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Ancient Greek Art

We have seen that Egyptian ornament was derived direct from natural inspiration, that it was founded on a few types, and that it remained unchanged during the whole course of Egyptian civilization, except in the more or less perfection of the execution, the more ancient monuments being the most perfect. We have further expressed our belief that Assyrian art was a borrowed style, possessing none of the characteristics of original inspiration, but, rather appearing to have been suggested by the Art of Egypt, already in its decline, which decline was carried still farther.

Termination of the Marble Tiles of the Parthenon
Termination of the Marble Tiles of the Parthenon.

Greek Art, on the contrary, though borrowed partly from the Egyptian and partly from the Assyrian, was the development of an old idea in a new direction; and, unrestrained by religious laws, as would appear to have been both the Assyrian and the Egyptian, Greek Art rose rapidly to a high state of perfection, from which it was itself able to give forth the elements of future greatness to other styles. It carried the perfection of pure form to a point which has never since been reached; and from the very abundant remains we have of Greek ornament, we must believe the presence of refined taste was almost universal, and that the land was overflowing with artists, whose hands and minds were so trained as to enable them to execute these beautiful ornaments with unerring truth.

Upper Part of a Stele
Upper Part of a Stele.

Greek ornament was wanting, however, in one of the great charms which should always accompany ornament,-viz. Symbolism. It was meaningless, purely decorative, never representative, and can hardly be said to be constructive; for the various members of a Greek monument rather present surfaces exquisitely designed to receive ornament, which they did, at first, painted, and in later times both carved and painted. The ornament was DO part of the construction, as with the Egyptian: it could be removed, and the structure remained unchanged. On the Corinthian capital the ornament is applied, not constructed: it is not so on the Egyptian capital; there we feel the whole capital is the ornament,-to remove any portion of it would destroy it.

The Upper Part of a Stele
The Upper Part of a Stele.

However much we admire the extreme and almost divine perfection of the Greek monumental sculpture, in its application the Greeks frequently went beyond the legitimate bounds of ornament. The frieze of the Parthenon was placed so far from the eye that it became a diagram: the beauties which so astonish us when seen near the eye could only have been valuable so far as they evidenced the artist-worship which cared not that the eye saw the perfection of the work if conscious that it was to be found there; but we are bound to consider this an abuse of means, and that the Greeks were in this respect inferior to the Egyptians, whose system of incavo relievo for monumental sculpture appears to us the more perfect.

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