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The beginnings of Greek sculpture 1.

By Walter Pater.

From the Fortnightly Review archive, the first of the three essays
from 1880 on Greek sculpture by the celebrated critic.
An index to the essays appears at the bottom of this page.


THE EXTANT REMAINS of Greek sculpture, though but a fragment of what the Greek sculptors produced, are, both in number and in excellence, in their fitness, therefore, to represent the whole of which they were a part, quite out of proportion to what has come down to us of Greek painting, and all those minor crafts which, in the Greek workshop, as at all periods when the arts have been really vigorous, were closely connected with the highest imaginative work.

Greek painting is represented to us only by its distant reflexion on the walls of the buried houses of Pompeii, and the designs of subordinate though exquisite craftsmen on the vases. Of wrought metal, partly through the inherent usefulness of its material, tempting ignorant persons into whose hands it may fall to re-fashion it, we have comparatively little; while, in consequence of the perishableness of their material, nothing remains of the curious wood-work, the carved ivory, the embroidery and coloured stuffs, on which the Greeks set much store—of that whole system of refined artisanship, diffused, like a general atmosphere of beauty and richness, around the more exalted creations of Greek sculpture.

What we possess, then, of that highest Greek sculpture is presented to us in a sort of threefold isolation; isolation, first of all, from the concomitant arts—the frieze of the Parthenon without the metal bridles on the horses, for which the holes in the marble remain; isolation, secondly, from the architectural group of which, with most careful estimate of distance and point of observation, that frieze, for instance, was designed to be a part; isolation, thirdly, from the clear Greek skies, the poetical Greek life, in our modern galleries. And if one here or there, in looking at these things, bethinks himself of the required substitution; if he endeavours mentally to throw them back into that proper atmosphere, through which alone they can exercise over us all the magic by which they charmed their original spectators, the effort is not always a successful one, within the grey walls of the Louvre or the British Museum.

And the circumstance that Greek sculpture is presented to us in such falsifying isolation from the work of the weaver, the carpenter, and the goldsmith, has encouraged a manner of regarding it too little sensuous. Approaching it with full information concerning what may be called the inner life of the Greeks, their modes of thought and sentiment amply recorded in the writings of the Greek poets and philosophers, but with no lively impressions of that mere craftsman’s world of which so little has remained, students of antiquity have for the most part interpreted the creations of Greek sculpture, rather as elements in a sequence of abstract ideas, as embodiments, in a sort of petrified language, of pure thoughts, and as interesting mainly in connexion with the development of Greek intellect, than as elements of a sequence in the material order, as results of a designed and skilful dealing of accomplished fingers with precious forms of matter for the delight of the eyes. Greek sculpture has come to be regarded as the product of a peculiarly limited art, dealing with a specially abstracted range of subjects; and the Greek sculptor as a workman almost exclusively intellectual, having only a sort of accidental connexion with the material in which his thought was expressed. He is fancied to have been disdainful of such matters as the mere tone, the fibre or texture, of his marble or cedar-wood, of that just perceptible yellowness, for instance, in the ivory-like surface of the Venus of Melos; as being occupied only with forms as abstract almost as the conceptions of philosophy, and translateable it might be supposed into any material—a habit of regarding him still further encouraged by the modern sculptor’s usage of employing merely mechanical labour in the actual working of the stone.

THE WORKS OF the highest Greek sculpture are indeed intellectualised, if we may say so, to the utmost degree; the human figures which they present to us seem actually to conceive thoughts; in them, that profoundly reasonable spirit of design which is traceable in Greek art, continuously and increasingly, upwards from its simplest products, the oil-vessel or the urn, reaches its perfection. Yet, though the most abstract and intellectualised of sensuous objects, they are still sensuous and material, addressing themselves, in the first instance, not to the purely reflective faculty, but to the eye; and a complete criticism must have approached them from both sides— from the side of the intelligence indeed, towards which they rank as great thoughts come down into the stone; but from the sensuous side also, towards which they rank as the most perfect results of that pure skill of hand, of which the Venus of Melos, we may say, is the highest example, and the little polished pitcher or lamp, also perfect in its way, perhaps the lowest.

To pass by the purely visible side of these things, then, is not only to miss a refining pleasure, but to mistake altogether the medium in which the most intellectual of the creations of Greek art, the Aeginetan or the Elgin marbles, for instance, were actually produced; even these having, in their origin, depended for much of their charm on the mere material in which they were executed; and the whole black and grey world of extant antique sculpture needing to be translated back into ivory and gold, if we would feel the excitement which the Greek seems to have felt in the presence of these objects. To have this really Greek sense of Greek sculpture, it is necessary to connect it, indeed, with the inner life of the Greek world, its thought and sentiment, on the one hand; but on the other hand to connect it, also, with the minor works of price, intaglios, coins, vases; with that whole system of material refinement and beauty in the outer Greek life, which these minor works represent to us; and it is with these, as far as possible, that we must seek to relieve the air of our galleries and museums of their too intellectual greyness. Greek sculpture could not have been precisely a cold thing; and, whatever a colour-blind school may say, pure thoughts have their coldness, a coldness which has sometimes repelled from Greek sculpture, with its unsuspected fund of passion and energy in material form, those who cared much, and with much insight, for a similar passion and energy in the coloured world of Italian painting.

