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The Parthenon

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



From whatever point the plain of Athens with its semicircle of greater and lesser hills may be surveyed, it always presents a picture of dignified and lustrous beauty. The Acropolis is the centre of this landscape, splendid as a work of art with its crown of temples; and the sea, surmounted by the long low hills of the Morea, is the boundary to which the eye is irresistibly led. Mountains and islands and plain alike are made of limestone, hardening here and there into marble, broken into delicate and varied forms, and sprinkled with a vegetation of low shrubs and brushwood so sparse and slight that the naked rock in every direction meets the light. This rock is grey and colourless; viewed in the twilight of a misty day, it shows the dull, tame uniformity of bone. Without the sun it is asleep and sorrowful. But by reason of this very deadness, the limestone of Athenian landscape is always ready to take the colours of the air and sun. In noonday it smiles with silvery lustre, fold upon fold of the indented hills and islands melting from the brightness of the sea into the untempered brilliance of the sky. At dawn and sunset the same rocks array themselves with a celestial robe of rainbow-woven hues: islands, sea, and mountains, far and near, burn with saffron, violet, and rose, with the tints of beryl and topaz, sapphire and almandine and amethyst, each in due order and at proper distances. The fabled dolphin in its death could not have showed a more brilliant succession of splendours waning into splendours through the whole chord of prismatic colours. This sensitiveness of the Attic limestone to every modification of the sky's light gives a peculiar spirituality to the landscape...

Seen from a distance, the Acropolis presents nearly the same appearance as it offered to Spartan guardsmen when they paced the ramparts of Deceleia. Nature around is unaltered. Except that more villages, enclosed with olivegroves and vineyards, were sprinkled over those bare hills in classic days, no essential change in the landscape has taken place, no transformation, for example, of equal magnitude with that which converted the Campagna of Rome from a plain of cities to a poisonous solitude. All through the centuries which divide us from the age of Hadrian-centuries unfilled, as far as Athens is concerned, with memorable deeds or national activity - the Acropolis has stood uncovered to the sun. The tones of the marble of Pentelicus have daily grown more golden; decay has here and there invaded frieze and capital; war too has done its work, shattering the Parthenon in 1687 by the explosion of a powder-magazine, and the Propylaea in 1656 by a similar accident, and seaming the colonnades that still remain with cannon-balls in 1827, Yet in spite of time and violence the Acropolis survives, a miracle of beauty: like an everlasting flower, through all that lapse of years, it has spread its coronal of marbles to the air, unheeded. And now, more than ever, its temples seem to be incorporate with the rock they crown. The slabs of column and basement have grown together by long pressure or molecular adhesion into a coherent whole. Nor have weeds or creeping ivy invaded the glittering fragments that strew the sacred hill. The sun's kiss alone has caused a change from white to amber-hued or russet. Meanwhile, the exquisite adaptation of Greek building to Greek landscape has been enhanced rather than impaired by that " unimaginable touch of time," which has broken the regularity of outline, softened the chisel-work of the sculptor, and confounded the painter's fretwork in one tint of glowing gold. The Parthenon, the Erechtheum, and the Propylaea have become one with the hill on which they cluster, as needful to the scenery around them as the everlasting mountains, as sympathetic as the rest of nature to the successions of morning and evening, which waken them to passionate life by the magic touch of colour...

In like manner, when moonlight, falling aslant upon the Propylaea, restores the marble masonry to its original whiteness, and the shattered heaps of ruined colonnades are veiled in shadow, and every form seems larger, grander, and more perfect than by day, it is well to sit on the lowest steps, and looking upwards, to remember what processions passed along this way bearing the sacred peplus to Athene. The Panathenaic pomp, which Pheidias and his pupils carved upon the friezes of the Parthenon, took place once in five years, on one of the last days of July. All the citizens joined in the honour paid to their patroness. Old men bearing olive branches, young men clothed in bronze, chapleted youths singing the praise of Pallas in prosodial hymns, maidens carrying holy vessels, aliens bending beneath the weight of urns, servants of the temple leading oxen crowned with fillets, troops of horsemen reining in impetuous steeds: all these pass before us in the frieze of Pheidias. But to our imagination must be left what he has refrained from sculpturing, the chariot formed like a ship, in which the most illustrious nobles of Athens sat, splendidly arrayed, beneath the crocuscoloured curtain or peplus outspread upon a mast. Some concealed machinery caused this car to move; but whether it passed through the Propylaea, and entered the Acropolis, admits of doubt. It is, however, certain that the procession which ascended those steep slabs, and before whom the vast gates of the Propylaea swang open with the clangour of resounding bronze, included not only the citizens of Athens and their attendant aliens, but also troops of cavalry and chariots; for the mark of chariotwheels can still be traced upon the rock. The ascent is so abrupt that this multitude moved but slowly. Splendid indeed, beyond any pomp of modern ceremonial, must have been the spectacle of the well-ordered procession, advancing through those giant colonnades to the sound of flutes and solemn chants-the shrill clear voices of boys an antiphonal chorus rising above the confused murmurs of such a crowd, the chafing of horses' hoofs upon the stone, and the lowing of bewildered oxen. To realise by fancy the many-coloured radiance of the temples, and the rich dresses of the votaries illuminated by that sharp light of a Greek sun, which defines outline and shadow and gives value to the faintest hue, would be impossible. All we can know for positive about the chromatic decoration of the Greeks is, that whiteness artificially subdued to the tone of ivory prevailed throughout the stonework of the buildings, while blue and red and green in distinct, yet interwoven patterns, added richness to the fretwork and the sculpture of pediment and frieze. The sacramental robes of the worshippers accorded doubtless with this harmony, wherein colour was subordinate to light, and light was toned to softness.

