The Legacy of Ancient Greece

Greek Art


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Thirty years ago it would have been impossible to write with any considerable knowledge of prehistoric art in Greece. The Iliad and Odyssey, to be sure, tell of numerous artistic objects, but no definite pictures of these were called up by the poet's words. Of actual remains only a few were known. Some implements of stone, the mighty walls of Tiryns, Mycenae, and many another ancient citadel, four "treasuries," as they were often called, at Mycenae and one at the Boeotian Orchomenus--these made up pretty nearly the total of the visible relics of that early time. To-day the case is far different. Thanks to the faith, the liberality, and the energy of Heinrich Schliemann, an immense impetus has been given to the study of prehistoric Greek archaeology. His excavations at Troy, Mycenae, Tiryns, and elsewhere aroused the world. He labored, and other men, better trained than he, have entered into his labors. The material for study is constantly accumulating, and constant progress is being made in classifying and interpreting this material. A civilization antedating the Homeric poems stands now dimly revealed to us. Mycenae, the city "rich in gold," the residence of Agamemnon, whence he ruled over "many islands and all Argos," [Footnote: Iliad II, 108] is seen to have had no merely legendary preeminence. So conspicuous, in fact, does Mycenae appear in the light as well of archaeology as of epic, that it has become common, somewhat misleading though it is, to call a whole epoch and a whole civilization "Mycenaean." This "Mycenaean" civilization was widely extended over the Greek islands and the eastern portions of continental Greece in the second millennium before our era. Exact dates are very risky, but it is reasonably safe to say that this civilization was in full development as early as the fifteenth century B.C., and that it was not wholly superseded till considerably later than 1000 B.C.

It is our present business to gain some acquaintance with this epoch on its artistic side. It will be readily understood that our knowledge of the long period in question is still very fragmentary, and that, in the absence of written records, our interpretation of the facts is hardly better than a groping in the dark. Fortunately we can afford, so far as the purposes of this book are concerned, to be content with a slight review. For it seems clear that the "Mycenaean" civilization developed little which can be called artistic in the highest sense of that term. The real history of Greek art--that is to say, of Greek architecture, sculpture, and painting--begins much later. Nevertheless it will repay us to get some notion, however slight, of such prehistoric Greek remains as can be included under the broadest acceptation of the word "art."

In such a survey it is usual to give a place to early walls of fortification, although these, to be sure, were almost purely utilitarian in their character. The classic example of these constructions is the citadel wall of Tiryns in Argolis. Fig. 22 shows a portion of this fortification on the east side, with the principal approach. Huge blocks of roughly dressed limestone--some of those in the lower courses estimated to weigh thirteen or fourteen tons apiece--are piled one upon another, the interstices having been filled with clay and smaller stones. This wall is of varying thickness, averaging at the bottom about twenty-five feet. At two places, viz., at the south end and on the east side near the southeast corner, the thickness is increased, in order to give room in the wall for a row of store chambers with communicating gallery. Fig. 23 shows one of these galleries in its present condition. It will be seen that the roof has been formed by pushing the successive courses of stones further and further inward from both sides until they meet. The result is in form a vault, but the principle of the arch is not there, inasmuch as the stones are not jointed radially, but lie on approximately horizontal beds. Such a construction is sometimes called a "corbelled" arch or vault.

Similar walls to those of Tiryns are found in many places, though nowhere else are the blocks of such gigantic size. The Greeks of the historical period Viewed these imposing structures with as much astonishment as do we, and attributed them (of at least those in Argohs) to the Cyclopes, a mythical folk, conceived in this connection as masons of superhuman strength. Hence the adjective Cyclopian or Cyclopean, whose meaning varies unfortunately in modern usage, but which is best restricted to walls of the Tirynthian type; that is to say, walls built of large blocks not accurately fitted together, the interstices being filled with small stones. This style of masonry seems to be always of early date

Portions of the citadel wall of Mycenae are Cyclopean. Other portions, quite probably of later date, show a very different character (Fig. 24). Here the blocks on the outer surface of the wall, though irregular in shape. are fitted together with close joints. This style of masonry is called polygonal and is to be carefully distinguished from Cyclopean, as above defined. Finally, still other portions of this same Mycenaean wall show on the outside a near approach to what is called ashlar masonry, in which the blocks are rectangular and laid in even horizontal courses. This is the case near the Lion Gate, the principal entrance to the citadel. (Fig. 25)

