The Aesthetic Experience

Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts - the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.  -John Ruskin

looking at art "The justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity."    -Glenn Gould


An architect friend recounted his experience upon seeing Michelangelo's figures emerging from marble at the Academia in Florence. He was just standing there, he said, and tears suddenly started streaming down his face. I smiled and said he had experienced an A.O. -  an Aesthetic Orgasm. Another friend, a CPA, chimed in and said he had one of those when he was eighteen and saw Sophia Loren come out of the water in the movie, Boy on a Dolphin.  I quipped, "Even accountants can appreciate Venus emerging for the sea."   That friendly interchange eventually set me thinking about my own experiences with the visual arts and the half century odyssey that has taken me to museums and galleries "from Kyoto to Moscow, from Cairo to Stockholm" - they did not give me the blues in the night (except for Italian museums which don't adhere to published schedules*).  Looking back, all those museums provided rich experiences, for which I am grateful. I am quite sure the long aesthetic trip began in London, summer of 1973, when I encountered a marble horse head in the British Museum.

Anybody who spends much time around horses becomes familiar with the wild eyed look horses have when spooked or when otherwise excitedThe marble head from the east pediment of the Parthenon perfectly captures the very essence of frenzied horseyness.  When I came upon the twenty five hundred year old piece of sculpture, unlike my friend, I did not break out in tears, but I did realize the power of art. By encountering a hunk of banged-about marble, bleached by age, I was hooked and had to know more. 

+horse head
The head above is only one piece of the east pediment of the Parthenon.  The complete story of the pediment, the temple, and the story of the people who began western civilization slowly unfurled for me, but only after years of study and several trips to Greece. The head, once brightly colored, belongs to one of the team of horses pulling the chariot of the moon goddess Selene.  It protrudes over the frame of the horizontal cornice.  As the moon is pictured setting on the right side of the pediment, goddess, chariot, and horses are sinking from view below the horizon.  On the far left side of the pediment  the team of the sun god Helios is rising.  This is more than decoration, it is one of the keys to understanding the Parthenon - but first, more about the pedimental sculptures and the temple itself.

east pediment

The left (south) side of the pediment, Dionysus watches as Helios and his team of horses bring a new day.

The pedimental figures on the east end of the Parthenon celebrate the miraculous birth of Athena, patron deity of Athens, from the head of Zeus.  Zeus was seated in the center with Athena standing on his left reaching up to touch his head, as if to indicate her original home.  Her birth announces a new dawn for Athens ... and for the world.  After her miraculous birth she requested to be allowed to forever remain a virgin; a request that Zeus granted.  Thus the Athenians called the temple "parthenos", virgin.  In mythology, or with the chakra, a god emerging from the genital region, such as Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus, will be associated with the life force.  A goddess emerging from the head indicates wisdom, which was one of Athena's role.  She was also patron deity of techne or technology, which is also associated with the head.  The other ten Olympians were probably scattered about on either side of the central figures.  I say probably, because the figures were mostly destroyed in an explosion in 1687.  The remains of the pediment are now in the British Museum. The Greeks seek their return, but to no avail...yet.

Hermogenes. Yes; but what do you say of the other name?

Socrates. Athene?

Hermogenes. Yes.

Socrates. That is a graver matter, and there, my friend, the modern interpreters of Homer may, I think, assist in explaining the view of the ancients. For most of these in their explanations of the poet, assert that he meant by Athene "mind" (nous) and "intelligence" (dianoia), and the maker of names appears to have had a singular notion about her; and indeed calls her by a still higher title, "divine intelligence" (Thou noesis), as though he would say: This is she who has the mind of God (Theonoa);- using a as a dialectical variety e, and taking away i and s. Perhaps, however, the name Theonoe may mean "she who knows divine things" (Theia noousa) better than others. Nor shall we be far wrong in supposing that the author of it wished to identify this Goddess with moral intelligence (en ethei noesin), and therefore gave her the name ethonoe; which, however, either he or his successors have altered into what they thought a nicer form, and called her Athene.

             From Sir James G. Frazer's 1921 translation of Apollodorus

East pediment

Artist  Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Title  Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends
Date: 1868 Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
parthenon fireze
This retouched image of one section of the frieze (Athenian Cavalry)  demonstrates how the original may have looked. The British Museum has a marvelous computerized program in three dimensions depicting moving cavalry.

