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Ceilings Of The Ancients

( Originally Published 1920 )

SUCH knowledge as we possess of ancient Egyptian architecture relates chiefly to the temples and palaces. Flat stone slabs covered these buildings, vaulting apparently being reserved for narrow passages and occasionally some inner cell-like chamber. The interior surfaces of the stone structures, walls and ceilings, were frequently rendered smooth with a coating of plaster. Colour schemes were handled with great boldness, both on the flat and on the low and high relief carvings. A most interesting procedure was adopted. The whole surface to be decorated was divided up by lines drawn at right angles, thus presenting the appearance of "squared " paper. With this assistance the drawing was outlined in red chalk. Another artist went over the whole with black paint, improving the drawing as he went along. Then came the sculptor who carved out the design, and finally, the painter, who, with his brushes and trained eye, gave life to the whole. The corroding influence of time which reveals many secrets, has betrayed the methods of these cunning men of past ages. We see how the work was improved step by step. Even the carvers' completed efforts were subject to destructive criticism on the part of the master painter. Limbs of figures, details of pictures finished in alto-rilievo, have in many instances been chipped away ; new attitudes, altered combinations, being produced by the simple process of model-ling a lump of stucco in situ.

Ceiling decoration, however, was mostly on the flat, but a combination of methods was used when the favourite scheme of carving the ceiling to symbolise the blue sky spangled with yellow stars was adopted. Additional symbolism was introduced when the signs of the zodiac were grouped about a central rosette, or placed as a border round the chamber. Among other symbols was that poetic rendering of the sun's daily flight cross the heavens, the winged disc. This reversal of a diurnal miracle has arrested the attention of all races, who have endeavoured to give pictorial expression to the phenomena in many ways. The Egyptians and Semitic people gave the sun wings. In far Asia it took the form of a wheel, or more mystically the cramponed cross. Another form of this is the familiar three bent naked legs of Sicily, conjoined by a central sun in splendour or a plain disc, which was brought by the Norman conquerors of the Mediterranean isle to Mona in the form of three conjoined and bent armoured legs. The Greeks and Roman picture Phoeton driving his chariot drawn by milk-white steeds across the sky and setting the heavens aflame. All of these have become common property among many ceiling decorators.

That other Egyptian sun symbol, the open-winged vulture (replaced by the eagle in the East, Greece, and Rome), was often seen on ceilings, holding in its paw either a key of life—the andk, or tau tipped by a ring or a great plumed quill suggesting the soul's journey to the under-world. Lotus and papyrus buds and blooms were used as central rosettes or as borders just above the cornice, the colours being green and white, picked out with red and yellow. Speaking generally, Egyptian ceiling decorations partook largely of the geometrical ; intricate combinations of curves and straight lines. There is much that is interesting about these, because in many of them we can trace a conventionalised pattern of reed matting (arrangements of yellow, white, red and green thin stripes), which in the far away past had formed an important part of the builders' materials. In the interwoven patterns we find the web and woof of the papyrus and lotus stems, though these designs were elaborated to represent those interminable knots belonging to the concealed part of religion, and symbolising those " Words of Power " known only to the inner circle of the initiate. With the mat and knot patterns are associated those conventionalised symbols of water, the wavy line, the chevron or broken line, and the whirlpool, or three lines starting from a central point and circling outwards to give the effect of gyration. Often the latter symbol was drawn in endless series, the tails of one ornament joining others, to form another point of departure, so that the whole surface presented a mass of involuted figures, conveying an accurate notion of a turbulent, eddying flood.

Colour, as we have said, was employed boldly, the schemes being based on the laws of contrast. We see patterns traced in black on red or buff, white on black or buff. But vivid effects were obtained by the daring juxtaposition of blacks, bright reds, blues and greens, yellow being brought in as a harmonising medium, as well as a means to throw into apparent relief a pattern traced in other colours.

Of the Babylonians and Assyrians we know that they affected rather long, narrow rooms, with vaulted ceilings, though the dome was also employed and the cupola not infrequent. The walls were immensely thick, built of comparatively small sun-baked or kilned bricks. These walls were often thicker at the base than at the top, having an outward slope. The roofs were generally rectangular, concealing internal vaultings.