Theoretically, then, we need that world of the minor arts as a complementary background for the higher and more austere Greek sculpture; and, as matter of fact, it is just with such a world—with a period of refined and exquisite tectonics (as the Greeks called all crafts strictly subordinate to architecture), that Greek art actually begins, in what is called the Heroic Age, that earliest, undefined period of Greek civilisation, the beginning of which cannot be dated, and which reaches down to the first Olympiad, about the year 776 B.C. Of this period we possess, indeed, no direct history, and but few actual monuments, great or small; but as to its whole character and outward local colouring, for its art, as for its politics and religion, Homer may be regarded as an authority. The Iliad and the Odyssey, the earliest pictures of that heroic life, represent it as already delighting itself in the application of precious material and skilful handiwork to personal and domestic adornment, to the refining and beautifying of the entire outward aspect of life; above all, in the lavish application of very graceful metal-work to such purposes. And this representation is borne out by what little we possess of its actual remains, and by all we can infer. Mixed, of course, with mere fable, as a description of the heroic age, the picture which Homer presents to us, deprived of its supernatural adjuncts, becomes continuously more and more realisable as the actual condition of early art, when we emerge gradually into historical time, and find ourselves at last among dateable works and real schools or masters.

The history of Greek art, then, begins, as some have fancied general history to begin, in a golden age, but in an age, so to speak, of real gold, the period of those first twisters and hammerers of the precious metals—men who had already discovered the flexibility of silver and the ductility of gold, the capacity of both for infinite delicacy of handling, and who enjoyed, with complete freshness, a sense of beauty and fitness in their work—a period of which that flower of gold on a silver stalk, picked up lately in one of the graves at Mycenae, or the legendary golden honeycomb of Daedalus, might serve as the symbol. The heroic age of Greek art is the age of the hero as smith.

THERE ARE IN Homer two famous descriptive passages in which this delight in curious metal-work is very prominent; the description in the Iliad of the shield of Achilles1 and the description of the house of Alcinous in the Odyssey.2 The shield of Achilles is part of the suit of armour which Hephaestus makes for him at the request of Thetis; and it is wrought of variously Coloured metals, woven into a great circular composition in relief, representing the world and the life in it. The various activities of man are recorded in this description in a series of idyllic incidents with such complete freshness, liveliness, and variety, that the reader from time to time may well forget himself, and fancy he is reading a mere description of the incidents of actual life. We peep into a little Greek town, and see in dainty miniature the bride coming from her chamber with torch-bearers and dancers, the people gazing from their doors, a quarrel between two persons in the market-place, the assembly of the elders to decide upon it. In another quartering is the spectacle of a city besieged, the walls defended by the old men, while the soldiers have stolen out and are lying in ambush. There is a fight on the river-bank; Ares and Athene, conspicuous in gold, and marked as divine persons by a scale larger than that of their followers, lead the host. The strange, mythical images of Kêr, Eris, and Kudoimos mingle in the crowd. A third space upon the shield depicts the incidents of peaceful labour—the ploughshare passing through the field, of enameled black metal behind it, and golden before; the cup of mead held out to the ploughman when he reaches the end of the furrow; the reapers with their sheaves; the king standing in silent pleasure among them, intent upon his staff. There are the labourers in the vineyard in minutest detail; stakes of silver on which the vines hang; the dark trench about it, and one pathway through the midst; the whole complete and distinct, in variously coloured metal. All things and living creatures are in their places—the cattle coming to water to the sound of the herdsman’s pipe, various music, the rushes by the water-side, a lion-hunt with dogs, the pastures among the hills, a dance, the fair dresses of the male and female dancers, the former adorned with swords, the latter with crowns. It is an image of ancient life, its pleasure and business. For the centre, as in some quaint chart of the heavens, are the earth and the sun, the moon and constellations; and to close in all, right round, like a frame to the picture, the great river Oceanus, forming the rim of the shield, in some metal of dark blue.

Still more fascinating, perhaps, because more completely realisable by the fancy as an actual thing—realisable as a delightful place to pass time in—is the description of the palace of Alcinous in the little island town of the Phaeacians, to which we are introduced in all the liveliness and sparkle of the morning, as real as something seen last summer on the sea-coast; although, appropriately, Ulysses meets a goddess, like a young girl carrying a pitcher, on his way up from the sea. Below the steep walls of the town, two projecting jetties allow a narrow passage into a haven of stone for the ships, into which the passer-by may look down, as they lie moored below the roadway. In the midst is the king’s house, all glittering, again, with curiously wrought metal; its brightness is “as the brightness of the sun or of the moon.” The heart of Ulysses beats quickly when he sees it standing amid plantations ingeniously watered, its floor and walls of brass throughout, with continuous cornice of dark iron; the doors are of gold, the door-posts and lintels of silver, the handles, again, of gold—

The walls were massy brass; the cornice high
Blue metals crowned in colours of the sky;
Rich plates of gold the folding-doors incase;
The pillars silver on a brazen base;
Silver the lintels deep-projecting o’er;
And gold the ringlets that command the door.3

Dogs of the same precious metals keep watch on either side, like the lions over the old gate-way of Mycenae, or the gigantic, human-headed bulls at the entrance of an Assyrian palace. Within doors the burning lights at supper-time are supported in the hands of golden images of boys, while the guests recline on a couch running all along the wall, covered with peculiarly sumptuous women’s work.

