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Greek Ornament & Decoration

The examples of representative ornament are very few, with the exception of the wave ornament and the fret used to distinguish water from land in their pictures, and some conventional renderings of trees, as at No. 12, Plate XXI., we have little that can deserve this appellation; but of decorative ornament the Greek and Etruscan vases supply us with abundant materials; and as the painted ornaments of the Temples which have as yet been discovered in no way differ from them, we have little doubt that we are acquainted with Greek ornament in all its phases.

Greek and Etruscan Vases
Greek and Etruscan Vases, Plate XXI.

Like the Egyptian ornament the types are few, but the conventional rendering is much further removed from the types. In the well-known honeysuckle ornament it is difficult to recognise any attempt at imitation, but rather an appreciation of the principle on which the flower grows; and, indeed, on examining the paintings on the vases, we are rather tempted to believe that the various forms of the leaves of a Greek flower have been generated by the brush of the painter, according as the hand is turned upwards or downwards in the formation of the leaf would the character be given, and it is more likely that the slight resemblance to the honeysuckle may have been an after recognition than that the natural flower should have ever served as the model. In Plate XCIX. will be found a representation of the honeysuckle; and how faint indeed is the resemblance!

Honeysuckle and Convolvulus
Honeysuckle and Convolvulus, Plate XCIX.

What is evident is, that the Greeks in their ornament were close observers of nature, and although they did not copy, or attempt to imitate, they worked on the same principles. The three great laws which we find everywhere in nature-radiation from the parent stem, proportionate distribution of the areas, and the tangential curvature of the lines-are always obeyed, and it is the unerring perfection with which they are, in the most humble works as in the highest, which excites our astonishment, and which is only fully realised on attempting to reproduce Greek ornament, so rarely done with suceess. A very characteristic feature of Greek ornament, continued by the Romans, but abandoned during the Byzantine period, is, that the various parts of a scroll grow out of each other in a continuous line, as the ornament from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates.

In the Byzantine, the Arabian Moresque, and Early English styles, the flowers flow off on either side from a continuous line. We have here an instance how slight a change in any generally received principle is sufficient to generate an entirely new order of forms and ideas. Roman ornament is constantly struggling against this apparently fixed law. At the head of the Roman chapter is a fine example, which may be taken as a type of all other Roman ornament, which scarcely ever got beyond the arrangement of a volute springing from a stem fitting into another stem, encircling a flower. The change which took place during the Byzantine period in getting rid of this fixed law was as important in its results to the development of ornament as was the substitution of the arch by the Romans for the straight architrave, or the introduction of the pointed arch in Gothic architecture. These changes have the same influence in the development of a new style of ornament as the sudden discovery of a general law in science, or the lucky patented idea which in any work of industry suddenly lets loose thousands of minds to examine and improve upon the first crude thought.

From the Choragic Monument of Lyeierates, Athens
From the Choragic Monument of Lyeierates, Athens.

Plate XXII. is devoted to the remains of colored ornaments on the Greek monuments. It will be seen that there is no difference whatever in the character of the drawing to those found on the vases. It is now almost universally recognised, that the whiLe marble temples of the Greeks were entirely covered with painted ornament. Whatever doubts may exist as to the more or less coloring of the sculpture, there can be none as to the ornaments of the mouldings. The traces of color exist everywhere so strongly, that in taking casts of the mouldings the traces of the pattern are strongly marked on the plaster cast. What the particular colors were, however, is not so certain. Different authorities give them differently: where one will see green, another finds blue, - or imagines gold where another sees brown. We may be quite certain, however, of one point, - all these ornaments on the mouldings were so high from the ground, and so small in proportion to the distance from which they were seen, that they must have been colored in a manner to render them distinct and to bring out the pattern. It is with this consideration that we have ventured to supply the color to 18, 29, 31, 32, 33, which have hitherto been published only as gold or brown ornaments on the white marble.

Painted Greek Ornaments from the Temples and Tombs in Greece and Sicily
Painted Greek Ornaments from the Temples and Tombs in Greece and Sicily, Plate XXII.

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