Next to the walls of fortification the most numerous early remains of the builder's art in Greece are the "bee-hive" tombs of which many examples have been discovered in Argolis, Laconia, Attica, Boeotia, Thessaly, and Crete. At Mycenae alone there are eight now known, all of them outside the citadel. The largest and most imposing of these, and indeed of the entire class, is the one commonly referred to by the misleading name of the "Treasury of Atreus." Fig 26 gives a section through this tomb. A straight passage, A B, flanked by walls of ashlar masonry and open to the sky, leads to a doorway, B. This doorway, once closed with heavy doors, was framed with an elaborate aichitectural composition, of which only small fragments now exist and these widely dispersed in London, Berlin, Carlsruhe, Munich, Athens, and Mycenae itself. In the decoration of this facade rosettes and running spirals played a conspicuous part, and on either side of the doorway stood a column which tapered downwards and was ornamented with spirals arranged in zigzag bands. This downward-tapering column, so unlike the columns of classic times, seems to have been in common use in Mycenaean architecture. Inside the doors comes a short passage, B C, roofed by two huge lintel blocks, the inner one of which is estimated to weigh 132 tons. The principal chamber, D, which is embedded in the hill, is circular in plan, with a lower diameter of about forty-seven feet. Its wall is formed of horizontal courses of stone, each pushed further inward than the one below it, until the opening was small enough to be covered by a single stone. The method of roofing is therefore identical in principle with that used in the galleries and store chambers of Tiryns; but here the blocks have been much more carefully worked and accurately fitted, and the exposed ends have been so beveled as to give to the whole interior a smooth, curved surface. Numerous horizontal rows of small holes exist, only partly indicated in our illustration, beginning in the fourth course from the bottom and continuing at intervals probably to the top. In some of these holes bronze nails still remain. These must have served for the attachment of some sort of bronze decoration. The most careful study of the disposition of the holes has led to the conclusion that the fourth and fifth courses were completely covered with bronze plates, presumably ornamented, and that above this there were rows of single ornaments, possibly rosettes. Fig. 27 will give some idea of the present appearance of this chamber, which is still complete, except for the loss of the bronze decoration and two or three stones at the top. The small doorway which is seen here, as well as in Fig. 26, leads into a rectangular chamber, hewn in the living rock. This is much smaller than the main chamber.

At Orchomenus in Boeotia are the ruins of a tomb scarcely inferior in size to the "Treasury of Atreus" and once scarcely less magnificent. Here too, besides the "bee-hive" construction, there was a lateral, rectangular chamber--a feature which occurs only in these two cases. Excavations conducted here by Schliemann in 1880-81 brought to light the broken fragments of a ceiling of greenish schist with which this lateral chamber was once covered. Fig. 28 shows this ceiling restored. The beautiful sculptured decoration consists of elements which recur in almost the same combination on a fragment of painted stucco from the palace of Tiryns. The pattern is derived from Egypt.

The two structures just described were long ago broken into and despoiled. If they stood alone, we could only guess at their original purpose. But some other examples of the same class have been left unmolested or less completely ransacked, until in recent years they could be studied by scientific investigators. Furthermore we have the evidence of numerous rock-cut chambers of analogous shape, many of which have been recently opened in a virgin condition. Thus it has been put beyond a doubt that these subterranean "beehive" chambers were sepulchral monuments, the bodies having been laid in graves within. The largest and best built of these tombs, if not all, must have belonged to princely families.