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FROM THESE TWO glittering descriptions manifestly something must be deducted; we are in wonder-land, and among supernatural or magical conditions. But the forging of the shield and the wonderful house of Alcinous are no merely incongruous episodes in Homer, but the consummation of what is always characteristic of him, a constant preoccupation, namely, with every form of lovely craftsmanship, resting on all things, as he says, like the shining of the sun. We seem to pass, in reading him, through the treasures of some royal collection; in him the presentation of almost every aspect of life is beautified by the work of cunning hands. The thrones, coffers, couches of curious carpentry, are studded with bossy ornaments of precious metal effectively disposed, or inlaid with stained ivory, or blue cyanus, or amber, or pale amber-like gold; the surfaces of the stone conduits, the sea-walls, the public washing-troughs, the ramparts on which the weary soldiers rest themselves when returned to Troy, are fair and smooth; all the fine qualities, in colour and texture, of woven stuff are carefully noted—the fineness, closeness, softness, pliancy, gloss, the whiteness or nectar-like tints in which the weaver delights to work; to weave the sea-purple threads is the appropriate function of queens and noble women. All the Homeric shields are more or less ornamented with variously coloured metal, terrible sometimes, like Leonardo’s, with some monster or grotesque. The numerous sorts of cups are bossed with golden studs, or have handles wrought with figures, of doves, for instance. The great brazen cauldrons bear an epithet which means flowery. The trappings of the horses, the various parts of the chariots, are formed of various metals. The women’s ornaments and the instruments of their toilet are described—

—the golden vials for unguents. Use and beauty are still undivided; all that men’s hands are set to make has still a fascination alike for workmen and spectators. For such dainty splendour Troy, indeed, is especially conspicuous. But then Homer’s Trojans are essentially Greeks—Greeks of Asia; and Troy, though more advanced in all elements of civilisation, is no real contrast to the western shore of the Aegean. It is no barbaric world that we see, but the sort of world, we may think, that would have charmed also our comparatively jaded sensibilities, with just that quaint simplicity which we too enjoy in its productions; above all, in its wrought metal, which loses perhaps more than any other sort of work by becoming mechanical. The metal-work which Homer describes in such variety is all hammer-work, all the joinings being effected by pins or riveting. That is just the sort of metal-work which, in a certain naïveté and vigour, is still of all work the most expressive of actual contact with dexterous fingers; one seems to trace in it, on every particle of the partially resisting material, the touch and play of the shaping instruments, in highly trained hands, under the guidance of exquisitely disciplined senses—that cachet, or seal of nearness to the workman’s hand, which is the special charm of all good metal-work, of early metal-work in particular.

Such descriptions, however, it may be said, are mere poetical ornament, of no value in helping us to define the character of an age. But what is peculiar in these Homeric descriptions, what distinguishes them from others at first sight similar, is a sort of internal evidence they present of a certain degree of reality, signs in them of an imagination stirred by surprise at the spectacle of real works of art. Such minute, delighted, loving description of details of ornament, such following out of the ways in which brass, gold, silver, or paler gold, go into the chariots and armour and women’s dress, or cling to the walls—the enthusiasm of the manner— is the warrant of a certain amount of truth in all that. The Greek poet describes these things with the same vividness and freshness, the same kind of fondness, with which other poets speak of flowers; speaking of them poetically, indeed, but with that higher sort of poetry which seems full of the lively impression of delightful things recently seen. Genuine poetry, it is true, is always naturally sympathetic with all beautiful sensible things and qualities. But with how many poets would not this constant intrusion of material ornament have produced a tawdry effect! The metal would all be tarnished and the edges blurred. And this is because it is not always that the products of even exquisite tectonics can excite or refine the aesthetic sense. Now it is probable that the objects of oriental art, the imitations of it at home, in which for Homer this actual world of art must have consisted, reached him in a quantity, and with a novelty, just sufficient to warm and stimulate without surfeiting the imagination; it is an exotic thing of which he sees just enough and not too much. The shield of Achilles, the house of Alcinous, are like dreams indeed, but this sort of dreaming winds continuously through the entire Iliad and Odyssey—a child’s dream after a day of real, fresh impressions from things themselves, in which all those floating impressions re-set themselves. He is as pleased in touching and looking at those objects as his own heroes; their gleaming aspect brightens all he says, and has taken hold, one might think, of his language, his very vocabulary becoming chryselephantine. Homer’s artistic descriptions, though enlarged by fancy, are not wholly imaginary, and the extant remains of monuments of the earliest historical age are like lingering relics of that dream in a tamer but real world.

