"The Great Hall of Chicago Union Station," photographed by Velvet, cropped to show columns, source: Wikimedia Commons
The columns are one of the first things I notice every time I walk into the Great Hall at Chicago Union Station. The decoration around the tops, known as a capital, marks these as Corinthian columns. The leaves on the capitals are modeled on the acanthus plant, which mostly grows around the Mediterranean Sea. The vertical grooves cut into the sides, known as fluting, makes them, and the whole room, look taller.
"Acanthus at Pompeii," photographed by me
If you face the rest of the station and look up, you’ll see two statues over the archway, one on either side. At first glance the one on the left looks like Athena, mostly because of her owl. This leaves the other statue a mystery. According to the station’s website, “one represent[s] day (holding a rooster) and the other represent[s] night (holding an owl), a recognition of the 24-hour nature of passenger railroading.” A nice idea, but the whole thing still reminds me of the School of Athens.
"Night and Day Statues, Union Station Chicago," photographed by Steve Wilson, Source: Wikimedia Commons
All of these things call to mind a vague connection to Greek and Roman history, what we think of as the great and glorious ancestor to our own civilization. The fact that the walls, ceiling, and columns are a pale golden color only helps bring to mind colors of their ruins. Combined with the similarity to the School of Athens the space says two things to me. First and more overtly, “We as a society are like them in learning and wisdom.” More subtly, “We who designed this are educated men. You should feel superior for getting the reference as we do for making it.”
Raphael's "School of Athens," painted in 1505
In order to respond to the statement made by my fellow student, we need to answer one important question: what does the term “Dark Ages” mean? I’m going to leave aside the fact that historians tend to avoid using it if they can help it, as it’s not exactly neutral. That said, some people use “the Dark Ages” to mean the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the supposed rise of rationalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This thousand-year period becomes a millennium of backwardness and, shall we say, unenlightenment. Notice how light = knowledge, at least metaphorically.
Another definition gets a little more specific with time periods. Many scholars divide the Middle Ages into three parts: Early, High, and Late. Some go further and split the Early Middle Ages, usually dated from the 400s to the 900s, in two and call the parts the Dark Ages and the Early Middle Ages. Others used to just call the whole thing “the Dark Ages.”
But what makes these parts “dark” while the others aren’t? Part of that is the whole loss of knowledge deal. This was right after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. Europeans outside of monasteries or the still surviving Eastern Roman Empire generally weren’t too interested in scholarship. What with the breakdown of social and political structures, most people had other things on their minds. It wasn't until the various renaissances that pursuit of knowledge became more widely important again in western Europe.
There’s another reason to call this time period “dark” that I think makes the most sense: a scarcity of sources. There’s very little to shed light on what life was like. Compared to other time periods, there just aren’t that many records for what happened or what life was like. We simply don’t know as much about these four-hundred-or-so years. It’s our lack of knowledge that makes them dark, not theirs.
Or there are always my favourite definitions: “the time before safe interior lighting was widely available” and “the time before the invention of the lightbulb.”
Gerard Dou's "The Night School" c. 1660-1665
Translation of the above: where I post the interesting things I find researching the Classical and Medieval periods in my free time.