The Classical in Art and Architecture - Grappling with beauty, nature and the ‘undefinable'.

When we look at classical art and architecture, we can sometimes be confused. We see what appears to be a perfection – a consummate marriage of science and art, expressed in a language of control that mystifies us. We know that these are things are beautiful, but we’re not sure why and how.

And so the process of analysis begins…

Architects have forever wondered of the origins of classical form. And this is usually presented as a story of transformation, of development from ‘primitive hut’ to Doric Temple. This gives us a means of interpreting what appear to be highly or purely decorative forms as previously having had ‘use’ - and of seeing the classical language of architecture as a stylisation of functional elements (the exposed end of roof beams become triglyphs for example).

Illustration on the origins of the Doric Order from Bannister Fletcher’s ‘A history of Architecture’ the seminal work of Architectural History still used today.

Modern architects sometimes use the ‘deconstruction’ of the origins of classical language in modern buildings – this view of the rear of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden shows the ‘doric’ language of the collanade ‘disintegrating into the language of the primitive hut for the ‘loggia’ at high level.

Once we have understood, or ‘interpreted’, the nature of the shapes that make up classical architecture, we can measure them - to learn of the specific relationships between the individual parts and the whole. And many have, from Vitruvius, through Leonardo, Palladio, et al.

Illustration from Le Corbusier’s ‘Towards A New Architecture”

Illustration from Palladio’s Four books on Architecture

Through this process of measuring and comparing, we discover that there really is a very sophisticated set of relationships, of proportions, which govern the language of classical architecture. And this is where it gets interesting. Because we discover that one of the fundamental ratios used in classical art and architecture is that of the Golden Section (golden ratio). It can be found throughout the buildings, from the proportions of the plan of a room, to the shape of windows, distances between columns etc. etc.

The golden section is a line segment sectioned into two according to the golden ratio. The total length a + b is to the longer segment a as a is to the shorter segment b. See more about this at

It turns out that the Golden Section is a very special ratio. It can be defined easily graphically, but not so easily mathematically as a whole number. It has an infinite set of results – small and big (the Fibonacci series is one expression of golden ratio proportions), and this means it can be used to generate relationships between things of entirely different scales: from the size of a sculpted icanthus leaf to the size of a city for example, or to put it another way: from the human to the urban.

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

And this is where Architects and Artists can get waylayed. Because all of a sudden, we believe we can almost see it – a system of measurement, of understanding, that encompasses everything – Art that consumes Science!

Le Corbusier’s “The Modular”

Dom. Hans Van Den Laan’s “The Plastic Number”

Fractal image

But this is a problem. This is science - not art or architecture. This is using a system of rules to try and proscribe (not describe) beauty. And Art and Architecture, like nature and society, do not operate on a pure system of rules and regulations. It is often the mistake, the error, the quirk against the system, the lack of perfection, which makes buildings / paintings / sculptures beautiful. Because in the end, we live in a world which is not describable empirically, a world in which we don’t have exactly 365 days a year, a world in which there isn’t exactly 8 notes in a natural musical octave, a world which is way out of the reach of our understanding through an all encompassing theory (unless you're Steven Hawking).

And this is why, although it worthwhile understanding the principles of a classical language, we also need, in the end, just to trust our own judgement.

This is beautiful.

That is ugly.

Etc. etc.

Samson and Delilah

Peter Paul Rubens - Samson and Delilah, 1609 (The National Gallery)

Anthony van Dyck - Samson and Delilah, 1619-20 (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

It is often a useful exercise to compare and contrast treatments of the same subject by different artists in an effort to hone your skills of visual analysis. We have now collected three different versions of the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah but, for the purposes of this exercise, let's consider these two versions above. It seems clear that van Dyck would have been aware of Rubens' picture since he was employed in the master's studio in his early career. There are clearly similarities in the treatment of Samson's betrayal by Delilah, but also some interesting differences.

Why do you think these artists were so captivated by this particular Bible story?

What similarities can you see in these depictions of the story?
What about the differences? How have both artists approached the treatment of light? How would you describe each artists' handling of paint?

In what sense do both of these paintings belong to the style called Baroque?

Here are a couple of other versions of the Samson and Delilah story, one by van Dyck later in his career and another by Rembrandt.

Anthony van Dyck - Samson and Delilah, 1630 (Kunsthistorisches Museum)

Rembrandt van Rijn - Samson and Delilah, 1630 (The Rijksmuseum)

...returning to the theme of thresholds, some short essays by one of my exam groups examined the thresholds of pain and vulnerability that are the subject matter of Rembrandt's painting 'The Blinding of Samson' 1636. They did so by first examining the way in which Rembrandt used light and shadow to construct pictorial space. This is an exercise relevant to the AQA AS level 'Visual Analysis' paper.

I am frequently reminded by my students why I enjoy teaching Art History. I was impressed by their willingness to explore the relationship between form and subject matter, and to not give-up on a painting which at first appears 'confused both in light and composition' (C Wright 'The Dutch Painters').

'The dramatic light highlighting the blinding of Samson seems to be a natural source, entering from outside the chamber. The contrast between tenebrism on the right and light on the left may represent evil and good. The Philistine holding the spear is silhouetted against the gaping sky creating pictorial space. The light reflecting on the armour of the soldiers allows the viewer to retain their bearings as the eye casts about the dark canvas looking form forms to read. This could mimic the struggle and dramatically dwindling and punctured sense of sight that Samson experiences. Samson's blindness is foreshadowed by the dark void inside the chamber. Chiaroscuro is used on the soldiers' forms to indicate a sense of volume in space. The bodies are depicted as confined and drawn with diagonal forces, all of which is picked out in light and shadow. Their overlapping shapes reflect the conflict of forces within the space. Samson seems to glow in the painting and Delilah's clothes have a transparent, ethereal quality. The light frames her trophy: Samson's hair and strength'. (composite answer from different students).

There are many technical terms here for AS students to look-up and learn. Many of these also relate to the concept baroque, which is a term often used to summarise characteritics of 17th century art and architecture.