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The First Great Transition - Classic

( Originally Published 1910 )



CENTURY after the death of Pericles and the beginning of Athen's artistic decline we see the Grecian Empire at its zenith of territorial and political glory under that amazing youth, Alexander the Great. His meteoric career is as fascinating and as far-reaching in its effects as the story of the Persian wars.

At the death of Alexander, in 323 B.C., he had conquered practically the entire middle country of the continent of Asia, penetrating to the borders of India on the east, and from the Caspian and Black seas south to the Persian Sea.

While this empire proved more than the ruling forces of Greece could control, it had a most marvellous educational result, in that it offered the mysterious culture and taste of this vast, intellectual, and artistic Garden of Eden to the Greeks, who were so soon to retire as a world power. And a most wonderful use they made of this knowledge.

You will notice that in conquering old countries the conqueror is frequently made captive by the arts and sciences of the conquered nation. So the Greek intellect, coming under the influence of the sensuous love of color in the architecture of the East, capitulated, and in turn they themselves came to dominate Roman culture.

We see Greece weakened under the persistent onslaughts of the Northern invaders and her revolting Macedonians; and Rome, lusty with growing power and her success in the Punic wars, first helping and then absorbing, until Greece, in Europe and in Asia, loses her political independence and becomes subject to this new power.

Rome's first taste of Greek culture came from the colonies, a fact that is distinctly perceptible to the student of her early architecture. The Romans seem to have liked, or to have needed, some such inspiration, for after they absorbed Greece we see as the next step the extraordinary spectacle of one great nation borrowing and adopting almost entire the arts and sciences of another. Rome became a nation of great culture, she built magnificently, and afterward declined, for exactly the same reasons as Greece, but in the arts she did little more than to deaden the keen aristocratic edge of Greek invention with her cheap slave labor, which was employed in the construction of the rough brick and rubble walls, faced with ashlar or surface stone or marble by a better class of artisans. They developed the various styles, using them in the form of arcades plastered on the face of the surface of the walls, one arcade above another, so that the orders which had been invented for structural reasons became only a form of applied ornamentation, exactly as it was to be used later during the Renaissance.

However, Rome played a most important part in the development of architecture, in that she paved the way for the evolving of that other great style, the Gothic. It is pertinent to say here that the Greek classic and the Gothic are the two transcendent architectural creations of the race. All other styles or forms are but the evolutionary adaptations or revivals of these two, as even their names indicate. These two styles loom high above the others, because they were inspired in periods of the loftiest and intensest idealism. The pagan Greek, with his overmastering pride of birth, his whole-hearted devotion to the ideal of physical perfection, his passion for poetic, musical, and intellectual expression, and the pride of race, created supremely well after his kind. The Christian Frank, with the same pride of race, in ecstatic rapture over his glorious new-found faith, builded according to his ideal, and his art will not be bettered until men's hearts are again supremely exalted by an ideal as his was.

Rome shows no such exaltation, and the architectural style called Roman is a hybrid development of borrowed Greek. Today it is ordinarily included with the original Greek in the general term of the Classic. The Romans did, however, increase the comforts of the domestic side of life by planning and building dwellings far in advance of anything known by the Greeks.

Lacking any compelling religious idealism, but strong in civic and personal pride, Rome did not build temples but great triumphal arches (notice that the Romans were not afraid of the arch which never slept), courts of law, circuses, and theatres—all, however, after Greek models, with local modifications. Her emperors were often men of extraordinary egotism, amounting to mania, which led them to deify themselves and demand the worship of their subjects. Being most generously endowed with human failings, it is quite easy to understand that they did not often inspire any great fervor of religious or political devotion.

The utterly reckless lavishness of these emperors, and the florid life of court and nobility, are reflected in the richness of architectural embellishment. Thus the Corinthian order, because of its great amount of ornament, had general preference over the other Grecian styles, while two new orders were developed, neither of which, however, shows any such originality as the parent forms.

One of these new forms is called the Tuscan, as it is supposed to be a legacy from the Etruscan predecessors of the Romans. It is, however, little more than a coarsened reproduction of the Doric. The Tuscan column has a base consisting of plinth (the square block which balances the abacus at the top), half-round molding, and fillet. Otherwise only an architect would think it other than Greek Doric without that order's subtle refinement.

The second is known as the Composite, an appropriate name, since it is a somewhat elaborated mixture of the Ionic and Corinthian. In brief, it consists of the enlargement of the four Corinthian volutes to about the proportions they reach in the Ionic.

The three Greek orders were all, of course, transplanted to Roman soil, but in each case they were so transformed and changed as to be quite distinguishable from the originals, and they are, in fact, generally called Roman Doric, Roman Ionic, and Roman Corinthian.