Even the dwelling-houses of the chieftains who ruled at Tiryns and Mycenae are known to us by their remains. The palace of Tiryns occupied the entire southern end of the citadel, within the massive walls above described. Its ruins were uncovered in 1884-

  1. The plan and the lower portions of the walls of an extensive complex of gateways, open courts, and closed rooms were thus revealed. There are remains of a similar building at Mycenae, but less well preserved, while the citadels of Athens and Troy present still more scanty traces of an analogous kind. The walls of the Tirynthian palace were not built of gigantic blocks of stone, such as were used in the citadel wall. That would have been a reckless waste of labor. On the contrary, they were built partly of small irregular pieces of stone, partly of sun-dried bricks. Clay was used to hold these materials together, and beams of wood ("bond timbers") were laid lengthwise here and there in the wall to give additional strength. Where columns were needed, they were in every case of wood, and consequently have long since decomposed and disappeared. Considerable remains, however, were found of the decorations of the interior. Thus there are bits of what must once have been a beautiful frieze of alabaster, inlaid with pieces of blue glass. A restored piece of this, sufficient to give the pattern, is seen in Fig. 29. Essentially the same design, somewhat simplified, occurs on objects of stone, ivory, and glass found at Mycenae; and in a "bee-hive" tomb of Attica. Again, there are fragments of painted stucco which decorated the walls of rooms in the palace of Tiryns. The largest and most interesting of these fragments is shown in Fig. 30. A yellow and red bull is represented against a blue background, galloping furiously to left, tail in air. Above him is a man of slender build, nearly naked. With his right hand the man grasps one of the bull's horns; his right leg is bent at the knee and the foot seems to touch with its toes the bull's back; his outstretched left leg is raised high in air. We have several similar representations on objects of the Mycenaean period, the most interesting of which will be presently described (see page 67). The comparison of these with one another leaves little room for doubt that the Tirynthian fresco was intended to portray the chase of a wild bull. But what does the man's position signify? Has he been tossed into the air by the infuriated animal? Has he adventurously vaulted upon the creature's back? Or did the painter mean him to be running on the ground, and, finding the problem of drawing the two figures in their proper relation too much for his simple skill, did he adopt the child-like expedient of putting one above the other? This last seems much the most probable explanation, especially as the same expedient is to be seen in several other designs belonging to this period.

At Mycenae also, both in the principal palace which corresponds to that of Tiryns and in a smaller house, remains of wall-frescoes have been found. These, like those of Tiryns, consisted partly of merely ornamental patterns, partly of genuine pictures, with human and animal figures. But nothing has there come to light at once so well preserved and so spirited as the bull-fresco from Tiryns.

Painting in the Mycenaean period seems to have been nearly, if not entirely, confined to the decoration of house-walls and of pottery. Similarly sculpture had no existence as a great, independent art. There is no trace of any statue in the round of life-size or anything approaching that. This agrees with the impression we get from the Homeric poems, where, with possibly one exception, [Footnote: Iliad VI, 273, 303.] there is no allusion to any sculptured image. There are, to be sure, primitive statuettes, one class of which, very rude and early, in fact pre-Mycenaean in character, is illustrated by Fig. 31. Images of this sort have been found principally on the islands of the Greek Archipelago. They are made of marble or limestone, and represent a naked female figure standing stiffly erect, with arms crossed in front below the breasts. The head, is of extraordinary rudeness, the face of a horse-shoe shape, often with no feature except a long triangular nose. What religious ideas were associated with these barbarous little images by their possessors we can hardly guess. We shall see that when a truly Greek art came into being, figures of goddesses and women were decorously clothed.

Excavations on Mycenaean sites have yielded quantities of small figures, chiefly of painted terra-cotta (cf. Fig. 43), but also of bronze or lead. Of sculpture on a larger scale we possess nothing except the gravestones found at Mycenae and the relief which has given a name, albeit an inaccurate one, to the Lion Gate. The gravestones are probably the earlier. They were found within a circular enclosure just inside the Lion Gate, above a group of six graves--the so-called pit-graves or shaft-graves of Mycenae. The best preserved of these gravestones is shown in Fig. 32. The field, bordered by a double fillet, is divided horizontally into two parts. The upper part is filled with an ingeniously contrived system of running spirals. Below is a battle-scene: a man in a chariot is driving at full speed, and in front there is a naked foot soldier (enemy?), with a sword in his uplifted left hand. Spirals, apparently meaningless, fill in the vacant spaces. The technique is very simple. The figures having been outlined, the background has been cut away to a shallow depth; within the outlines there is no modeling, the surfaces being left flat. It is needless to dwell on the shortcomings of this work, but it is worth while to remind the reader that the gravestone commemorates one who must have been an important personage, probably a chieftain, and that the best available talent would have been secured for the purpose.