A form of stucco covered both walls and ceilings, which were decorated with vivid colouring. Their flora was of the radiating description, branches reaching out from a central stem, like an espalier fruit tree ; they represented the pomegranate thus: We also owe to them the palmated fan-shaped ornament consisting of central leaves or club leaf with similar leaves spreading out right and left. It was a favourite with the Greeks. The Assyrians. also used pine cones freely as a motive in decoration, these being connected with tree worship.

A peculiarity of the structural design was that, although the doors were tall and wide, windows were unknown. It would appear that light and air were admitted high up in the lofty ceiling by means of cylindrical brick tubes, placed in the thickness of the building at such an angle as to exclude all direct sunrays, while allowing shafts of light to penetrate into the interiors. It is a device utilised in a modified form by the Greeks and Romans.

It is noteworthy that colour, even vivid contrasts of primary colours, has always been not merely a decorative, but an essential part of the best periods of architecture in sun-bathed latitudes, the idea that white, or monochrome, would be more grateful to the eye and give an appearance of coolness not entering into the philosophy of builders or the mass of the people. The truth is, of course, that the builder's first anxiety under such conditions has ever been to keep out the sunrays and tone down all glare. This end was attained by adopting such means as were resorted to by the Assyrians ; by placing small windows deep set in thick walls high up in rooms, screened by such devices as the Mauresque mushrabayah traceried woodwork ; by having great blank walls, as in the characteristic Spanish cathedrals, with their sombre mysterious feeling, the richness of carving, colouring and gilding being visible in glimpses, illumined by thin shafts of light from the rare deep-coloured windows ; or by the methods used by the Greeks in the construction of their temples. With these precautions it was both possible and desirable to give free scope to the healthy love for brightness and natural mingling of colours by adorning walls and ceilings with the purest pigments, because such a system assisted in producing fine illuminating effects with the feeblest admission of light from outside. We find this state of affairs prevailing all over Southern Europe, in Asia and countries overrun by the Arabs.

In prehistoric times the dwellings of the Greeks were circular, having a framework of wood or stone filled in with rushes daubed over with mud. Probably the roofs were 6f the pointed and fiat-domed types.

Coming down to historic times we find that the roofs of their temples were mostly flat, or nearly so. In the most simple form, the single cell temple, the oldest example of which we have records being that on Mount-Ocha in the Island of Euboea, the roof consisted of large thin slabs of stone, each slab projecting beyond the course below, till they met at the ridge. Light and air were admitted through a long narrow slit in the roof, the hypæthral opening. In later periods the roofs were sometimes formed by timber rafters sup-porting baked clay tiles, the ceilings consisting of boards either painted or covered with stucco or encaustic tiles. But slabs of stone and marble continued as the favourite materials, being most care-fully dressed so as to form perfectly weather-tight joints. Simpson says the ceilings of the exterior ambulatories were of marble. This was usually so as regards the peristyle, and certainly in some in-stances as regards the pronaos and the posticum. The great slabs of stone or marble were placed under the roof, and were decorated with deeply sunk coffers, called lacunari from lacus, a lake. They were cut in the solid, and though of great decorative value undoubtedly represented those pit-like spaces naturally formed when a network of roof timbers were left bare. These lacunaria were enriched with delicate mouldings on their edges, and painted designs filled the centres. As regards the inner parts of the temple, two methods seem to have prevailed. Sometimes the under side of the roof was ex-posed, both the supporting woodwork and stone slabs being painted and gilt, often with elaborate designs. Many marble tiles have been discovered with their under sides painted with ornaments. At Tyrius fragments of alabaster frieze not only bore delicately carved designs of rosettes and spirals, but were studded with bits of blue glass or paste, giving a charming jewelled effect. Other pieces of this kind have been found at Mycenæ and elsewhere. Flat ceilings of wood and of stone tiles were also used, all visible parts were painted and gilt. Vitruvius speaks of roof panels painted blue by the wax encaustic process. Red and blue were the prevailing colours, with gold employed to mark out designs and to harmonise the whole. But black on red or buff, as well as red and black on white, also came within the colour schemes, and, as we have seen, glass was introduced to heighten effects. The de-signs included rosettes, floreated scrolls developed in moderate lines, and wonder-fully intricate traceries of narrow bands. The innate love of the Greeks for the beautiful is revealed in the graceful treatment of these lines.