The art of the heroic age, then, as represented in Homer, connects itself, on the one side, with those fabulous jewels so prominent in mythological story, and entwined sometimes so oddly in its representation of human fortunes—the necklace of Eriphyle, the necklace of Helen, which Menelaus, it was said, offered at Delphi to Athene Pronœa, on the eve of his expedition against Troy—mythical objects, indeed, but which yet bear witness even thus early to the aesthetic susceptibility of the Greek temper. But, on the other hand, the art of the heroic age connects itself also with the actual early beginnings of artistic production. There are touches of reality, for instance, in Homer’s incidental notices of its instruments and processes; especially as regards the working of metal. He goes already to the potter’s wheel for familiar, life-like illustration. In describing artistic wood-work he distinguishes various stages of work; we see clearly the instruments for turning and boring, such as the old-fashioned drill-borer, whirled round with a string; he mentions the names of two artists, the one of an actual workman, the other of a craft turned into a proper name—stray relics, accidentally preserved, of a world, as we may believe, of such wide and varied activity. The forge of Hephæstus is a true forge; the magic tripods on which he is at work are really put together by conceivable processes, known in early times. Compositions in relief similar to those which he describes were actually made out of thin metal plates cut into a convenient shape, and then beaten into the designed form by the hammer over a wooden model. These reliefs were then fastened to a differently coloured metal background or base, with nails or rivets, for there is no soldering of metals as yet. To this process the ancients gave the name of empæstik, such embossing being still, in our own time, a beautiful form of metal-work.

Even in the marvellous shield there are other and indirect notes of reality. In speaking of the shield of Achilles, I departed intentionally from the order in which the subjects of the relief are actually introduced in the Iliad, because, just then, I wished the reader to receive the full effect of the variety and elaborateness of the composition, as a representation or picture of the whole of ancient life embraced within the circumference of a shield. But in the order in which Homer actually describes those episodes he is following the method of a very practicable form of composition, and is throughout much closer than we might at first sight suppose to the ancient armourer’s proceedings. The shield is formed of five superimposed plates of different metals, each plate of smaller diameter than the one immediately below it, their flat margins showing thus as four concentric stripes or rings of metal, around a sort of boss in the centre, five metals thick, and the outermost circle or ring being the thinnest. To this arrangement the order of Homer’s description corresponds. The earth and the heavenly bodies are upon this boss in the centre, like a little distant heaven hung above the broad world, and from this Homer works out, round and round, to the river Oceanus, which forms the border of the whole; the subjects answering to, or supporting each other, in a sort of heraldic order—the city at peace set over against the city besieged- -spring, summer, and autumn balancing each other—quite congruously with a certain heraldic turn common in contemporary Assyrian art, which delights in this sort of conventional spacing out of its various subjects, and especially with some extant metal chargers of Assyrian work, which, like some of the earliest Greek vases with their painted plants and flowers conventionally arranged, illustrate in their humble measure such heraldic grouping.

The description of the shield of Hercules, attributed to Hesiod, is probably an imitation of Homer, and, notwithstanding some fine mythological impersonations which it contains, an imitation less admirable than the original. Of painting there are in Homer no certain indications, and it is consistent with the later date of the imitator that we may perhaps discern in his composition a sign that what he had actually seen was a painted shield, in the pre-dominance in it, as compared with the Homeric description, of effects of colour over effects of form; Homer delighting in ingenious devices for fastening the metal, and the supposed Hesiod rather in what seem like triumphs of heraldic colouring; though the latter also delights in effects of mingled metals, of mingled gold and silver especially— silver figures with dresses of gold, silver centaurs with pine-trees of gold for staves in their hands. Still, like the shield of Achilles, this too we must conceive as formed of concentric plates of metal; and here again that spacing is still more elaborately carried out, narrower intermediate rings being apparently introduced between the broader ones, with figures in rapid, horizontal, unbroken motion, carrying the eye right round the shield, in contrast with the repose of the downward or inward movement of the subjects which divide the larger spaces; here too with certain analogies in the rows of animals to the designs on the earliest vases.

In Hesiod then, as in Homer, there are undesigned notes of correspondence between the partly mythical ornaments imaginatively enlarged of the heroic age, and a world of actual handicrafts. In the shield of Hercules another marvellous detail is added in the image of Perseus, very daintily described as hovering in some wonderful way, as if really borne up by wings, above the surface. And that curious, haunting sense of magic in art, which comes out over and over again in Homer—in the golden maids, for instance, who assist Hephaestus in his work, and similar details which seem at first sight to destroy the credibility of the whole picture, and make of it a mere wonder-land—is itself also, rightly understood, a testimony to a real excellence in the art of Homer’s time. It is sometimes said that works of art held to be miraculous are always of an inferior kind; but at least it was not among those who thought them inferior that the belief in their miraculous power began. If the golden images move like living creatures, and the armour of Achilles, so wonderfully made, lifts him like wings, this again is because the imagination of Homer is really under the stimulus of delightful artistic objects actually seen. Only those to whom such artistic objects manifest themselves through real and powerful impressions of their wonderful qualities, can invest them with properties magical or miraculous.