The famous relief above the Lion Gate of Mycenae (Figs. 25, 33), though probably of somewhat later date than the sculptured gravestones, is still generally believed to go well back into the second millennium before Christ. It represents two lionesses (not lions) facing one another in heraldic fashion, their fore-paws resting on what is probably to be called an altar or pair, of altars; between them is a column, which tapers downward (cf. the columns of the "Treasury of Atreus," page 53), surmounted by what seems to be a suggestion of an entablature. The heads of the lionesses, originally made of separate pieces and attached, have been lost. Otherwise the work is in good preservation, in spite of its uninterrupted exposure for more than three thousand years. The technique is quite different from that of the gravestones, for all parts of the relief are carefully modeled. The truth to nature is also far greater here, the animals being tolerably life-like. The design is one which recurs with variations on two or three engraved gems of the Mycenaean period (cf Fig. 40), as well as in a series of later Phrygian reliefs in stone. Placed in this conspicuous position above the principal entrance to the citadel, it may perhaps have symbolized the power of the city and its rulers.

If sculpture in stone appears to have been very little practiced in the Mycenaean age, the arts of the goldsmith, silversmith, gem- engraver, and ivory carver were in great requisition. The shaft- graves of Mycenae contained, besides other things, a rich treasure of gold objects--masks, drinking-cups, diadems, ear-rings, finger-rings, and so on, also several silver vases. One of the latter may be seen in Fig. 43. It is a large jar, about two and one half feet in height, decorated below with horizontal flutings and above with continuous spirals in repousse (i.e., hammered) work. Most of the gold objects must be passed over, interesting though many of them are. But we may pause a moment over a group of circular ornaments in thin gold-leaf about two and one half inches in diameter, of which 701 specimens were found, all in a single grave. The patterns on these discs were not executed with a free hand, but by means of a mold. There are fourteen patterns in all, some of them made up of spirals and serpentine curves, others derived from vegetable and animal forms. Two of the latter class are shown in Figs. 34, 35. One is a butterfly, the other a cuttle- fish, both of them skilfully conventionalized. It is interesting to note how the antennae of the butterfly and still more the arms of the cuttle-fish are made to end in the favorite spiral.

The sculptures and gold objects which have been thus far described or referred to were in all probability executed by native, or at any rate by resident, workmen, though some of the patterns clearly betray oriental influence. Other objects must have been, others may have been, actually imported from Egypt or the East. It is impossible to draw the line with certainty between native and imported. Thus the admirable silver head of a cow from one of the shaft-graves (Fig. 36) has been claimed as an Egyptian or a Phenician production, but the evidence adduced is not decisive. Similarly with the fragment of a silver vase shown in Fig. 37. This has a design in relief (repousse) representing the siege of a walled town or citadel. On the walls is a group of women making frantic gestures. The defenders, most of them naked, are armed with bows and arrows and slings. On the ground lie sling-stones and throwing-sticks,[Footnote: So explained by Mr A. J. Evans in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, XIII., page 199. ] which may be supposed to have been hurled by the enemy. In the background there are four nondescript trees, perhaps intended for olive trees.

Another variety of Mycenaean metal-work is of a much higher order of merit than the dramatic but rude relief on this silver vase. I refer to a number of inlaid dagger-blades, which were found in two of the shaft-graves. Fig. 38 reproduces one side of the finest of these. It is about nine inches long. The blade is of bronze, while the rivets by which the handle was attached are of gold. The design was inlaid in a separate thin slip of bronze, which was then inserted into a sinking on the blade. The materials used are various. The lions and the naked parts of the men are of gold, the shields and trunks of the men of electrum (a mixture of gold and silver), the hair of the men, the manes of the lions, and some other details of an unidentified dark substance; the background, to the edges of the inserted slip, was covered with a black enamel. The scene is a lion-hunt. Four men, one armed only with a bow, the others with lances and huge shields of two different forms, are attacking a lion. A fifth hunter has fallen and lies under the lion's fore-paws. The beast has already been run through with a lance, the point of which is seen protruding from his haunch; but he still shows fight, while his two companions dash away at full speed. The design is skilfully composed to fill the triangular space, and the attitudes of men and beasts are varied, expressive, and fairly truthful. Another of these dagger-blades has a representation of panthers hunting ducks by the banks of a river in which what may be lotus plants are growing, The lotus would point toward Egypt as the ultimate source of the design. Moreover, a dagger of similar technique has been found in Egypt in the tomb of a queen belonging to the end of the Seventeenth Dynasty. On the other hand, the dress and the shields of the men engaged in the lion-hunt are identical with those on a number of other "Mycenaean" articles--gems, statuettes, etc.--which it is difficult to regard as all of foreign importation. The probability, then, seems to be that while the technique of the dagger-blades was directly or indirectly derived from Egypt, the specimens found at Mycenae were of local manufacture.