The Parthenon was built or rebuilt because the old temple was burned by the Persians during the war.  This new temple was constructed to commemorate the victory of Athens (with a little help from their allies) over the Persians.  The foundation of the old temple remains, so we know the new temple is in about the same location but  has a different orientation from the older one. The Greeks did not change temple design or orientation without good reason; this new orientation calls for an explanation. Early Greek city states used calendars based on the cycles of the moon, these calendars varied from one part of Greece to another. Greek calendars were lunisolar: twelve months, with a periodic intercalation of a thirteenth. The months were either 29 or 30 days in length, loosely in alternation, since the moon orbits the earth in roughly 29.5 days. However, in Attica rather than following a set scheme, the duration of each month was declared just before month's end to coincide to the upcoming new moon. The short months of 29 days were known as "hollow" and those with 30 days as "full".

The Parthenon was not only a sacred building, but also served as the treasury and indicated special occasions. Even structures as crude as Stonehenge, served as celestial observatories and calendars. Greek temples, although more sophisticated in design, retained the original celestial observatory and calendar functions.  Although both old and new temples dedicated to Athena  faced the east, the older temple is oriented a bit more to the north. This is probably because the Attic Greeks used a lunar calendar and the old temple was oriented to a certain  moon rising. The year began with the first sighting of the  new moon after the summer solstice.  However, there is a big problem with a lunar calendar; it must periodically be reset.  To make matters more confusing the Athens had two calendars, a festival calendar and a political calendar. (actually there was a third calendar, which I will not even mention) Of course, an accurate solar calendar of 365 days, even without a leap year, is more accurate than a lunar one.  When  the Athenians planned the new temple, they changed the orientation to face the rising sun, rather than a rising new moon. The new building was laid out to face the east on the day the sun rose on Athena's birthday. This new orientation would mark  not only the conclusion of her birthday celebration, the Panathenaia, but also a new year on the festival calendar. The obvious question arises: what date was Athena's birthday celebrated? All one has to do is to determine the azimuth of the Parthenon orientation and calculate where on the horizon the sun was rising in Athens in the middle of the 5th century BC. So, to determine the azimuth of the temple, I used an aerial photo of the acropolis that indicated north and found the azimuth.  Next,  I gave that figure to an astronomer friend and asked him to date the rising of the sun in that point on the horizon in the middle of the 5th century BC at Athens. The astronomer ran a computer program and the answer he arrived at was:
August 4th. This date is midsummer: exactly half way between the first day of summer (June 21st or thereabout) and the first day of fall (September 21st or thereabout). So, the pedimental sculptures not only commemorate the birth of Athena, but also indicate with the declining moon goddess and the rising sun god, a change in the festival calendar.  The lunar calendar, however, was not discarded; but the Athenians were forced to tinker with the dates of other festivals. This situation is mentioned in Aroistophanes' play, Clouds, which contains a complaint  brought from the moon, Selena: the Athenians have been playing round with the months, "running them up and down" so that human activity and the divine order are completely out of kilter. "When you should be holding sacrifices, instead you are torturing and judging."

But at least they established one firm festival date, midsummer, and a firm date for their major festival. To learn how medieval cathedrals also used the heavens to regulate religious festivals, visit Chartres.

The Panathenaia

Panathenaia Festival
An artist portrayal of the procession of Athenians entering the Acropolis though the Propylaea

In addition to the athletic games, musical and rhapsodic contests there were other ceremonies, including, the hekatombe  ("sacrifice of a hundred steers") and a subsequent banquet on the final night of the festival, the pannychis ("all-nighter"). The climax of the festival was the procession to the Acropolis, which is the probable theme of the Parthenon Frieze.

Although the Parthenon is architecturally a temple and is usually called so, the Parthenon never hosted the cult statue of Athena Polias, patron of Athens. A specially woven  veil  was presented to the olive-wood, life-size  cult statue of Athena Polias located in or near  the Erechtheum. Athena Polias was the most ancient and sacred object on the Acropolis. In addition to the veil ceremony the cult statue was carried down from the Acropolis and bathed in the sea earlier in the festival.


The presentation of the peplos, from the Parthenon frieze.

At the conclusion of the Great Panathenaia festival, just before before dawn, the peplos was carried  in a procession to the Acropolis, transported to the Parthenon as the sail of a ship and placed, not on the golden statue, but hung on the wall of the Parthenon.


panathena vase front
The winners of the games received as a prize amphoras filled with olive oil. On one side was Athena's image and on the other side was an image of the event won by the athlete.  



Finally, as the sun rose in the east the doors were opened and the light came streaming into the temple illuminating the gold and ivory statue. Some think there was a  pool in front of the statue which reflected the sun rays off water and  onto  the statue. We can imagine the leading officials of Athens and the winners of the games crowded around outside the east door  gazing as the morning sun slowly illuminated  their golden goddess.