The Roman Empire had spread from Britain on the north to Africa, Persia, and Assyria on the south and east, and its very strength, as in the case of Greece, had become its weakness. Its decadence had begun when that greatest of all epoch-making events, the birth of Christ, occurred in Jerusalem.

During the first three centuries of the Christian era we find pagan Rome steadily declining, and the Christian faith steadily, unfalteringly spreading in spite of rabid persecution among the Romans, and bringing a new hope and a new spirit to the people.

The political significance of the teachings of Christ in those early days has sometimes been lost sight of. We had previously seen nations grow from the consolidation of tribes associated in war and self-defence, but that there might be a common basis of friendly interest among nations was almost undreamed of until the Nazarene promulgated his astonishing doctrine of the universal brotherhood of man and the universal fatherhood of a single Deity. The idea was almost overwhelmingly revolutionary, and it seems to have gathered the multiple currents and counter-currents of petty national ambition into a great and inspiring progressive movement in a manner almost magical. It did not change the northwestern course of trade and empire and culture, but, on the contrary, it became part of the movement, and brought to it a stimulus far beyond anything the world had known before, and a climax in architecture, the Gothic Cathedral, which the Greek Temple could not equal.

But I am anticipating. We still find the Christians under the ban of the Roman authorities, meeting in secret, a hidden leaven in the lump of Roman degeneracy, but waiting for the event that should make them an active power in the world, when Constantine was made Emperor in 323. To him must be given the credit of beginning a new epoch of world history.

Already, before Constantine became ruler of Rome, the Christian Church, despite the determined efforts of the state to suppress it, had grown into a wide-spread movement, with bishops in Antioch, Ephesus, Alexandria, Byzantium, and Rome, but without a dominating leader. While we observe this situation, however, we find the greater bishops absorbing the power, in an evolutionary tendency toward centralization, so that when Constantine finished his reign, there are but two, one in Rome and one in Byzantium or Constantinople, the first with power over all the Western Church, and the second the spiritual master of the East.

Now the Roman Empire was politically divided into East and West, and Constantine was master of the barbaric West; while Licinius, his brother-in-law, after his defeat of Maximinus, reigned over the East from rich Byzantium.

This did not please the militant and astute Constantine, who early determined to bring the entire empire under his own control. And this rapid increase of Christian sentiment was an obstacle to his ambition. It honey-combed the Army and the Court, and even entered the Emperor's household, for both Constantine's mother, Helena, and his wife, Fausta, accepted the new faith, and seem to have made efforts to secure his interest in it and friendship for it. Constantine, shrewd politician that he was, felt the lack of cohesion among his people because of the growth of Christianity under persecution, and realized that his plans for Eastern conquest must fail if he could not secure the popular support of both elements.

He decided upon a bold and clever stroke. Announcing to his army that he had a vision in which a cross---the Christian symbol—had appeared in the heavens, he made Christianity the official religion of the empire, and ordered that the symbol be added to the Roman coat of arms. His coup was a brilliant success. The Christians came out from their hiding-places in large numbers. It must have amazed even Constantine himself to see the strength of the new faith. He gave them the law courts, or basilicas, as places of worship, and then proceeded to occupy the ancient Greek country, with Byzantium as the capital, which yielded to him in A.D. 324.

Either the charms of the Eastern metropolis itself or its strategic position at the mouth of the Dardanelles, where it controlled trade and made an ideal base for the invasion of Asia, strongly attracted Constantine. He decided to make it his headquarters. He renamed it New Rome (but reestablished a new Greece), and began large building operations, sending back to Rome for all the movable treasures of the empire to adorn his new palaces in the city, which the people forthwith called Constantinople.

The half-Christian, half-Eastern civilization that developed from this event is one of the most richly colored in history. Picture this great trade centre as she sits there, in the very middle of the ancient world, one hand reaching into the pockets of the Far East, her back firmly set against the wandering, ravaging tribes of Huns, and her other hand reaching out over the West. Norman freebooters served in her armies, Eastern merchants assisted in her protection and shared with the Northern traders the luscious loot of Oriental trade and conquest, while all the time the lion's share was falling into the lap of the queenly city herself.

And with all this came the culture of the keen and subtle Eastern civilization to color with its mysticism and its richness of Oriental imagery the basic beauties of the Greek styles. For you must remember that for a thou-sand years, until another Constantine surrendered the city to the Turks, Constantinople remained Greek, in the neighborhood of the ancient Ionian cities.

The application of mosaics to wall space, the elaboration of the capitals, the enrichment of ornamental forms in floorings and fabrics, the lavish use of colored marbles, gold, and precious stones in the embellishment of the temples all these added to the arts of the Greeks in Constantinople, to become in later times a treasure-store of fresh inspiration for all Europe and the world. It was this period that gave us the style called Byzantine, which may be considered as the decadence of the pure Greek.

