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The Byzantine And The Mauresque

( Originally Published 1920 )

IT is curious to see how Byzantine art arose. Naturally enough Byzantium, a colony on the confines of Europe and Asia, and the very gateway of a great East and West route, successively in the hands of the Megarians, Medes, Athenians, Spartans, Macedonians, and Romans, presenting a hot-bed for a composite art. But when Constantine rebuilt sacked and devastated Byzantium, dedicating a new city on a Christian basis, it was essentially Latin in architecture and art. Even when Theodosius divided the Empire in A.D. 395, and made Byantium the seat of the Eastern half, public and domestic buildings were of the Roman type. How-ever, the profound disturbance caused by the acceptance of Christianity, the constant influx of Asiatics, gradually had its influence. And so we see, chiefly by means of ancient illuminated manuscripts, how the composite gradually crystalised.

Byzantine architecture combined elements of the Greek, Roman and Asiatic are, united, we may justly say transmogrified by Christian sentiment. The result was a strongly virile style, possessing striking beauties and capable of influencing widely different races, moulding much of the structural work and more of the decoration of medieval Europe, and in turn producing that prolific source of fine performance and fertile inspiration, the Arabesque or Mauresque. It was a style of smooth, rounded surfaces. Of classic achievement the Roman rounded arch was retained, but the entablature discarded; circular rather than flat cupolas became prominent features. We feel that we are witnessing the Eastern mind working its will on Latin thought.

This applies equally to details, notably so as to decoration. With flat timbered roofs and stuccoed coved or barrel vaults replaced by rounded vaults, pendentives reaching low down, a broad intrados marking each arch, flat ceilings and other smooth spaces presenting themslves to the eye, and little or no carving, there yet existed a lively desire for ornament and a keen appreciation of its fitting application.

A gorgeous ritual and a riotous display of brilliant colours in nature fostered a love for polychromatic decoration, both painting and incrustation of the flat and rounded surfaces with marbles and vitrified substances being used. Of the pomp and splendour of mosaic art we speak elsewhere. But we may remark that the fullest use was made of the brilliance both in tints and in scintillating effects of polished marbles and lustrous glass. These embellishments were applied to the surface as an enrichment both inside and out of an otherwise plain structure. Some-times the decorations 'appear in a mass covering extensive vaulted ceilings, in other cases we find the use Of mere bands or panels : a series of ovals in the cupola, a shimmering glory of floral tracery or geometrical patterns on the broad under surfaces of arches, or thin bands emphasise their outlines, Or are carried from end to end of an edifice, while long or square panels are placed over windows and doorways. Even columns bear polychrome bands, placed vertically or rising in graceful spirals. It is the art of inlaying carried out with a studied regard to effect, combined was this judicious admission of light through small apertures placed high up, the slanting beams gradually revealing half-concealed beauties, which gives a gorgeousness and mystery quite indescribable. The designs, floral and geometrical, are carried out in bright primary and secondary colours, with an unsparing use of gold. Floral forms are built up of little cubes, but are often given a flowing, involved outline. Indeed, the Byzantines retained a great liking for the Greek flowing lines, though their flat scroll and ribbon work reminds us more of the Egyptian and Celtic traceries, but flattened out as we afterwards see it in the plaster strap-work of the Tudor period.

The religious feeling was against the employment of the human figure for purely decorative accessories, and even birds and beasts and fishes are rarely introduced except as prominent symbols.

On the other hand, pictures were an integral part of the decorative scheme, and are seen as great panels and small medallions.

