From Ancient Liberality to Medieval Monastic Life

Every epoch differs in its history, customs, values, art, culture, and perception of the world. Architecture becomes one of the characteristic and most prominent features of a certain historic period since it reflects the lifestyle, beliefs, interests, and intentions of people. Ancient Greece is the epoch full of philosophers, scientific discoveries, legends, and traditions. It is the age of beauty, art, and power of human mind. At the same time, the Middle Ages appear to be a complete opposition to the antecedent era with their denial of human freedom, choice, and greatness. The comparison and contrast of the architectural peculiarities of these two periods will help to outline the socio-cultural and political characteristics of Ancient Greece and medieval Europe.

In Ancient Greece, people predominantly lived in small poorly constructed houses that consisted of one big room. The quality of the houses was dramatically low, and the most widespread building material was stone. Thus, stone blocks were piled on top of one another. Such a poor construction was the result of a high poverty level in Athens. The walls of the houses were covered with plaster or sometimes decorated with mosaics. Animal skin or reed matting was a common thing to see on the floor. Rooms had small windows that were located close to the ceiling. The plain interior of the houses resulted from the low economic status of citizens and weather conditions: small windows were closed with a board and, in this way, protected from cold winds in winter. The social difference between men and women in Ancient Greece led to the division of the room in two separate areas: one was for women, while another was for the men and their symposium. The lifestyle and traditions of Ancient Greeks defined also the most common furniture of this time: chairs, three-legged tables, which were used during symposium, and couches. The absence of water drains and rubbish bins in the houses reflected the sanitation condition of Athens. The simplicity of the ancient architecture, peculiarities of the construction, and interior decoration embodied both the poverty and spiritual liberty of that time.

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On the contrary, the Middle Ages were the epoch of strict and absolute faith and obedience to God. The establishment of numerous monasteries, churches, and chapels become the characteristic feature of this period. That is why only a precise and detailed analysis of architectural peculiarities of monasteries and churches can give a deep insight into the culture and traditions of medieval Europe. The architecture of medieval monasteries reflects the idea that monks led ascetic, with minimal possessions and austere accommodations life. The territory of monasteries included numerous buildings aimed to separate monks from the outer world and provide them with all the necessary facilities and equipment for their monastic life. Every monastery had big gardens where herbs and vegetables were grown. The absence of any fields and farms on the premises of monasteries was the proof of their high social status and political power since the food and money for the monks were collected from the landholdings of the neighboring villages and cities. A central point of every monastery was a cloister where all monks gathered to read, work, or think about Christian religion. Cloister had a form of a sheltered arcade surrounded by a square open air. Moreover, monasteries had running water that was delivered through the special channels to all working areas. Thus, cisterns provided water to different part of the monastery under pressure. Such a complicated construction was an architectural feature of monasteries, while medieval cities and villages still used water brought from elsewhere. Monastic complexes always included high massive constructions such as churches. Thus, stone was the prime building material, while wood was used only for the temporary facilities. As a rule, walls were adorned with horizontal and vertical lines that resembled solid blocks. Carved decorations and marble columns were the only features of the plain monastic interior. The presence of bathhouses and water drains was the evidence of a good sanitation condition in monasteries despite the fact that cities suffered from numerous epidemics and infections at that time.

Although architectural styles of Ancient Greece and medieval Europe differ in various aspects, as well as the beliefs and world perspectives of these two epochs, they still possess some common characteristics and trends. First, the prime building material in both ancient and medieval cities was stone due to its cheapness and hardness. Furthermore, the only source of light in both historical periods was a lamp with candles. Yet, the interior of the houses had greatly changed. Thus, Greek houses had small windows that protected from cold winds. At the same time, every building in the monastery complexes had long and wide windows that allowed light into the room and made it possible for monks to read, write, and study during the day. The rooms in ancient houses were decorated with mosaics and pictures, while monastic interior did not approve any manifestation of joy and entertainment. Finally, furniture objects can fully outline the difference between lifestyles, culture, and the tradition of two epochs. In Ancient Greece, the most popular furniture was three-legged tables and couches that fulfilled the prime need of people to relax, communicate, and drink. In monasteries, on the contrary, the only furniture units were beds and tables that had only pragmatic functions: they served as beds for sleeping and tables for eating and studying. The quality and immensity of ancient architecture differed greatly from the construction of monasteries in medieval Europe. The citizens of Athens were predominantly poor and they could not afford to live in spacious and expensive houses. At the same time, religion was the most powerful institution in the Middle Ages, and monastic lifestyle was of the highest standard.

It should be mentioned that both epochs had introduced some innovative and crucially important interior details that could find their reflection in the modern time. Thus, ancient Athens, with their cult of joy and art, presented a new technology of wall decoration – mosaic, and made the division of the place into parts: female and male areas. Furthermore, verandah, as a common feature of ancient houses, remained a popular architectural decision even now. At the same time, the Middle Ages had made some crucial discoveries as well. Thus, monasteries were the first buildings that had water drains and where water was provided almost in every part under pressure. Such innovation was essential for the medieval community since it helped to improve sanitation conditions.  Moreover, the latrines, which were built over a drainage channel, could be considered as a prototype of the modern toilet facilities. The architectural plans of monasteries always followed pragmatic aims. The secret corridors and quick transitions form one building to another were the innovative feature of that period.

The architectural peculiarities of Ancient Greece, as well as of medieval Europe, were closely connected with the beliefs, worldview, and needs of the time. Numerous theoretical underpinnings give an insight into the architectural trends of that period. The architecture of ancient Athens was described in the works by Heraclites. Various plays of the poets in Ancient Greece depicted the interior and exterior of Athenian houses. Thus, Aristophanes referred to the furniture used by Ancient Greeks, while Homer presented other objects of domestic life. At the same time, architectural peculiarities of monasteries are also characterized in the monastic manuscripts. Monk, abbots, and scripters precisely depicted the life mode of that time. There are a number of other works that present a detailed account of architecture, lifestyle, and customs of monastery life in the Middle Ages. 

Architecture is an endless source of culture, traditions, and worldview of every epoch. It helps to understand people of a certain time, their needs, their everyday routine, and deepness of inner world. Thus, architecture of ancient houses and medieval monasteries illustrates the difference not only between the construction of the buildings, materials, technology, and decoration but also the contrast of world perspectives and life styles. Ancient Greece, with its cult of human, happiness, and joy, followed the need to have the place for entertainment, to decorate rooms with bright and beautiful mosaics to make life more enjoyable. The Middle Ages, by contrast, put the greatest value on the simplicity, obedience, and religion. The architectural characteristics of monasteries were greatly influenced by all the religious dogmas and monastic rules. Although each of these two historical periods introduced some innovative architectural details, both contributed greatly to the cultural heritage of the world.

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