The ideal which inspired the development of this interesting product was Christianity. Under the protection of Constantine and his successors the new religion flourished exceedingly. It is interesting that as the architecture was warmed and colored by the Eastern influence, so Christianity itself was colored by Eastern philosophy and superstition. Thus we find the Eastern Christians adopting the Mohammedan prohibition against the making of images, a rule which was later to result in the separation of the Greek and Roman churches.

Just as we might expect, when the Greeks of Byzantium came to build their churches they turned to their Eastern neighbor, Assyria, for models. Throughout western Asia considerable progress had been made in the building of temples. We find the "barrel - vaulted" roof well developed, for instance, and, evolving out of this, the dome. Dome construction today, with our laws of strain and thrust all reduced to mathematical formulae, is largely a matter of pure engineering, albeit an interesting one. To those early experimenters, without traditions, rules, or modern mathematics, and with only bricks, tiles, or stones for materials, it must have been a supreme test of skill and daring. For that reason the first appearance of the dome, some time in this period, marks a most important step in constructional progress. Domes are found both in Rome and. in Constantinople almost simultaneously, but in Italy they were sparingly used at this early date, while in the East they became one of the characteristic features of the architecture.

The best known of all the Byzantine churches in Constantinople, and a superb example of early dome construction, is St. Sophia, built in the sixth century, about two hundred years after Constantine captured the city. St. Mark's, in Venice, is a later interpretation of St. Sophia. By. this time the Eastern builders had evolved the style recognized as Byzantine today, and St. Sophia is so beautiful and characteristic an ex-ample of it that I wish you to visit it in imagination with me and listen with what patience you can to a necessarily somewhat technical description of it. The value of this is that it will fix in our minds those dominant characteristics of the Byzantine that we shall meet with in our later peregrinations.

As we approach the church, its glittering golden domes and half-domes impress us from a distance. A nearer view shows that the church is almost square, and about two hundred and fifty feet long. Having newly come from the homes of classic architecture, we are surprised to find that the rows of columns have disappeared, though we are reassured when we find them inside, but considerably changed.

Within is a smaller square, the corners of which are massive piers supporting the saucer-shaped dome. The high triangular vaultings which drop from the base of the dome to the piers are called pendentives, and are interesting outgrowths of this new building method. Now look upward into the great multicolored ceiling for a study of the dome system. At the front and back of the central dome, but at a lower level, are the two great half-domes. On the sides are short barrel-vaults, extending to the side walls. The half-domes are each penetrated by three smaller half-domes, the central one at the front covering the entrance, and that at the rear the apse, or recess for the altar. The floor-plan is thus in the shape of a Greek or equal-armed cross, the side arms, which are under the barrel-vaults, taking the place of what in the Roman church later became the transept. These are separated from the nave by rows of columns which support a gallery for the women worshippers—another feature of the Greek church which shows the Eastern influence.

The walls we see gorgeously decorated with slabs of colored marble, and the insides of the domes are covered solidly with gold inlaid with richly wrought mosaics. The floors also are elaborately inlaid, and the columns and caps are of fine marbles. The church is lighted from above through small, round-arched apertures below the dome.

About this same time the ground-plan of the Greek cross is elsewhere developed much more plainly than in St. Sophia, each of the four arms of the cross being covered either with a separate small dome or with barrel-vaulting. There is usually on the front of Byzantine churches a one-story covered porch, similar to that used by the Romans in their domestic architecture.

Another type of dome which was developed in this period was somewhat flattened, or saucer-shaped, on the outside and hemispherical on the inside, and was raised by vertical walls above the intersection of the nave and transept, making the earliest model of what is known as the drum.

The entablature, which is the combination of architrave frieze and cornice of the Greeks, disappears in the Byzantine with the Greek capital. A new form better adapted to the support of an arch is introduced, the arch having taken the place of the entablature as a supporting member. The abacus, in this style, of necessity increases in size to adapt itself to the support of the arch, and it is richly decorated in combination with the capital, which develops considerably in ornament. Corinthian, Composite, and Ionic are intermingled and altered with great freedom.

Several designs are frequently used in a single structure. The acanthus leaf, which we found in the Corinthian, becomes more spiky with deep indentations below the points, a characteristic to be remembered in our later search for Byzantine forms.

If our theory of the Northwestward trend of the main current of civilization is a sound one, this backward movement from Rome to Byzantium would not prove of enduring greatness, and such is indeed the case. While the Byzantine architecture, returning Westward along the main line of progress through Italy, gave valuable color to later creation until it practically disappeared in the effulgence of the Gothic, it was obviously not an influence of fundamental importance to us. Its history in the East also confirms our hypothesis.