The drawing both of figures and floral ornaments is usually exceedingly crude if close scrutiny is attempted, but most effective when viewed from a distance, as the artists intended they should be. It is surface treatment, with little attempt at perspective, and none of foreshortening, yet the vividly coloured figures, though so flat and angular, seem to stand out with startling realism from a shimmering background of broken-up gold. We must not, however, fall into the error of thinking that Byzantine art ceased to exist as a living force in 1204, the very definite date given by makers of reference books. It exerted its influence long after that in Central Europe, is to-day a very real source of power and beauty wherever the Greek Church has sway, witness the Balkan States and Holy Russia. The old MSS. already mentioned show that the style of domestic ornamentation differed not at all from that in the churches. And so it is today. The Imperial apartments in the Kremlin at Moscow, with its low vaulted ceilings and deep spandrels, are decorated with pictures of Emperors having all the devotional feeling, the processional grouping of saints in the churches. Some of the churches are as thickly encrusted with scrolls and miniatures as the best work in Italian sacred buildings, and the flowing floral painting covering the whole surface, though more open in design, differs little from that to be seen in cathedrals.

Mauresque or Saracenic decorative art is of importance as imposing itself on the Mohammedan world, with a by no means slight reflex action on both European and Eastern practice. It is said to have been derived from the Byzantine, being a surface style built up of fragments, prisms replacing the small cubes of the artists in mosaic. It is founded on three elements : geometry, flora and script. At its purest even floral forms are subject to the influence of religious feeling and are conventionalised almost out of recognition, in obedience to the law that created things should not be represented. Exceptions to this rule are found, usually as the result of local influence, for instance, the universal Mohammedan star and crescent moon, which the Turks took from the Byzantines, who had derived them from the Magi of Babylonia and Persia ; the eagles and hawks of certain Arab tribes ; and the interlaced serpents seen on the archi-vaults of the fortress palace at Aleppo, all suggestive of sun worship ; the peacock of Persia ; the open hand with key in palm and the lions of the Spanish Moors.

The Alhambra, besides giving us examples of the open hand and lions, also furnishes us with two very remarkable pictorial ceilings in the Hall of justice. There are three large panels representing three crowded groups of people and animals. In the first we see the learned men sitting in a Court of Justice ; the second gives us a hunting scene in two sections, one showing Moors and the other Christians the third, battle scenes, in which both Moors and Christians are depicted, the former being, in the main, victors. These pictures were first drawn in outline with bright colours, then filled in with vivid flat tints, without shadows, and are painted on skins of animals, covered with a fine coat of gypsum. The backgrounds are golden, and the ornaments round the paintings, stars, scrolls, and so on, are in relief and gilt. These are, however, exceptions ; and it is the prohibitory sentiment which deprived the designs of all aid from pictorial effects and drove them back on geometry, a science that had been studied of old by the religious soothsayer and the builder. Speaking broadly, Mauresque decorative art is an art of the surface. The architectural forms are mainly flat and rounded, though we have vaulting and the peculiar pointed, incurved arch, a combination of the horseshoe and the ogee, and, again, the multifoil arch, composed of a series of half-moons.

Three methods of applying decoration are adopted, painting on the flat, incrusting design in mosaic, and building up design on the flat surfaces with cubes, so that they project. In painting on the flat and mosaic (the two are often combined) geometrical forms : triangles, rectangles, ovals and their component parts are used, together with involved line tracery, some few simple floral motives and script. Very effective results are obtained with long bands of Arabic script, or elaborate mono-grams and short sentences placed in panels. With purely African designs single blossoms, star shapes and the single rose type are seen, but going eastward as Asiatic influence predominates, foliage, though conventionalised is more elaborate, and is seen to flow from a single stem. However complicated the design, the twining tendrils can be traced back to the stem. This is characteristic of the tree symbols of Assyria and the Semitic people, the many branched tree of life, seen in the quaint palmated forms of Egypt and Babylonia, the seven-branched candlestick of the Jews, the genealogical tree of Jesse and the vine of Christianity. Much of the mosaic work is very beautiful, as we shall see later on.