Musing thus upon the staircase of the Propylaea, we may say with truth that all our modern art is but child's play to that of the Greeks. Very soul-subduing is the gloom of a cathedral like the Milanese Duomo, when the incense rises in blue clouds athwart the bands of sunlight falling from the dome, and the crying of choirs upborne on the wings of organ music fills the whole vast space with a mystery of melody. Yet such ceremonial pomps as this are but as dreams and shapes of visions, when compared with the clearly defined splendours of a Greek procession through marble peristyles in open air beneath the sun and sky. That spectacle combined the harmonies of perfect human forms in movement with the divine shapes of statues, the radiance of carefully selected vestments with hues inwrought upon pure marble. The rhythms and melodies of the Doric mood were sympathetic to the proportions of the Doric colonnades. The grove of pillars through which the pageant passed grew from the living rock into shapes of beauty, fulfilling by inbreathed spirit of man Nature's blind yearning after absolute completion. The sun himself-not thwarted by artificial gloom, or tricked with alien colours of stained glass - was made to minister in all his strength to a pomp, the pride of which was a display of form in manifold magnificence. The ritual of the Greeks was the ritual of a race at one with Nature, glorying in its affiliation to the mighty mother of all life, and striving to add by human art the coping-stone and final touch to her achievement. THE CATHEDRAL OF ROUEN

THE approach to Rouen is indeed magnificent. I speak of the immediate approach; after you reach the top of a considerable rise, and are stopped by the barriers, you then look down a straight, broad, and strongly paved road, lined with a double row of trees on each side. As the foliage was not thickly set, we could discern, through the delicately clothed branches the tapering spire of the Cathedral and the more picturesque tower of the Abbaye St. Ouen -with hanging gardens and white houses to the left - covering a richly cultivated ridge of hills, which sink as it were into the Boulevards and which is called the Faubourg Cauchoise. To the right, through the trees, you see the river Seine (here of no despicable depth or breadth) covered with boats and vessels in motion: the voice of commerce and the stir of industry cheering and animating you as you approach the town. I was told that almost every vessel which I saw (some of them two hundred and even of three hundred tons burthen) was filled with brandy and wine. The lamps are suspended from the centre of long ropes, across the road; and the whole scene is of a truly novel and imposing character. But how shall I convey to you an idea of what I experienced, as, turning to the left, and leaving the broader streets which flank the quay, I began to enter the penetralia of this truly antiquated town? What narrow streets, what overhanging houses, what bizarre, capricious ornaments! What a mixture of modern with ancient art! What fragments, or rather what ruins of old delicately-built Gothic churches! What signs of former and of modern devastation! What fountains, gutters, groups of never-ceasing men, women and children, all occupied, and all apparently happy! The Rue de la Grosse Horloge (so called from a huge, clumsy, antiquated clock which goes across it) struck me as being not among the least singular streets of Rouen. In five minutes I was within the court-yard of the Hotel Vatel, the favourite residence of the English.

It was evening when I arrived in company with three Englishmen. We were soon saluted by the laquais de place -the leech-like hangers-on of every hotel -who begged to know if we would walk upon the Boulevards. We consented; turned to the right; and, gradually rising gained a considerable eminence. Again we turned to the right, walking upon a raised promenade; while the blossoms of the pear and apple trees, within a hundred walled gardens, perfumed the air with a delicious fragrance. As we continued our route along the Boulevard Beauvoisine, we gained one of the most interesting and commanding views imaginable of the city of Rouen -just at that moment lighted up by the golden rays of a glorious sun-set -which gave a breadth and a mellower tone to the shadows upon the Cathedral and the Abbey of Saint Ouen...

