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Egyptian Ornament

Egyptian ornament is of three kinds: that which is constructive, or forming part of the monument itself, of which it is the outward and graceful covering of the skeleton within; that which is representative, but at the same time conventionally rendered; and that which is simply decorative. In all cases it was symbolic, and, as we have observed, formed on some few types, which were but slightly changed during the whole period of Egyptian civilisation.

The Lotus and Papyrus, types of Egyptian ornament
The Lotus and Papyrus, types of Egyptian ornament. Plate IV

Of the first kind, viz. constructive ornament, are the decorations of the means of support and the crowning members of the walls. The column only a few feet high, or one forty or sixty feet, as at Luxor and Karnac, was an enlarged papyrus plant: the base representing the root; the shaft, the stalk; and the capita], the full-blown flower, surrounded by a bouquet of smaller plants (No. 1, Plate VI.), tied together by bands. Not only did a series of columns represent a grove of papyri, but each column was in itself a grove; and at No. 17 of Plate IV. we have a representation of a grove of papyri in various stages of growth, which would only have to be assembled as they stand, and be tied round with a string, and we should have the Egyptian shaft and its highly-ornamental capital; and further, we have in Nos. 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, on Plate IV., pointed representations of columns forming parts of temples, in which the original idea is unmistakably portrayed.

Capitals of Columns, showing the varied applications of the Lotus and Papyrus
Capitals of Columns, showing the varied applications of the Lotus and Papyrus, Plate VI.

We may imagine it the custom of the Egyptians in early times to decorate the wooden posts of their primitive temples with their native flowers tied round them; and this custom, when their art took a more permanent character, became solidified in their monuments of stone. These forms, once sacred, their religious laws forbade a change; but a single glance, however, at Plates VI. and VI*. will show how little this possession of one leading idea resulted in uniformity. The lotus and papyrus form the type of fifteen of the capitals we have selected for illustration; yet how ingeniously varied, and what a lesson do they teach us! From the Greeks to our own time the world has been content with the acanthus leaf arranged round a bell for the capitals of columns of all architecture called classic, differing only in the more or less perfection of the modelling of the leaves, or the graceful or otherwise proportions of the bell: a modification in plan has but rarely been attempted. And this it was that opened the way to so much development in the Egyptian capital; beginning with the circle, they surrounded it with four, eight, and sixteen other circles. If the same change were attempted with the Corinthian capital, it could not fail to produce an entirely new order of forms whilst still retaining the idea of applying the acanthus leaf to the surface of a bell-shaped vase.

Egyptian Lotus and Papyrus
Egyptian Lotus and Papyrus, Plate VI*.

The shaft of the Egyptian column, when circular, was made to retain the idea of the ttiangular shape of the papyrus stalk, by three raised lines, which divided its circumference into three equal portions; when the column was formed by a union of four or eight shafts bound together, these had each a sharp arris on their outer face with the same intention. The crowning member or cornice of an Egyptian building was decorated with feathers, which appear to have been an emblem of sovereignty; whilst in the centre was the winged globe, emblem of divinity.

The second kind of Egyptian ornament results from the conventional representation of actual things on the walls of the temples and tombs; and here again, in the representations of offerings to the gods or of the various articles of daily use, in the paintings of actual scenes of their domestic life, every flower or other object is portrayed, not as a reality, but as an ideal representation. It is at the same time the record of a fact and an architectural decoration, to which even their hieroglyphical writing, explanatory of the scene, by its symmetrical arrangement added effect. In No. 4, on Plate IV., we have an example in the representation of the three papyrus-plants and three lotus-flowers, with two buds, in the hand of a king as an offering to the gods. The arrangement is symmetrical and graceful, and we here see that the Egyptians, in thus conventionally rendering the lotus and papyrus, instinctively obeyed the law which we find everywhere in the leaves of plants, viz. the radiation of the leaves, and all the veins on the leaves, in graceful curves from the parent stem; and not only do they follow this law in the drawing of the individual flower, but also in the grouping of several flowers together, as may be seen, not only in No. 4, but also in their representation of plants growing in the desert, Nos. 16 and 18 of the same plate, and in No. 13. In Nos. 9 and 10 of Plate V. they learned the same lesson from the feather, another type of ornament (1] and 12, Plate V.): the same instinct is again at work at Nos. 4 and 5, where the type is one of the many forms of palm-trees so common in the country.

Egyptian Feathers and Palm Branches
Egyptian Feathers and Palm Branches, Plate V.

The third kind of Egyptian ornament, viz. that which is simply decorative, or which appears so to our eyes, but which has doubtless its own laws and reasons for its application, although they are not so apparent to us. Plates VIII., IX., X., XI., are devoted to this class of ornament, and are from paintings on tombs, dresses, utensils, and sarcophagi. They are all distinguished by graceful symmetry and perfect distribution. The variety that can be produced by the few simple types we have referred to is very remarkable.

Ornaments from Mummy Cases in the British Museum and the Louvre
Ornaments from Mummy Cases in the British Museum and the Louvre, Plate VIII.

Geometrical Ornaments from Ceilings of Tombs
Geometrical Ornaments from Ceilings of Tombs, Plate IX.

Ornaments with Curved Lines from Ceilings of Tombs
Ornaments with Curved Lines from Ceilings of Tombs, Plate X.

Various Ornaments from Ceilings and Walls of Tombs
Various Ornaments from Ceilings and Walls of Tombs, Plate XI.

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