Most striking and original, however, is the built-up method, whereby great charm and endless variety are obtained by very simple means, although the round and oval forms and flowing tracery have necessarily to be discarded. Prisms of plaster are to the Mauresque decorator what wood is to the carvers stone to the sculptor, and plaster to the modeller, a medium for giving expression to thought. These prisms are square or long rectangular cubes, right angles and isosceles triangles, the latter also being doubled. It will be readily understood that by using these as a child uses a box of bricks, with an addition of an adhesive substance, an endless diversity of designs can be obtained, for one piece may be combined with any other piece by any one of its sides. As Owen Jones says, the system enables combinations to be made " as various as the melodies which may be produced from the seven notes of the musical scale. With these stalactite plaster bricks they formed cornices, arches, domes and pendants with the greatest facility." Another available resource is the niche, chiefly of service in building up domes and vaulted ceilings, where we see a succession of deep depressions, like the sections of a series of hollow rounded cones. It is said that this built-up method originated in the Byzantine mosaics, the cubes of which gave the first idea of strongly projecting incrustations. Be that as it may, it is curious to find the rough stalactite used by Mauresque decorators, while many of the predominating forms are strangely suggestive of local models ; for instance, the palm tree with its geometrical scars left by fallen leaves and its built-up bunch of dates, and its crown of drooping fronds, forming a natural canopy ; the vine also with built-up inverted pyramid of grapes, just as the vivid dabs of red and yellow in a mass of blue or green suggest those gorgeous waxen blooms of the oleander, the cacti and fleshy leaved creepers peculiar to the sun-scorched plains and unhospitable rocky regions.

It is remarkable, too, that the strong pure colours (tertiaries are but sparingly mingled in the artist's palette) are employed on a principle conformable to nature's own teaching. We have the primaries above, the secondaries below, and so we gain an impression of fairy airiness, although we are dealing with an agglomeration of angular solids. A Mauresque interior, therefore, even when the sunrays are largely excluded, remains light, and its beauties are revealed by flashes from a thousand reduplicated facets pleasingly outlined, brilliantly hued. The completed whole differs vastly in feeling and effect from the sombreness of the Romanesque as we see it in the gemmed but dark Spanish churches, from the solemnity of the Gothic in its sublime aspirations, the mystery of the Byzantine with its solidity and half-concealed enrichments.

No less an authority than Violet le Duc, speaking of the geometrical foundation of Arabic decorative art, says that while it is self-contained and complete, it is devoid of natural symbolism or expression of an ideal ; the inspiration is abstract and the execution devoid of plasticity. Surely an astounding judgment when we remember the glories of the Alhambra, of certain splendid buildings on the northern littoral of Africa, of the best work in Constantinople, and much of that in Persia. With all its rigid formality it gives a wide range of expression, in which natural symbolism has a real influence. Though the medium be solid prisms and concave blocks, the plasticity is marvellously achieved, as is demonstrated not so much in the varied outlines of arches, but in endless changes in corbelling ; in the flat domed and irregular outlined ceilings ; one mass of pendants differing as widely in form and proportion as anything in nature can do. That the Mauresque decorative style has living elements in it is proved by its pliability, its adaptability to local needs as it conquers new regions and races, without losing its fundamental peculiarities. We must al-ways remember, too, in speaking of Mauresque decorative art that it consists of three elements : colour applied to flat surfaces, flat incrustation, and the built-up projection incrustation, any two of which, or all three, may be combined.