What an astonishing variety of forms the fret as developed by them bestows on us. No wonder that they have been accorded the freedom of the universal treasure-house of decoration. Consider the fret in its simplest form, with its continuous horizontal and vertical lines shaping into crenelations, or with these lines inclining inwards producing those wedge-like figures forming the broken batoon ; or, again, that other modification, where the right vertical line is bent in-wards, so that we have the tooth of the upper part of the letter E, this insignificant change giving us the dignity of the Greek key pattern. How well those can be blended, superimposed one upon an-other, until we obtain the endless variations of the meander. Germane to these, yet how different is the guilloche, with three loosely plaited withies, so effective when placed between the two pairs of horizontal lines, each pair enclosing its rows of pellets, olives or billets. Thoroughly characteristic of Greek methods was the treatment of those universal graphs of water, the wave and undulated lines and the chevron. With them the usual joined sloping S's were given an elaborately voluted form, and often foam was represented by a backward sweep from the crest, which developed into a dentated leaf with voluted tip. The undulated lines with its continuous series of flat domes and depressions of equal depth underwent many variations, while the chevron was usually doubled and given a sculptural finish, blending well with its architectural surroundings, as its esoteric meaning became obscured. All these were utilised as beautiful frames, delighting the eye on ceilings and walls, full advantage being taken of their flexibility and fluid nature. Thus by their help and the judicious combination and well thought out modifications of horizontal and vertical proportions, the length, breadth or height of a room could be accentuated or visually rectified. With these wavy and broken lines the artist may train the sight, occupying and pleasing the eye without fatiguing it.

In the domus, ceilings were commonly of the semi-circular vault or " barrel " type. The extrados, or hollow space above, was filled in with concrete to form the roof or a floor above. This appears to be the old, persisting form, but there was a special reason for the roof being flat and protected by a parapet, because it was used as a solarium, where the enervated citizen exposed his skin to the revivifying sunrays.

Flat ceiling's, however, were seen in ordinary houses, and at all events in the more public rooms. Considerable luxury was displayed in decorating surfaces, coffers and panels forming part of the scheme of design, in the carrying out of which not only painting, but ivory, ebony, precious marbles and even gilt bronze plates were used. Plato refers to painted ceilings, though the general spread of such lavishness came after his days.

Even amidst the triumphs and luxuries of the Empire, Rome kept alive memories of her primitive simplicity and humble origin, for on the Palatine Hill were kept standing the casa Romuli, small straw-thatched wattle and daub huts. Although in private houses flat ceilings of wood, stone-or brick, generally covered with stucco, were common enough, the semi-circular vault preserved old traditions. In many of the larger chambers, where the greater part of the surface was flat, the sides were concave,_ producing the coved ceiling.

As regards their temples, the architecture was derived from the Etruscans, the earlier examples being of wood, with steep roofs, ornamented with painted terra-cotta, while cornices and ceilings soon became loaded with sculpture. Later, both in temples and public buildings generally, the dome, either circular or octagonal, became the prevailing feature, while long and square chambers were more or less deeply vaulted. It is to be noted that the cupola, that inner lining forming the ceiling, often differed both in size and character from the outer covering or dome proper. This is, of course, the principle of what we now strictly call ceiling. In Rome the principle was also applied to painted walls. We have seen that the first temples were built of wood, and a reminiscence of this remained with the Roman builders to the end. A large percentage of ceilings, whether of wood, brick or stone, bare or stuccoed, flat or vaulted, were divided up into rows of deeply sunk panels, the lacunaria or coffered type, which had also been developed in Greece from the same starting point. These lakelets were richly decorated, both on the bevelled sides and the centres. Quite at an early_ period the mud lining was replaced by a splendid plaster in which powdered marble was the principal base.

This stucco dried with a brilliantly polished white surface, and became as hard and durable as stone. Fine specimens of it have come down to our days. Three methods of painting were adopted. The water-colour frescoes gave a beautifully soft effect, but inasmuch as brilliance and depth had to be secured by repeated applications of washes as the colour sank in the damp plaster, the speedier and more sure way of obtaining richness associated with tempera, where the glue used as a medium enabled gradations of tints to be secured without opaqueness, came into general use. Even sharper and richer results were obtained with the encaustic method of mixing the dry pigments in melted wax, and applying them hot to the half-set plaster. In any case a considerable depth of the stucco was permanently stained, while the very nature of the material provided a light-reflecting surface, giving brilliancy and transparency to the finished pictures. But Roman artists were not content with dipping their brushes in gorgeous pigments or applying resplendent gold. They enriched their ceilings with decorated tiles and slabs of variegated marbles. Wooden ceilings were inlaid with ivory and ebony both for the sake of display and the effective contrast of the satin-surfaced white and black materials. Horace, as evidence of his modesty, declared that his house had no walls adorned with ivory ; on the other hand, Pliny writes of ceilings decorated with bronze plates. Varro recommends the painting of ceilings in imitation of the sky, with a movable centre star of metal, its index rays passing over a radius to indicate the direction of the wind and the passing hours. No doubt the winds could easily be indicated by the star being controlled by an outside vane, but in order to mark the passing of time from sunrise to sunset we must suppose a hypæthral opening, by which a thin shaft of light could travel over the radius.

