portion on the top of a Greek temple. It is often covered by figural images.
3. A metope is a square or rectangular image interspersed with triglyphs (usually a vertical geometric pattern) underneath the pediment on a temple.

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