I SAID THAT the inherent usefulness of the material of metal-work makes the destruction of its acquired form almost certain, if it comes into the possession of people either barbarous or careless of the work of a past time. Greek art is for us, in all its stages, a fragment only; in each of them it is necessary, in a somewhat visionary manner, to fill up empty spaces, and more or less make substitution; and of the finer work of the heroic age, thus dimly discerned as an actual thing, we had at least till recently almost nothing. Two plates of bronze, a few rusty nails, and certain rows of holes in the inner surface of the walls of the “treasury” of Mycenae, were the sole representatives of that favourite device of primitive Greek art, the lining of stone walls with burnished metal, of which the house of Alcinous in the Odyssey is the ideal picture, and the temple of Pallas of the Brazen House at Sparta, adorned in the interior with a coating of reliefs in metal, a later, historical example. Of the heroic or so-called Cyclopean architecture, that “treasury,” a building so imposing that Pausanias thought it worthy to rank with the Pyramids, is a sufficient illustration. Treasury, or tomb, or both (the selfish dead, perhaps, being supposed still to find enjoyment in the costly armour, goblets, and mirrors laid up there), this dome-shaped building, formed of concentric rings of stones gradually diminishing to a coping-stone at the top, may stand as the representative of some similar buildings in other parts of Greece, and of many others in a similar kind of architecture elsewhere, constructed of large many-sided blocks of stone, fitted carefully together without the aid of cement, and remaining in their places by reciprocal resistance. Characteristic of it is the general tendency to use vast blocks of stone for the jambs and lintels of doors, for instance, and in the construction of gable-shaped passages; two rows of such stones being made to rest against each other at an acute angle, within the thickness of the walls.

So vast and rude, fretted by the action of nearly three thousand years, the fragments of this architecture may often seem, at first sight, like works of nature. At Argos, Tiryns, Mycenae, the skeleton of the old architecture is more complete. At Mycenae the gateway of the acropolis is still standing with its two well-known sculptured lions—immemorial and almost unique monument of primitive Greek sculpture—supporting, herald-wise, a symbolical pillar on the vast, triangular, pedimental stone above. The heads are gone, having been fashioned possibly in metal by workmen from the East. On what may be called the façade, remains are still discernible of inlaid work in coloured stone, and within the gateway, on the smooth slabs of the pavement, the wheel-ruts are still visible. Connect them with those metal war-chariots in Homer, and you may see in fancy the whole grandiose character of the place, as it may really have been. Shut within the narrow enclosure of these shadowy citadels were the palaces of the kings, with all that intimacy which we may sometimes suppose to have been alien from the open-air Greek life, admitting, doubtless, below the cover of their rough walls, many of those refinements of princely life which the Middle Age found possible in such places, and of which the impression is so fascinating in Homer’s description, for instance, of the house of Ulysses, or of Menelaus at Sparta. Rough and frowning without, these old châteaux of the Argive kings were delicate within with a decoration almost as dainty and fine as the network of weed and flower that now covers their ruins, and of the delicacy of which, as I said, that golden flower on its silver stalk or the golden honeycomb of Daedalus, might be taken as representative. In these metal-like structures of self-supporting polygons, locked so firmly and impenetrably together, with the whole mystery of the reasonableness of the arch implicitly within them, there is evidence of a complete artistic command over weight in stone, and an understanding of the “law of weight.” But over weight only; the ornament still seems to be not strictly architectural, but, according to the notices of Homer, tectonic, borrowed from the sister arts, above all from the art of the metal-workers, to whom those spaces of the building are left which a later age fills with painting, or relief in stone. The skill of the Asiatic comes to adorn this rough native building; and it is a late, elaborate, somewhat voluptuous skill, we may understand, illustrated by the luxury of that Asiatic chamber of Paris, less like that of a warrior than of one going to the dance. Coupled with the vastness of the architectural works which actually remain, such descriptions as that in Homer of the chamber of Paris and the house of Alcinous furnish forth a picture of that early period—the tyrants’ age, the age of the acropoleis, the period of great dynasties with claims to “divine right” and in many instances at least with all the culture of their time. The vast buildings make us sigh at the thought of wasted human labour, though there is a public usefulness too in some of these designs, such as the draining of the Copaic lake, to which the backs of the people are bent whether they will or not. For the princes there is much of that selfish personal luxury which is a constant trait of feudalism in all ages. For the people, scattered over the country, at their agricultural labour, or gathered in small hamlets, there is some enjoyment, perhaps, of the aspect of that splendour, of the bright warriors on the heights—a certain share of the nobler pride of the tyrants themselves in those tombs and dwellings. Some surmise, also, there seems to have been, of the “curse” of gold, with a dim, lurking suspicion of curious facilities for cruelty in the command over those skilful artificers in metal— some ingenious rack or bull “to pinch and peel”—the tradition of which, not unlike the modern Jacques Bonhomme’s shudder at the old ruined French donjon or bastille, haunts, generations afterwards, the ruins of those “labyrinths” of stone, where the old tyrants had their pleasures. For it is a mistake to suppose that that wistful sense of eeriness in ruined buildings, to which most of us are susceptible, is an exclusively modern feeling. The name Cyclopean, attached to those desolate remains of buildings which were older than Greek history itself, attests their romantic influence over the fancy of the people who thus attributed them to a superhuman strength and skill. And the Cyclopes, like all the early mythical names of artists, have this note of reality, that they are names not of individuals but of classes, the guilds or companies of workmen in which a certain craft was imparted and transmitted. The Dactyli, the Fingers, are the first workers in iron; the savage Chalybes in Scythia the first smelters; actual names are given to the old, fabled Telchines— Chalkon, Argyron, Chryson—workers in brass, silver, and gold, respectively.4 The tradition of their activity haunts the several regions where those metals were found. They make the trident of Poseidon; but then Poseidon’s trident is a real fisherman’s instrument, the tunny-fork. They are credited, notwithstanding, with an evil sorcery, unfriendly to men, as poor humanity remembered the makers of chains, locks, Procrustean beds; and, as becomes this dark recondite mine and metal work, the traditions about them are gloomy and grotesque, confusing mortal workmen with demon guilds.

