Religion and Art in Ancient Greece

By Ernest Arthur Gardner, 1910


Download Religion and Art in Ancient Greece by Ernest Arthur Gardner for iPhone, iPad, Nook, Android, and Kindle in PDF and all popular eBook reader formats (AZW3, EPUB, MOBI).

Book download options












The relation of religion to art has varied greatly among different peoples and at different periods. At the one extreme is the uncompromising puritan spirit, which refuses to admit any devices of human skill into the direct relations between God and man, whether it be in the beauty of church or temple, in the ritual of their service, or in the images which they enshrine. Other religions, such as those of the Jews or of Islam, relegate art to a subordinate position; and while they accept its services to decorate the buildings and apparatus connected with divine worship, forbid any attempt to make a visible representation of the deity. Modern Christianity, while it does not, as a rule, repeat this prohibition, has varied greatly from time to time and from country to country as to the extent to which it allows such representations. Probably the better educated or more thoughtful individuals would in every case regard them merely as symbolic aids to induce the concentration and intensity of religious ideas and aspirations; but there is no doubt that among the common people they tend to become actually objects of worship in themselves. It is instructive to turn to a system in which idolatry, the worship of images, was an essential part of orthodox religious observance. It is easy and customary with a certain class of minds to dismiss all such examples of idolatry with a superficial generalisation such as "the heathen in his blindness bows down to stock and stone." But it seems worth while to devote a short study to an attempt to understand how such a system worked in the case of a people like the ancient Greeks, who possessed to a degree that has never been surpassed both clearness of intellectual perception and a power to embody their ideals in artistic form. Whether it tended to exalt or to debase religion may be a doubtful question; but there can be no doubt that it gave an inspiration to art which contributed to the unrivalled attainments of the Greeks in many branches of artistic creation. We shall be mainly concerned here with the religion of Greece as it affected the art of sculpture; but before attempting a historical summary it is necessary for us to understand exactly what we mean by the worship of representations of the gods, and to consider the nature of the influence which such representation must have upon artistic activity.

Idolatry—the worship of images—is almost always used by us in a bad sense, owing, no doubt, chiefly to the usage of the word in the Jewish scriptures. Mr. Ruskin, in his chapter on the subject in his Aratra Pentelici, points out that it may also be used in a good sense, though he prefers to use the word imagination in this meaning. There is doubtless a frequent tendency to failure to

"Look through the sign to the thing signified,"

but there is no essential reason why the contemplation of a beautiful statue, embodying a worthy conception of the deity, should not be as conducive to a state of worship and communion as is an impressive ritual or ceremony, or any other aid to devotion. This view of the matter is expressed by some later Greek writers; in earlier times it was probably unconsciously present, though it is hardly to be found in contemporary literature. But it was only by slow stages that art came to do so direct a service to religious ideas; in more primitive times its relation was more subordinate. The worship or service of images, even in the highest ages of Greek civilisation, was much more associated with primitive and comparatively inartistic figures than with the masterpieces of sculpture; and even where these masterpieces were actually objects of worship it was often from the inheritance of a sanctity transferred to them from an earlier image rather than for their own artistic qualities. It does not, indeed, follow that the influence of the great sculptors upon the religious ideals of the people was a negligible quality; we have abundant evidence, both direct and indirect, that it was very great. But it was exercised chiefly by following and ennobling traditional notions rather than by daring innovation, and therefore can only be understood in relation to the general development both of religious conceptions and of artistic facility.

Here we shall be mainly concerned with art as an expression of the religious ideals and aspirations of the people, and as an influence upon popular and educated opinions and conceptions of the gods. But we must not forget that it is also valuable to us as a record of myths and beliefs, and of ritual and customs associated with the worship of the gods. This is the case, above all, with reliefs and vase-paintings. In them we often find representations which do not merely illustrate ancient literature, but supplement and modify the information we derive from classical writers. The point of view of the artist is often not the same as that of the poet or historian, and it is frequently nearer to that of the people, and therefore a help in any attempt to understand popular beliefs. The representations of the gods which we find in such works do not often embody any lofty ideals or subtle characterisation; but they show us the traditional and easily recognisable figures in which the gods usually occurred to the imagination of the Greek people.

The association of acts of worship with certain specially sacred objects or places lies at the basis of much religious art, though very often art has little or nothing to do with such objects in a primitive stage of religious development. Stocks and stones—the latter often reputed to have fallen from heaven, the former sometimes in the shape of a growing tree, sometimes of a mere unwrought log—were to be found as the centres of religious cult in many of the shrines of Greece. These sacred objects are sometimes called fetishes; and although it is perhaps wiser to avoid terms belonging properly to the religion of modern savages in speaking of ancient Greece, there seems to be an analogy between the beliefs and customs that are implied. Such sacred stocks or stones were not regarded merely as symbols of certain deities, but were looked upon as having certain occult or magic qualities inherent in them, and as being in themselves potent for good or evil. The ceremonies used in their cult partook of the nature of magic rather than religion, so far as these consisted of anointing them with oil or with drink offerings; such ceremonies might, indeed, be regarded as gratifying to the deity worshipped under their form, when they were definitely affiliated to the service of an anthropomorphic god; but in a more primitive stage of belief the indwelling power probably was not associated with any such generalisation as is implied in the change from "animism" or "polydæmonism" to polytheism. We are here concerned not with this growth of religious feeling, but rather with its influence upon the sacred things that were objects of worship and with the question how far their sanctity encouraged their artistic decoration.

