Decoration In Egypt And Greece
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The early history of art in all countries is naturally connected more closely with architecture than with decoration, for architecture had to be developed before the demand for decoration could come. But the two have much in common. Noble architecture calls for noble decoration. Decoration is one of the natural instincts of man, and from the earliest records of his existence we find him striving to give expression to it, we see it in the scratched pieces of bone and stone of the cave dwellers, in the designs of savage tribes, and in Druidical and Celtic remains, and in the great ruins of Yucatan. The meaning of these monuments may be lost to us, but we understand the spirit of trying to express the sense of beauty in the highest way possible, for it is the spirit which is still moving the world, and is the foundation of all worthy achievement.
Egypt and Assyria stand out against the almost impenetrable curtain of pre-historic days in all the majesty of their so-called civilization. Huge, massive, aloof from the world, their temples and tombs and ruins remain. Research has given us the key to their religion, so we understand much of the meaning of their wall-paintings and the buildings themselves. The belief of the Egyptian that life was a short passage and his house a mere stopping-place on the way to the tomb, which was to be his permanent dwelling-place, explains the great care and labor spent on the pyramids, chapels, and rock sepulchers. They embalmed the dead for all eternity and put statues and images in the tombs to keep the mummy company. Colossal figures of their gods and goddesses guarded the tombs and temples, and still remain looking out over the desert with their strange, inscrutable Egyptian eyes. The people had technical skill which has never been surpassed, but the great size of the pyramids and temples and sphinxes gives one the feeling of despotism rather than civilization; of mass and permanency and the wonder of man's achievement rather than beauty, but they personify the mystery and power of ancient Egypt.
The columns of the temples were massive, those of Karnak being seventy feet high, with capitals of lotus flowers and buds strictly conventionalized. The walls were covered with hieroglyphics and paintings. Perspective was never used, and figures were painted side view except for the eye and shoulder. In the tombs have been found many household belongings, beautiful gold and silver work, beside the offerings put there to appease the gods. Chairs have been found, which, humorous as it may sound, are certainly the ancestors of Empire chairs made thousands of years later. This is explained by the influence of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, but there is something hi common between the two times so far apart, of ambition and pride, of grandeur and colossal enterprise.
Greece may well be called the Mother of Beauty, for with the Greeks came the dawn of a higher civilization, a striving for harmony of line and proportion, an ideal clear, high and persistent. When the Dorians from the northern part of Greece built their simple, beautiful temples to their gods and goddesses they gave the impetus to the movement which brought forth the highest art the world has known. Traces of Egyptian influence are to be found in the earliest temples, but the Greeks soon rose to their own great heights. The Doric column was thick, about six diameters in height, fluted, growing smaller toward the top, with a simple capital, and supported the entablature. The horizontal lines of the architrave and cornice were more marked than the vertical lines of the columns. The portico with its row of columns supported the pediment. The Parthenon is the most perfect example of the Doric order, and shattered as it is by time and man it is still one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It was built in the time of Pericles, from about 460 to 435 B. c., and the work was superintended by Phidias, who did much of the work himself and left the mark of his genius on the whole.
The Ionic order of architecture was a, development of the Doric, but was lighter and more graceful. The columns were more slender and had a greater number of flutes and the capitals formed of scrolls or volutes were more ornamental.
The Corinthian order was more elaborate than the Ionic as the capitals were foliated (the acanthus being used), the columns higher, and the entablature more richly decorated. This order was copied by the Romans more than the other two as it suited their more florid taste. All the orders have the horizontal feeling in common (as Gothic architecture has the vertical), and the simple plan with its perfect harmony of proportion leaves no sense of lack of variety..
The perfection attained in architecture was also attained in sculpture, and we see the same aspiration toward the ideal, the same wonderful achievement. This purity of taste of the Greeks has formed a standard to which the world has returned again and again and whose influence will continue to be felt as long as the world lasts.
The minor arts were carried to the same state of perfection as their greater sisters, for the artists and artisans had the same noble ideal of beauty and the same unerring taste. We have carved gems and coins, and wonderful gold ornaments, painted and silver vases, and terra-cotta figurines, to show what a high point the household arts reached. No work of the great Grecian painters remains; Apelles, Zeuxis, are only names to us, but from the wall paintings at Pompeii where late Greek influence was strongly felt we can imagine how charming the decorations must have been. Egypt and Greece were the torch bearers of civilization.