TO THIS VIEW of the heroic age of Greek art as being, so to speak, an age of real gold, an age delighting itself in precious material and exquisite handiwork in all tectonic crafts, the recent extraordinary discoveries at Troy and Mycenae are, on any plausible theory of their date and origin, a witness. The aesthetic critic needs always to be on his guard against the confusion of mere curiosity or antiquity with beauty in art. Among the objects discovered at Troy—mere curiosities, some of them, however interesting and instructive—the so-called royal cup of Priam, in solid gold, two-handled and double- lipped, (the smaller lip designed for the host and his libation, the larger for the guest,) has, in the very simplicity of its design, the grace of the economy with which it exactly fulfils its purpose, a positive beauty, an absolute value for the aesthetic sense, while strange and new enough, if it really settles at last a much-debated expression of Homer; while the “diadem,” with its twisted chains and flowers of pale gold, shows that those profuse golden fringes, waving so comely as he moved, which Hephaestus wrought for the helmet of Achilles, were really within the compass of early Greek art.

And the story of the excavations at Mycenae reads more like some well-devised chapter of fiction than a record of sober facts. Here, those sanguine, half-childish dreams of buried treasure discovered in dead men’s graves, which seem to have a charm for every one, are more than fulfilled in the spectacle of those antique kings, lying in the splendour of their crowns and breastplates of embossed plate of gold; their swords, studded with golden imagery, at their sides, as in some feudal monument; their very faces covered up most strangely in golden masks. The very floor of one tomb, we read, was thick with gold- dust—the heavy gilding fallen from some perished kingly vestment; in another was a downfall of golden leaves and flowers; and, amid this profusion of thin fine fragments, were rings, bracelets, smaller crowns as if for children, dainty butterflies for ornaments of dresses, and that golden flower on a silver stalk—all of pure, soft gold, unhardened by alloy, the delicate films of which one must touch but lightly, yet twisted and beaten, by hand and hammer, into wavy, spiral relief, the cuttle-fish with its long undulating arms appearing frequently.

It is the very image of the old luxurious life of the princes of the heroic age, as Homer describes it, with the arts in service to its kingly pride. Among the other costly objects was one representing the head of a cow, grandly designed in gold with horns of silver, like the horns of the moon, supposed to be symbolical of Here, the great object of worship at Argos. One of the interests of the study of mythology is that it reflects the ways of life and thought of the people who conceived it; and this religion of Here, the special religion of Argos, is congruous with what has been here said as to the place of art in the civilisation of the Argives; it is a reflexion of that splendid and wanton old feudal life. For Here is, in her original essence and meaning, equivalent to Demeter—the one living spirit of the earth, divined behind the veil of all its manifold visible energies. But in the development of a common mythological motive the various peoples are subject to the general limitations of their life and thought; they can but work outward what is within them; and the religious conceptions and usages, ultimately derivable from one and the same rudimentary instinct, are sometimes most diverse. Out of the visible, physical energies of the earth and its system of annual change, the old Pelasgian mind developed the person of Demeter, mystical and profoundly aweful, yet profoundly pathetic, also, in her appeal to human sympathies. Out of the same original elements, the civilisation of Argos, on the other hand, developes the religion of Queen Here, a mere Demeter, at best, of gaudy flower-beds, whose toilet Homer describes with all its delicate fineries; though, characteristically, he may still allow us to detect, perhaps, some traces of the mystical person of the earth, in the all-pervading scent of the ambrosial unguent with which she anoints herself, in the abundant tresses of her hair, and in the curious variegation of her ornaments. She has become, though with some reminiscence of the mystical earth, a very limited human person, wicked, angry, jealous—the lady of Zeus in her castle-sanctuary at Mycenae, in wanton dalliance with the king, coaxing him for cruel purposes in sweet sleep, adding artificial charms to her beauty.