I have now made myself pretty well acquainted with the geography of Rouen. How shall I convey to you a summary, and yet a satisfactory description of it ? It cannot be done. You love old churches, old books, and relics of ancient art. These be my themes, therefore: so fancy yourself either strolling leisurely with me, arm in arm, in the streets- or sitting at my elbow. First for the Cathedral: -for what traveller of taste does not doff his bonnet to the Mother Church of the town through which he happens to be travelling-or in which he takes up a temporary abode? The west front, always the forte of the architect's skill, strikes you as you go down, or come up, the principal street - La Rue des Calmes, - which seems to bisect the town into two equal parts. A small open space (which, however has been miserably encroached upon by petty shops) called the Flower garden, is before this western front; so that it has some little breathing room in which to expand its beauties to the wondering eyes of the beholder. In my poor judgment, this western front has very few elevations comparable with it - including even those of Lincoln and York. The ornaments, especially upon three porches, between the two towers, are numerous, rich, and for the greater part entire: - in spite of the Calvinists, t the French Revolution, and time. Among the lower and smaller basso-relievos upon these porches is the subject of the daughter of Herodias dancing before Herod. She is maneuvering on her hands, her feet being upwards. To the right, the decapitation of Saint John is taking place. The southern transept makes amends for the defects of the northern. The space before it is devoted to a sort of vegetable market: curious old houses encircle this space: and the ascent to the door, but more especially the curiously sculptured porch itself, with the open spaces in the upper part - light, fanciful and striking to a degree - produce an effect as pleasing as it is extraordinary. Add to this the ever-restless feet of devotees, going in and coming out, the worn pavement, and the frittered ornaments, in consequence -seem to convince you that the ardour and activity of devotion is almost equal to that of business.

As you enter the Cathedral, at the centre door, by descending two steps, you are struck with the length and loftiness of the nave, and with the lightness of the gallery which runs along the upper part of it. Perhaps the nave is too narrow for its length. The lantern of the central large tower is beautifully light and striking. It is supported by four massive clustered pillars, about forty feet in circumference; but on casting your eye downwards, you are shocked at the tasteless division of the choir from the nave by what is called a Grecian screen: and the interior of the transepts has undergone a like preposterous restoration. The rose windows of the transepts, and that at the west end of the nave, merit your attention and commendation. I could not avoid noticing to the right, upon entrance, perhaps the oldest side chapel in the Cathedral: of a date, little less ancient than that of the northern tower, and perhaps of the end of the Twelfth Century. It contains by much the finest specimens of stained glass-of the early part of the Sixteenth Century. There is also some beautiful stained glass on each side of the Chapel of the Virgin, behind the choir; but although very ancient, it is the less interesting, as not being composed of groups, or of historical subjects. Yet, in this, as in almost all the churches which I have seen, frightful devastations have been made among the stained-glass windows by the fury of the Revolutionists...

As you approach the Chapel of the Virgin, you pass by an ancient monument, to the left, of a recumbent Bishop, reposing behind a thin pillar, within a pretty ornamented Gothic arch. To the eye of a tasteful antiquary this can not fail to have its due attraction. While, however, we are treading upon hallowed ground, rendered if possible more sacred by the ashes of the illustrious dead, let us move gently onwards towards the Chapel of the Virgin, behind the choir. See, what bold and brilliant monumental figures are yonder to the right of the altar! How gracefully they kneel and how devoutly they pray! They are the figures of the Cardinals D'Amboise-uncle and nephew: - the former minister of Louis XII. and (what does not necessarily follow, but what gives him as high a claim upon the gratitude of posterity) the restorer and beautifier of the glorious building in which you are contemplating his figure. This splendid monument is entirely of black and white marble, of the early part of the Sixteenth Century. The figures just mentioned are of white marble, kneeling upon cushions, beneath a rich canopy of Gothic fret-work...

The south-west tower remains, and the upper part of the central tower, with the whole of the lofty wooden spire: - the fruits of the liberality of the excellent men of whom such honourable mention has been made. Considering that this spire is very lofty, and composed of wood, it is surprising that it has not been destroyed by tempest or by lightning. The taste of it is rather capricious than beautiful...

Leaving the Cathedral, you pass a beautifully sculptured fountain (of the early time of Francis I.) which stands at the corner of a street, to the right; and which, from its central situation, is visited the live-long day for the sake of its limpid waters.



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