Central decorations were among the early canons of the decorator's art, very commonly taking the form of a rose or of an elaborate palmated boss, such as still oppress us, and evidently a survival of the days when a bunch of straw marked the highest point of conically thatched cottages, or the ornamental fringe surrounding a tent pole. As regards Varro's reference to mechanical devices, we find the Abbé Montfaucon stating that : " The ceilings of ancient palatial buildings were covered with ivory plates, which moved and turned round in such a manner that at intervals they could make the ceilings rain flowers and perfumes," a contrivance highly suggestive of some exotic custom brought back by Imperial generals from their eastern conquests, or perhaps introduced by way of Greece from those undated eruptions of Asiatic influences, symbolised in poetry and art by the triumphal progress and campaigning of Bacchus in far-off lands. Mosaics, composed of cubes and other regular figures or irregular fragments of marbles, were largely used for decorating the ceilings and vaults of houses, temples and baths, but the use of small encaustic tiles and glass for this kind of work did not find favour in Roman practice until the Byzantine Greeks brought them in the sixth century.

Pliny in his description of the Golden House of Nero is responsible for the statement that the Emperor built it of a clear stone, found in Cappadocia, which was so transparent that in-the daytime those who were within saw the light when the doors were closed, though there was no passage left for the light, and, therefore, the stone, from its brightness, was called phengites, from phengos, brightness. Montfaucon supports Pliny in this, saying : " At Florence in the Church of St Minias, there are windows with alabaster tablets in them instead of glass, each of them covering one window though they are about 15 feet high, and yet the church is light." The notion that the ancients used trans-parent stones for roofing their temples has been seriously advanced as one way out of the difficulty of explaining how the windowless interiors were lighted. Probably the truth is that the hypæthral openings were so cunningly contrived, that the thin shafts of light striking on the glistening, semi-transparent stone, or glass-like stucco, produced an effulgence inducing the illusion that the light actually shone through the roofing material, The theory that the transparency of thin sheets of marble or alabaster was utilised for transmission of light, however, is absolutely contradicted by what we know of the methods adopted in decorating interiors of all kinds.

All art is the result of many influences ; Roman art was peculiarly the product of outside forces acting on robust natures. The Etruscan wave received fresh volume from the East, ultimately to be smoothed down, by the great, calm flood of Grecian sense of beauty. But the Roman made whatever he borrowed his own. He was Imperial, self assertive, aimant un peu le tapage, and not a little vulgar. Decoration,. which with the Etruscans and Greeks was kept within bounds, in Latium became a positive obsession. Blank spaces were held in horror, and were plastered over with a luxuriance that often became a riot. It has been said that under the Empire the " ceiling appeared like an Italian garden suspended overhead, roses and flowers combined with masks, shells, cornucopias, eagles, grotesques and scrolls." As a matter of fact, not only was the whole universe called in to minister to the Roman's love of display, not only did he ransack heaven and earth, the sea and all that is therein, he "plumbed the most secret recesses of the imagination afire with a vastly enveloping, cosmopolitan cosmogony in order to enrich his treasury of decorative motives. His fertile fancy produced wonderful results, often overwhelming in the mass, though very near the sublime in many details. If in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the records of those wonders which adorned the Domus Aurea, and the baths of Diocletian, we find floral scrolls blossoming out into human heads, twisting about weirdly until they merge into birds and beasts ; if brutish and vegetal men hob-nob with humanised animals, all endowed with an impishness that places them in a different category to the calmly unreal symbolism of Egypt, we are also con-fronted with the very real beauties of the geometrical work and its accompaniment of rope and ribbon tracery, and the restrained translation of flowers and leaves into purely decorative forms.

Egyptian Architecture-Ceilings
Ceilings-Roman Architecture - Rectangular Temples
Ceiling panels - Natural History Museum


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