It is perhaps easier to realise the feeling of a primitive people about this matter in the case of a sacred building than in that of the actual image of a god. A temple does not, indeed—in Greece, at least—belong to the earliest phase of cult; for it is the dwelling of the god, and its form, based on that of a human dwelling-house, implies an anthropomorphic imagination. We find, however, in Homer that the gods are actually thought of as inhabiting their temples and preferring one to another, Athena going to Athens and Aphrodite to Paphos as her chosen abode. It was clearly desirable for every city to gain this special favour; and an obvious way to do this was to make the dwelling-place attractive in itself to the deity. This might be done not merely by the abundance of sacrifices, but also by the architectural beauty of the building itself, and by the richness of the offerings it contained. Here was, therefore, a very practical reason for making the dwelling of the god as sumptuous and beautiful as possible, in order that he might be attracted to live in it and to give his favour and protection to those that dwelt around it. Doubtless, as religious ideas advanced and the conception of the nature of the gods became higher, there came the notion that they did not dwell in houses made with hands; yet a Greek temple, just like a mediæval cathedral, might be made beautiful as a pleasing service and an honour to the deity to whom it was dedicated; and there was a continuous tradition in practice from the lower conception to the higher, nor is it easy to draw the line at any particular stage between the two.

If we turn now to the sacred image of the deity we find the same process going on. The rude stock or stone was sometimes itself the actual recipient of material offerings; or it might be painted with some bright and pleasing colour, or wrapped in costly draperies. In most of these customs an assumption is implied that the object of worship is pleased by the same things as please its worshippers; and here we find the germ of the anthropomorphic idea. It was probably the desire to make the offerings and prayers of the worshippers perceptible to the power within that first led to the addition of human features to the shapeless block. Just as the early Greeks painted eyes upon the prows of their ships, to enable them to find their way through the water, so they carved a head, with eyes and ears, out of the sacred stone or stock, or perhaps added a head to the original shapeless mass. We find many primitive idols in this form—a cone or column with a head and perhaps arms and feet added to it; and the tradition survives in the herm, or in the mask of Dionysus attached to a post, round which we still see the Mænads dancing on fifth-century vases. The notion that such carved eyes or ears actually served to transmit impressions to the god is well illustrated by Professor Petrie's discovery at Memphis of a number of votive ears of the god, intended to facilitate or to symbolise his reception of the prayers of his votaries. In fact, the taunt of the psalmist against the images of the heathen—"Eyes have they, but they see not; they have ears, and yet they hear not"—is not a merely rhetorical one, as it seems to us, but real and practical, if spoken to men who gave their gods ears and eyes that they might hear and see.

An imagination so entirely materialistic may belong to a more primitive stage than any we can find among the Greeks. As soon as religion has reached the polytheistic stage the gods are regarded as travelling from image to image, just as they travel from temple to temple. Even in Æschylus' Eumenides it will be remembered that when Orestes, by the advice of Apollo, clasps as a suppliant the ancient image of Athena at Athens, the goddess comes flying from far away in the Troad when she hears the sound of his calling. The exact relation of the goddess to the image is not, in all probability, very clearly realised; but, so far as one can trace it from the ritual procedure, what appears to be implied is that a suppliant will have a better chance of reaching the deity he addresses if he approaches one of the images preferred by that deity as the abode of his power; often there is one such image preferred to all others, as this early one of Athena at Athens. The deity was not, therefore, regarded as immanent in any image—at least, in classical times; the gods lived in Olympus, or possibly visited from time to time the people whom they favoured, or went to the great festivals that were held in their honour. But the various images of them, especially the most ancient ones, that were set up in their temples in the various cities of Greece were regarded as a means of communication between gods and men. The prayer of a worshipper addressing such an image will be transmitted to the deity whom he addresses, and the deity may even come in person to hear him, if special aid is required. A close parallel may be found even in modern days. I have known of a child, brought up in the Roman Catholic religion, who had a particular veneration or affection for a certain statue of the Virgin, and used often to address it or, as she said, converse with it. And she said she had an impression that, if only she could slip in unawares, she might see the Virgin Mary herself approaching or leaving the statue, whether to be transformed into it or merely to dwell in it for a time. On Greek vases we see the same notion expressed as in the Eumenides, when a god or goddess is represented as actually present beside the statue to which a sacrifice or prayer is being offered.

In such a stage of religious belief or imagination it is clearly of high importance that the image of any deity should be pleasing to that deity, and thereby attract his presence and serve as a ready channel of communication with him. From the point of view of art, it would seem at first sight that the result would be a desire to make the image as beautiful as possible, and as worthy an embodiment of the deity as the sculptor could devise. This doubtless was the result in the finest period of art in Greece, and it involved, as we shall see, a great deal of reciprocal influence on the part of religion and art. But in earlier times the case is not so simple; and even in statues of the fifth century it is not easy to understand the conditions under which the sculptor worked without some reference to the historical development that lay behind him.