Wyatt cites the dome of the tomb of Selim I., at Constantinople, as the most perfect example of the Turkish phase of Mauresque. There are great white curves, foliated to some degree, combined with knots, picked out with black on a red back-ground, the whole design being unified by the great central star of sixteen points formed by a series of triangles. Contrast this simplicity with the great mosque at Cordova, with its low-vaulted ceiling, its crescent arches of red and white bands, supported by 85o columns, all alike in general form, but differing in detailed ornamentation, colour, and material. It is a forest of red, purple, green, and white columns arched over in all directions, an ordered maze, in which one hardly knows whether to admire most, the entrancing chromatic scheme or the impression conveyed of endless vistas, turn whithersoever you may. Before this gem was ruthlessly dealt with by his vandalic majesty, Charles V., all these vistas converged on the Mihrab, which was one mass of gorgeous arabesques. At the Alhambra, again, we wander from one wonder to an-other. Consider the Court of Lions, with its ranges of slim columns, placed singly, or in sets of two and three, their decorated capitals supporting tall, narrow arches, merging into a mass of scalloped beauty of red and gold, with occasional tints of blue and green, so suggestive of an African orchard ablaze with blooms and luscious fruits; while in the Hall of the Abencerrages our vision is lost aloft in splendid groups of pendant stalactites which cover every inch of space. In the Hall of the Two Sisters no less than 5,000 plaster cubes, projecting considerably and merely backed by a few reeds, enter into the elaborate composition of the ceiling. At Toledo we have the: white colonnade in Santa Maria la Blanca, with its three rows of heavy octagonal white columns, blue incrusted bases, intricately voluted gold capitals supporting white horseshoe arches, and above a mass of gold tracery on blue. Pascal Coste describes the Mosque of Meshjed-i-Shah, Ispahan (built towards the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth), where the enormous building, with its vaulted ceilings and cupolas, is one mass of decoration, partly flat and partly projecting incrustations. The predominating colours are turquoise blue and lapis 'lazuli. The whole surface is covered with small glazed bricks, either self coloured or ornamented with delicate tracery. With these bricks very complicated designs are worked out. Though the general colouring is a blend of blues, whites, pale green, bright red and buff are also used but sparingly, the reds especially appearing in thin broken lines or little dots like a flame-coloured star in a blue firmament, or a glaring flower amidst green foliage. Buff is rather unexpectedly used in masses, occasionally in the sides of cupolas. Although blue is again the prevailing colour, a very different effect is realise at Pavilion of the Eight Doors of Paradise which Fetteh Ali Shah built for his eight favourites at Ispahan (latter part of the eighteenth century). Here the tall octagonal cupola, with its eight great arches is built up, tier upon tier, with eight alcoves, the whole being a mass of niches of considerable size.

Girault de Prangey speaks of ceilings of wood with incrusted decorations in the Alcazar at Cordova, while Bourgoin has preserved a coloured reproduction of a most interesting flat ceiling from Cairo. His brief description reads thus " Plafond a Solive apparentes, en troncs de palmiers, recouvers d'une envelope de planches decoupés." The palm-tree beams are recessed in the framing of planks, and in these deep square caissons are cut. The framing runs right round the long ceiling, with two broad bands separating the three longitudinally laid beams. The end cross pieces and the longitudinal strips for about a quarter of the length are painted bright red and ornamented with buff floral designs sparingly gemmed with white and turquoise blue. The remainder of the plank framing is painted a darker blue with gold arabesques. The beams are gilded and covered thickly with blue arabesques. The caissons are blue with gold arabesques, gemmed with white and red. It is a daring constructional and decorative scheme, marked by a rich elegance racy of the soil, which has given us the polychromatic enamelling of ancient Egypt and religions characterised by the weird imaginings of the King-gods and Priest-kings of old and of the Koran. Does it not add to our appreciation of this perfect piece of work when we know that the ceiling was not de-signed to adorn a palace or a dwelling of some wealthy member of the community, but to cover in a public fountain, for the edification of the whole community ? To give water to the thirsty in this parched land is an act of humanity in conformity with the religious sentiments of the people, and in a sense a fountain becomes a shrine. The ceiling of the Ibn-Touloun mosque in Egypt, figured by Girault de Prangey, shows exposed beams covered with carved panels, both large and small, on soffits and sides.