Byzantine is practically the only offshoot from the Greek classic architecture travelling toward the East and under its domination, with the Russian and Saracenic, or Moorish, as offshoots; Russia, because of religion, and trade affiliations, being under the religious control of the Greek Church, and the Moorish, because of geographical proximity and trade and race affiliations with both the East and South-east, and this central seaport.

When in the latter part of the seventh century the fanatic Mohammedans conquered Persia, Egypt, Africa, and Spain, this interpretation was carried by them to a high degree of peculiar characteristics of the geometric patterns, originally architectural skill. The style are the interlaced of Byzantine influence, the slender columns, which, coming both from the Greek and the East, are indications of the character of the people, light, graceful, delicate, with the later Byzantine cap overlaid with Moorish arabesque, or in imitation of the Corinthian, and the peculiar horse-shoe shape given to the arches and in the section of the domes.

The love of rich colorings in the mosaics of the later Greeks is the result of Eastern influence. These Moors or Arabs have the same fondness for highly colored geometrical patterns carried to such a degree that the word "arabesque" has been coined to describe them.

Developed at the same time, and along lines parallel to this marked offshoot, was the Russian architecture and ornament. While the interlaced and symbolic foliation of the Byzantine was colored by the Saracens in their own peculiar manner, we find in the North the same method of ornament, under the influence of the Mongolian and the Tatar, rich and gaudy and wonderfully expressive of this branch of the human race.

This type of ornament entered the North Country by way of the Danube, and the Norse and Scandinavian interlaced and symbolic arabesques were used long be-fore the march of progress brought a finished style into Europe by way of the Northwest from Rome.

This ornament was carried into England during the reign of Elizabeth by the Eastern traders who entered England by way of the Dnieper and Moscow from the central Asian countries. France, at that time being an unfriendly country, cut off the overland routes because of England's affiliation with the Teutonic religious rebels.

The onion-shaped termination of the towers of the religious architecture of the Russian is a Mongolian translation of the domes of the Asiatic people, of which a good example is shown in Agra. This influence stopped and had no further effect on the growth of the European styles, as it remained with the Greek Church in Russia, and with the Moors, an alien people, their interpretation had no bearing on the general growth.

Before I leave these two offshoots of styles I want again to call attention to the fact that this structural and decorative language is an expression of the people, common and natural, and easily read. When the special type of humanity changes because of climatic or trade conditions, the special expression will either disappear or modify it-self in accordance with the new conditions.

The Roman in Modern Architecture

In modern times Roman influence has affected the styles of the American colonies to a greater degree than has the Greek. In fact, most of the work of the real colonial architecture is distinctly Roman. If you remember, the Roman translations have a less classic refinement but more human feeling, and were thus more easily understood by the average man. For that reason our numerous variations in column, cornice, and other detail have been largely based on the Roman translation.

The best example of Roman architecture with us is the building of the Knickerbocker Trust Company, on Fifth Avenue at Thirty-fourth Street, New York. In this case McKim, Mead & White have reproduced a true example of Roman construction with piers and cornice, or perpendicular and horizontal support, giving opportunity for light between the columns, an opportunity that has been accentuated by the colored treatment of these intermediate spaces. The Church of the Madeleine, in Paris, built by Napoleon, is a beautiful example of a Roman temple . Both of these buildings are Corinthian, which was, you remember, the most lavishly decorated of the classic orders. The new Pennsylvania railroad station in New York is Roman, and is perhaps a supreme example of Roman Doric, with the peculiar warmth of the Roman, so distinct from the comparative coldness of the Greek.

Byzantine Architecture in America

Of this style there are few examples which might be called pure in their essence and form. While Doctor Parkhurst's church in Madison Square is rather more Roman than Byzantine, it is an interesting composite of the two. The rich decorations in the treatment of brick and the color decorations of the interior are very strongly Byzantine. There is a most interesting example in the Unitarian Church on Fourth Avenue at Twentieth Street, New York, of an Englishman's translation of the Byzantine, which also includes a touch of the Saracenic and something of the Victorian Gothic. The stripe decoration in the brickwork of this church is somewhat Saracenic, and was used during the period preceding the fifteenth-century Renaissance in Italy in the church at Siena, of which an illustration is shown. We have called it Pointed Byzantine. The lettering on this New York church is in English Gothic, and the treatment of the capitals show a slight Norman influence. It is thus evident that the architect was trained in England, probably lived there, and, as is true of every architect, knowledge of other forms and the essence of other styles forced themselves on him in spite of every effort on his part to develop a pure style.

Saracenic Architecture in America

This style, which we also call Moorish, has in modern times been used almost exclusively for Jewish synagogues. The illustration of the Temple Emanuel on Fifth Ave., New York, will illustrate this form. One might also cite the interior of the Casino Theatre in New York as the sort of thing we do in the name of the ancient Saracens.

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