Such are some of the characteristics with which Greek art is discernible in that earliest age. Of themselves, they almost answer the question which next arises—Whence did art come to Greece? or was it a thing of absolutely native growth there? So some have decidedly maintained. Others, who lived in an age possessing little or no knowledge of Greek monuments anterior to the full development of art under Pheidias, and who, in regard to the Greek sculpture of the age of Pheidias, were like people criticising Michelangelo, without knowledge of the earlier Tuscan school—of the works of Donatello and Mino da Fiesole—easily satisfied themselves with theories of its importation ready-made from other countries. Critics in the last century, especially, noticing some characteristics which early Greek work has in common, indeed, with Egyptian art, but which are common also to all such early work everywhere, supposed, as a matter of course, that it came, as the Greek religion also, from Egypt—that old, immemorial half-known birthplace of all wonderful things. There are, it is true, authorities for this derivation among the Greeks themselves, dazzled as they were by the marvels of the ancient civilisation of Egypt, a civilisation so different from their own, on the first opening of Egypt to Greek visitors. But, in fact, that opening did not take place till the reign of Psammetichus, about the middle of the seventh century B.C., a relatively late date. Psammetichus introduced and settled Greek mercenaries in Egypt, and, for a time, the Greeks came very close to Egyptian life. They can hardly fail to have been stimulated by that display of every kind of artistic workmanship gleaming over the whole of life; they may in turn have freshened it with new motives. And we may remark, that but for the peculiar usage of Egypt concerning the tombs of the dead, but for their habit of investing the last abodes of the dead with all the appurtenances of active life, out of that whole world of art, so various and elaborate, nothing but the great, monumental works in stone would have remained to ourselves. We should have experienced in regard to it, what we actually experience too much in our knowledge of Greek art—the lack of a fitting background, in the smaller tectonic work, for its great works in architecture, and the bolder sort of sculpture.

But, one by one, at last, as in the medieval parallel, monuments illustrative of the earlier growth of Greek art before the time of Pheidias have come to light, and to a just appreciation. They show that the development of Greek art had already proceeded some way before the opening of Egypt to the Greeks, and point, if to a foreign source at all, to oriental rather than Egyptian influences; and the theory which derived Greek art, with many other Greek things, from Egypt, now hardly finds supporters. In Greece all things are at once old and new. As, in physical organisms, the actual particles of matter have existed long before in other combinations; and what is really new in a new organism is the new cohering force—the mode of life,—so, in the products of Greek civilisation, the actual elements are traceable elsewhere by antiquarians who care to trace them; the elements, for instance, of its peculiar national architecture. Yet all is also emphatically autochthonous, as the Greeks said, new-born at home, by right of a new, informing, combining spirit playing over those mere elements, and touching them, above all, with a wonderful sense of the nature and destiny of man—the dignity of his soul and of his body—so that in all things the Greeks are as discoverers. Still, the original and primary motive seems, in matters of art, to have come from without; and the view to which actual discovery and all true analogies more and more point is that of a connexion of the origin of Greek art, ultimately with Assyria, proximately with Phoenicia, partly through Asia Minor, and chiefly through Cyprus—an original connexion again and again re-asserted, like a surviving trick of inheritance, as in later times it came in contact with the civilisation of Caria and Lycia, old affinities being here linked anew; and with a certain Asiatic tradition, of which one representative is the Ionic style of architecture, traceable all through Greek art—an Asiatic curiousness, or ποικιλíα,5 strongest in that heroic age of which I have been speaking, and distinguishing some schools and masters in Greece more than others; and always in appreciable distinction from the more clearly defined and self-asserted Hellenic influence. Homer himself witnesses to the intercourse, through early, adventurous commerce, as in the bright and animated picture with which the history of Herodotus begins, between the Greeks and Eastern countries. We may, perhaps, forget sometimes, thinking over the greatness of its place in the history of civilisation, how small a country Greece really was; how short the distances upwards, from island to island, to the coast of Asia, so that we can hardly make a sharp separation between Asia and Greece, nor deny, besides great and palpable acts of importation, all sorts of impalpable Asiatic influences, by way alike of attraction and repulsion, upon Greek manners and taste. Homer, as we saw, was right in making Troy essentially a Greek city, with inhabitants superior in all culture to their kinsmen on the Western shore, and perhaps proportionally weaker on the practical or moral side, and with an element of languid Ionian voluptuousness in them, typified by the cedar and gold of the chamber of Paris—an element which the austere, more strictly European influence of the Dorian Apollo will one day correct in all genuine Greeks. The Aegean, with its islands, is, then, a bond of union, not a barrier; and we must think of Greece, as has been rightly said, as its whole continuous shore.

The characteristics of Greek art, indeed, in the heroic age, so far as we can discern them, are those also of Phoenician art, its delight in metal among the rest, of metal especially as an element in architecture, the covering of everything with plates of metal. It was from Phoenicia that the costly material in which early Greek art delighted actually came—ivory, amber, much of the precious metals. These the adventurous Phoenician traders brought in return for the mussel which contained the famous purple, in quest of which they penetrated far into all the Greek havens. Recent discoveries present the island of Cyprus, the great source of copper and copper- work in ancient times, as the special mediator between the art of Phoenicia and Greece; and in some archaic figures of Aphrodite with her dove, brought from Cyprus and now in the British Museum—objects you might think, at first sight, taken from the niches of a French Gothic cathedral—are some of the beginnings, at least, of Greek sculpture manifestly under the influence of Phoenician masters. And, again, mythology is the reflex of characteristic facts. It is through Cyprus that the religion of Aphrodite comes from Phoenicia to Greece. Here, in Cyprus, she is connected with some other kindred elements of mythological tradition, above all with the beautiful old story of Pygmalion, in which the thoughts of art and love are connected so closely together. First of all, on the prows of the Phoenician ships, the tutelary image of Aphrodite Euplœa, the protectress of sailors, comes to Cyprus—to Cythera; it is in this simplest sense that she is, primarily, Anadyomene.6 And her connexion with the arts is always an intimate one. In Cyprus her worship is connected with an architecture, not colossal, but full of dainty splendour—the art of the shrine-maker, the maker of reliquaries; the art of the toilet, the toilet of Aphrodite; the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite is full of all that; delight in which we have seen to be characteristic of the true Homer.

