In Holy Pursuit of Perfection

September 30, 2008 Updated: October 1, 2015

PERFECTION: A reconstruction of the chryselephantine statue of Athena Parthenos from the Parthenon, stands on display in the Parthenon replica at Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo courtesy of Paul Lithgow)
PERFECTION: A reconstruction of the chryselephantine statue of Athena Parthenos from the Parthenon, stands on display in the Parthenon replica at Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Paul Lithgow)
We know Greek architecture to emphasize physical perfection, balance, and symmetry based on a mathematical understanding of aesthetics.

Ancient Greeks had a saying that was recalled some years later by Vitruvius, a Roman mathematician: ‘’He [the architect] should know writing, be skilled in drawing, and trained in geometry. He should be able to recall many histories, listen carefully to the philosophers, not be ignorant of medicine, know music, remember the responses of jurisconsults, and be well acquainted with astrology and the order of the heavens.’’

In the Hellenic period, artists-sculptors observed the human body in order to portray it perfectly. But why should a sculptor know music?

The way a Greek athlete throws the disc was called "rythmos,’’ which means rhythm. A Greek athlete knew the exact mechanics of the body and its rhythm, which he used in combination with the rotation of his body in order to throw the best shot.

Just as athletes must understand rhythm, architects also had to know music, because with music they could better understand the essence of any action—useful for sculpting the human body in action—and the essence of what makes a building safe.

Strategic Placement of Buildings

In Greece, buildings must be placed strategically to resist earthquakes. The Parthenon, at an age of 2,500 years, is a testament of architects’ ingenuity. Builders were also quite particular about location in order to have the best view from all angles.

Architects consulted oracles on where they should build a building. Sometimes they received signs from a specific god directing them where and what to build. When Persians destroyed the Parthenon and burned the sacred olive tree that existed there, Athenians didn’t want to rebuild it out of concern that it would remind them of what the Persians had done. But next day, as the story goes, the sacred olive tree reappeared as if nothing happened—a sign that the goddess wanted the Parthenon to be built again.

Works Born out of Piety

Why could the Ancient Greeks create sculptures and buildings so beautiful that they sometimes seem unbelievable in our eyes and make us admire what human beings can do?

The word “sculpture” in Greek is ‘’agalma,” which comes from the verb ‘’agallo.” Agallo means satisfaction and pleasure.
Art was created as an effort to show respect for and satisfy gods, and thus a piece dedicated to the god it depicts must be flawless in order to portray the most perfect being.

The same mentality guided whatever Greeks did, especially when they did it for the gods.

The Parthenon, which is dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena, has no straight lines in the bases of the structure—rather, they are circular so the building could be seen from far away on the horizon. The reason for this approach is that circles symbolize eternity, because gods are eternal. As we can see in whatever the Ancient Greeks did, they combined theory, respect for the heavens, and science in order to make a perfect piece of art.

For the artist, the making of the perfect sculpture was a purification process of his soul. When he finished his work, he knew that gods and humans alike would feel pleasure when they see the sculpture.