Here is a description of the statue created by the artist Phidias by the 2nd century geographer, Pausanias.

"Their ritual, then, is such as I have described. As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on what is called the pediment refer to the birth of Athena, those on the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon. The statue itself is made of ivory and gold. On the middle of her helmet is placed a likeness of the Sphinx--the tale of the Sphinx I will give when I come to my description of Boeotia--and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief.[1.24.6] These griffins, Aristeas1 of Proconnesus says in his poem, fight for the gold with the Arimaspi beyond the Issedones. The gold which the griffins guard, he says, comes out of the earth; the Arimaspi are men all born with one eye; griffins are beasts like lions, but with the beak and wings of an eagle. I will say no more about the griffins.[1.24.7] The statue of Athena is upright, with a tunic reaching to the feet, and on her breast the head of Medusa is worked in ivory. She holds a statue of Victory about four cubits high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent. This serpent would be Erichthonius. On the pedestal is the birth of Pandora in relief. Hesiod and others have sung how this Pandora was the first woman; before Pandora was born there was as yet no womankind. The only portrait statue I remember seeing here is one of the emperor Hadrian, and at the entrance one of Iphicrates,1 who accomplished many remarkable achievements."

Athena Nashville The Athena of Nashville, Tennessee
(I doubt you will have an uplifting  experience gazing on this lifeless doll, even if you travel to Nashville.)


Athena Bologna
This Roman copy of a  bronze Greek Athena, now in Bologna, is obviously a much higher caliber work of art.More on Lemnian Athena 

The Acropolis  Restoration Project

restoration Began in 1975, the project is almost complete. The decay, pollution, misguided restorations, vandalism, and acts of war were difficult to overcome.  The project used  reassembled original material, with new Mt. Penteli marble  used when necessary. The restorers used titanium dowels restoration, which are reversible, in case future experts require changes. The Parthenon colonnades,  were restored, with many incorrectly assembled columns now corrected. The roof and floor of the Propylaea were partly restored, with sections of the roof made of new marble and decorated, as in the original, with blue and gold inserts. The original roof was covered with large overlapping marble tiles called imbrices and tegulae.


Below is an artist concept of the  original Acropolis.

Klenze, Leo von
Pinakothek, Munich

For additional information on the Parthenon, you might start with Wikipedia.* Museums around the world adhere to the "closed Monday" rule. Even though the guide book might indicate the days and hours of operation for a certain Italian museum, it will not necessarily be open on those days and those times. Also, you might find the room closed which holds a certain piece of art you have come to see, although there is no apparent reason for the closed room.  Recently I discovered what's behind this Italian quirk; museum guards in Italy  belong to a national union, so the director of a museum never knows how many guards, if any, will show up for work on any given day. The Italian rule for museums seems to be, "closed whenever you arrive". Also, there is another universal  museum quirk, which even works in Italy: every museum seems to  have double door entrances and one of those door's will  be locked. Moreover, the locked door will be the one you try first. I am sure there is a world wide conspiracy of museum janitors seeking revenge on art patrons who carelessly drop paper on rest room floors.

Coda: This piece deals with aesthetics of the visual arts, but a like experience happened with music. I remember listening to pieces by Mozart and not being able to understand what was going on. Then one day my ears opened and I could hear Mozart. In visual terms, I could see bricks and even doors, but not the building. Suddenly, snap and there was a Mozart building right in front of me. Some composers plant hints and clues in pieces of music. If we listen to enough leitmotifs in Wagner, eventually we can experience the subtle parts and eventually the totality of even the Ring.
Even though the Ring is populated with gods, the cycle is is very much of this  world. However, when listening to Glenn Gould play Bach's Art of the Fugue we are moved to a place connecting the human with, perhaps, a divine mind. Whether that divine mind belongs to Bach or to some god, I could not say.

Coda to the coda:Today, July 4, 2012, scientist announced the finding of the Higgs boson particle. I was just listing to Glenn Gould's rerecording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, consisting of an aria and a set of 30 variations. Gould originally recorded the Variations in 1955 and rerecorded them again 20 or so years later. At the beginning of the youtube piece an interviewer asked Gould, since he seldom rerecords pieces, why did he decide to do this? Gould mentioned technical improvements in the recording industry, then almost reluctantly said when he first recorded the Variations he did it as 30 separate pieces, but later discovered 'they are connected at the bass line. Maybe Bach was closer to the divine than we imagine. Does that make Glenn Gould or J.S.Bach the Higgs Boson of music?