The greatest triumph of the goldsmith's art in the "Mycenaean" period does not come from Mycenae. The two gold cups shown in Fig. 39 were found in 1888 in a bee-hive tomb at Vaphio in Laconia. Each cup is double; that is to say, there is an outer cup, which has been hammered into shape from a single disc of gold and which is therefore without a joint, and an inner cup, similarly made, whose upper edge is bent over the outer cup so as to hold the two together. The horizontal parts of the handles are attached by rivets, while the intervening vertical cylinders are soldered. The designs in repousse work are evidently pendants to one another. The first represents a hunt of wild bulls. One bull, whose appearance indicates the highest pitch of fury, has dashed a would-be captor to earth and is now tossing another on his horns. A second bull, entangled in a stout net, writhes and bellows in the vain effort to escape. A third gallops at full speed from the scene of his comrade's captivity. The other design shows us four tame bulls. The first submits with evident impatience to his master. The next two stand quietly, with an almost comical effect of good nature and contentment. The fourth advances slowly, browsing. In each composition the ground is indicated, not only beneath the men and animals, but above them, wherever the design affords room. It is an example of the same naive perspective which seems to have been employed in the Tirynthian bull-fresco (Fig.

  1. . The men, too, are of the same build here as there, and the bulls have similarly curving horns. There are several trees on the cups, two of which are clearly characterized as palms, while the others resemble those in Fig. 37, and may be intended for olives. The bulls are rendered with amazing spirit and understanding. True, there are palpable defects, if one examines closely. For example, the position of the bull in the net is quite impossible. But in general the attitudes and expressions are as lifelike as they are varied. Evidently we have here the work of an artist who drew his inspiration directly from nature.

Engraved gems were in great demand in the Mycenaean period, being worn as ornamental beads, and the work of the gem-engraver, like that of the goldsmith, exhibits excellent qualities. The usual material was some variety of ornamental stone--agate, jasper, rock-crystal, etc. There are two principal shapes, the one lenticular, the other elongated or glandular (Figs. 40, 41). The designs are engraved in intaglio, but, our illustrations being made, as is usual, from plaster impressions, they appear as cameos. Among the subjects the lion plays an important part, sometimes represented singly, sometimes in pairs, sometimes devouring a bull or stag. Cattle, goats, deer, and fantastic creatures (sphinxes, griffins, etc.) are also common. So are human figures, often engaged in war or the chase. In the best of these gems the work is executed with great care, and the designs, though often inaccurate, are nevertheless vigorous. Very commonly, however, the distortion of the figure is carried beyond all bounds. Fig. 40 was selected for illustration, not because it is a particularly favorable specimen of its class, but because it offers an interesting analogy to the relief above the Lion Gate. It represents two lions rampant, their fore-paws resting on an altar (?), their heads, oddly enough, combined into one. The column which figures in the relief above the gate is absent from the gem, but is found on another specimen from Mycenae, where the animals, however, are winged griffins. Fig. 41 has only a standing man, of the wasp-waisted figure and wearing the girdle with which other representations have now made us familiar.