This reminds us of certain Chinese ceilings described by Ferguson. The Chinese scheme of colouring is akin to the Saracenic. Light blue is used for the pre-dominant colour of upper decorations. For instance, their roofs are covered with glazed blue tiles, their ceilings are blue, except in Imperial buildings, where the sacred yellow replaces the cerulean hue. Green is used for the friezes, red for the pillars, with gold for the tracery designs. Ferguson says : " As a rule the halls are celled above the tie-beams, the ceiling being divided into coffers ; more importance is given to the central bay, which is sunk into deep coffers with bracket friezes round them. Some of the walls are covered with open timber roofs, in which the unwrought rafters covering the roof contrast with the elaborate painting and gilding of the columns and the heavy superimposed beams of the roof." Certainly, the first part of this paragraph describes a constructional and decorative method very similar to that adopted in the Cairo ceiling.

Bourgoin's example of the more commonplace flat ceilings from round about Cairo ornamented with polygonals and cubes, painted on flat, show the end-less designs that can be produced by these geometrical figures alone, or supplemented by knots and tracery. We find ceilings one mass of red picked out with gold or black. Blue and yellow are employed in the same way. At other times, in place of massing the colours, we see them broken up by the intermingling of smaller figures. In these simple forms we find the basic expression of a system betraying a mentality very different from our own, but of the grandeur of this ordered method we have no doubt, for in it are these revealing tracings, while the genius and idealism of its founders is manifested in its far-spread elaborations.

In considering Mauresque art as mainly a matter of surface decoration we must not forget that the whole Saracenic school displays a true mastery in a well-defined field of woodwork. Wood is treated after the same manner as plaster prisms, so far as material is concerned, but with a very different aim and effect. It is cut up into narrow strips of varying length, usually straight, though occasionally curved, and rectangular in section. With these strips, pieced together and dovetailed, wonderful pierced panels of geometrical and floral patterns are produced, fitting into flat frames with inner borders of little round balls, cubes, and pyramids. Such panels are habitually placed in window spaces, like the pierced tracery stone window panels of the Byzantines, to be seen not only in Eastern but in Italian churches. The Arab copies from these, or perhaps from Indian and Chinese examples, reaching them by way of Persia, but substituting wood or plaster for the marble and other stone. Some of the finest specimens of these were put up in the tomb of the Caliphs at Cairo. As for the wood tracery panels, these were placed in windows flat, or with the aid of smaller side, top, and bottom panels forming into projecting casements. They are also used as screens above arches, reaching to the ceiling, adding to the intricacy of light and colour effects overhead. Then again, while over timber roof work is rare with them, beams are sometimes worked into a scheme of decoration, as we see above ; but boarded ceilings not only form the foundation for the built-up pendant, the panels are covered with a smooth coating of plaster, or the boards themselves painted with all the elaboration of geometrical science.

We have mentioned the great care bestowed on the problems of natural lighting. There can be no doubt that both the Byzantine and the Mauresque schools handled sunlight as they did colour, with a conscious art aim. The Byzantines filled their comparatively small windows, deepset in the walls, with richly coloured glass, or with pierced tracery stone slabs ; the Moors had pierced tracery plastered panels, and the whole Saracenic school pierced wood panels. Often the piercing was given an oblique trend, either upwards or downwards, so that the light could be trained to fall as desired. The same principle was utilised even more boldly in lighting their cupolas. Outside are a number of small holes and slits, so cautiously made that they are confounded with the surface traceries. But these orifices enlarged gradually as they are carried through the mass of the wall, either in a horizontal line or upward, downward or sideways slant, and finally, as they enlarge on the inner face of the cupola, they expand into beautiful forms, wide-rayed stars, octagon and foliated designs all outlined in colour or gold. Usually the outer opening is glazed with coloured glass. Thus with these spreading pencils of pure white and tinted light they bring this feature into relief, allow others to remain half veiled from view, the planets and stars in the firmament being called in to add ever changing beauties to the chromatic poem.

The Byzantine Art
Byzantine And Romanesque Miniature Painting
Byzantine Architecture - Examples
Byzantine architecture


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