It remains to glance at the most important early varieties of Greek pottery. We need not stop here to study the rude, unpainted, mostly hand-made vases from the earliest strata at Troy and Tiryns, nor the more developed, yet still primitive, ware of the island of Thera. But the Mycenaean pottery is of too great importance to be passed over. This was the characteristic ware of the Mycenaean civilization. The probability is that it was manufactured at several different places, of which Mycenae may have been one and perhaps the most important. It was an article of export and thus found its way even into Egypt, where specimens have been discovered in tombs of the Eighteenth Dynasty and later. The variations in form and ornamentation are considerable, as is natural with an article whose production was carried on at different centers and during a period of centuries. Fig. 42 shows a few of the characteristic shapes and decorations; some additional pieces may be seen in Fig. 43. The Mycenaean vases are mostly wheel-made. The decoration, in the great majority of examples, is applied in a lustrous color, generally red, shading to brown or black. The favorite elements of design are bands and spirals and a variety of animal and vegetable forms, chiefly marine. Thus the vase at the bottom of Fig. 42, on the left, has a conventionalized nautilus; the one at the top, on the right, shows a pair of lily-like plants; and the jug in the middle of Fig. 43 is covered with the stalks and leaves of what is perhaps meant for seaweed. Quadrupeds and men belong to the latest period of the style, the vase-painters of the early and central Mycenaean periods having abstained, for some reason or other, from those subjects which formed the stock in trade of the gem-engravers.

The Mycenaean pottery was gradually superseded by pottery of an essentially different style, called Geometric, from the character of its painted decorations. It is impossible to say when this style made its first appearance in Greece, but it seems to have flourished for some hundreds of years and to have lasted till as late as the end of the eighth century B. C. It falls into several local varieties, of which the most important is the Athenian. This is commonly called Dipylon pottery, from the fact that the cemetery near the Dipylon, the chief gate of ancient Athens, has supplied the greatest number of specimens. Some of these Dipylon vases are of great size and served as funeral monuments. Fig. 44 gives a good example of this class. It is four feet high. Both the shape and the decoration are very different from those of the Mycenaean style. The surface is almost completely covered by a system of ornament in which zigzags, meanders, and groups of concentric circles play an important part. In this system of Geometric patterns zones or friezes are reserved for designs into which human and animal figures enter. The center of interest is in the middle of the upper frieze, between the handles. Here we see a corpse upon a funeral bier, drawn by a two-horse wagon. To right and left are mourners arranged in two rows, one above the other. The lower frieze, which encircles the vase about at its middle, consists of a line of two-horse chariots and their drivers. The drawing of these designs is illustrated on a larger scale on the right and left of the vase in Fig. 44; it is more childish than anything we have seen from the Mycenaean period. The horses have thin bodies, legs, and necks, and their heads look as much like fishes as anything. The men and women are just as bad. Their heads show no feature save, at most, a dot for the eye and a projection for the nose, with now and then a sort of tassel for the hair; their bodies are triangular, except those of the charioteers, whose shape is perhaps derived from one form of Greek shield; their thin arms, of varying lengths, are entirely destitute of natural shape; their long legs, though thigh and calf are distinguished, are only a shade more like reality than the arms. Such incapacity on the part of the designer would be hard to explain, were he to be regarded as the direct heir of the Mycenaean culture. But the sources of the Geometric style are probably to be sought among other tribes than those which were dominant in the days of Mycenae's splendor. Greek tradition tells of a great movement of population, the so-called Dorian migration, which took place some centuries before the beginning of recorded history in Greece. If that invasion and conquest of Peloponnesus by ruder tribes from the North be a fact, then the hypothesis is a plausible one which would connect the gradual disappearance of Mycenaean art with that great change. Geometric art, according to this theory, would have originated with the tribes which now came to the fore.

Besides the Geometric pottery and its offshoots, several other local varieties were produced in Greece in the eighth and seventh centuries. These are sometimes grouped together under the name of "orientalizing" styles, because, in a greater or less degree, they show in their ornamentation the influence of oriental models, of which the pure Geometric style betrays no trace. It is impossible here to describe all these local wares, but a single plate from Rhodes (Fig. 45) may serve to illustrate the degree of proficiency in the drawing of the human figure which had been attained about the end of the seventh century. Additional interest is lent to this design by the names attached to the three men. The combatants are Menelaus and Hector; the fallen warrior is Euphorbus. Here for the first time we find depicted a scene from the Trojan War. From this time on the epic legends form a large part of the repertory of the vase-painters.

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