And now we see why Hephaestus, that crook-backed and uncomely god, is the husband of Aphrodite. Hephaestus is the god of fire, indeed; as fire he is flung from heaven by Zeus; and in the marvellous contest between Achilles and the river Xanthus in the twenty-first book of the Iliad, he intervenes in favour of the hero, as mere fire against water. But he soon ceases to be thus generally representative of the functions of fire, and becomes almost exclusively representative of one only of its aspects, its function, namely, in regard to early art; he becomes the patron of smiths, bent with his labour at the forge, as people had seen such real workers; he is the most perfectly developed of all the Daedali, Mulcibers, or Cabeiri. That the god of fire becomes the god of all art, architecture included, so that he makes the houses of the gods, and is also the husband of Aphrodite, marks a threefold group of facts; the prominence, first, of a peculiar kind of art in early Greece, that beautiful metal-work, with which he is bound and bent; secondly, the connexion of this, through Aphrodite, with an almost wanton personal splendour; the connexion, thirdly, of all this with Cyprus and Phoenicia, whence, literally, Aphrodite comes. Hephaestus is the “spiritual form” of the Asiatic element in Greek art.

THIS, THEN, IS the situation which the first period of Greek art comprehends; a people whose civilisation is still young, delighting, as the young do, in ornament, in the sensuous beauty of ivory and gold, in all the lovely productions of skilled fingers. They receive all this, together with the worship of Aphrodite, by way of Cyprus, from Phoenicia, from the older, decrepit Eastern civilisation, itself long since surfeited with that splendour; and they receive it in frugal quantity, so frugal that their thoughts always go back to the East, where there is the fulness of it, as to a wonder-land of art. Received thus in frugal quantity, through many generations, that world of Asiatic tectonics stimulates the sensuous capacity in them, accustoms the hand to produce and the eye to appreciate the more delicately enjoyable qualities of material things. But nowhere in all this various and exquisite world of design is there as yet any adequate sense of man himself, nowhere is there an insight into or power over human form as the expression of human soul. Yet those arts of design in which that younger people delights have in them already, as designed work, that spirit of reasonable order, that expressive congruity in the adaptation of means to ends, of which the fully developed admirableness of human form is but the consummation— a consummation already anticipated in the grand and animated figures of epic poetry, their power of thought, their laughter and tears. Under the hands of that younger people, as they imitate and pass largely and freely beyond those older craftsmen, the fire of the reasonable soul will kindle, little by little, up to the Theseus of the Parthenon and the Venus of Melos.

The ideal aim of Greek sculpture, as of all other art, is to deal, indeed, with the deepest elements of man’s nature and destiny, to command and express these, but to deal with them in a manner, and with a kind of expression, as clear and graceful and simple, if it may be, as that of the Japanese flower-painter. And what the student of Greek sculpture has to cultivate generally in himself is the capacity for appreciating the expression of thought in outward form, the constant habit of associating sense with soul, of tracing what we call expression to its sources. But, concurrently with this, he must also cultivate, all along, a not less equally constant appreciation of intelligent workmanship in work, and of design in things designed, of the rational control of matter everywhere. From many sources he may feed this sense of intelligence and design in the productions of the minor crafts, above all in the various and exquisite art of Japan. Carrying a delicacy like that of nature itself into every form of imitation, reproduction, and combination— leaf and flower, fish and bird, reed and water—and failing only when it touches the sacred human form, that art of Japan is not so unlike the earliest stages of Greek art as might at first sight be supposed. We have here, and in no mere fragments, the spectacle of a universal application to the instruments of daily life of fitness and beauty, in a temper still unsophisticated, as also unelevated, by the divination of the spirit of man. And at least the student must always remember that Greek art was throughout a much richer and warmer thing, at once with more shadows, and more of a dim magnificence in its surroundings, than the illustrations of a classical dictionary might induce him to think. Some of the ancient temples of Greece were as rich in aesthetic curiosities as a famous modern museum. That Asiatic ποικιλíα,that spirit of minute and curious loveliness, follows the bolder imaginative efforts of Greek art all through its history, and one can hardly be too careful in keeping up the sense of this daintiness of execution through the entire course of its development. It is not only that the minute object of art, the tiny vase-painting, intaglio, coin, or cameo, often reduces into the palm of the hand lines grander than those of many a life-sized or colossal figure; but there is also a sense in which it may be said that the Venus of Melos, for instance, is but a supremely well-executed object of vertu, in the most limited sense of the term. Those solemn images of the temple of Theseus are a perfect embodiment of the human ideal, of the reasonable soul and of a spiritual world; they are also the best made things of their kind, as an urn or a cup is well made.

A perfect, many-sided development of tectonic crafts, a state such as the art of some nations has ended in, becomes for the Greeks a mere opportunity, a mere starting-ground for their imaginative presentment of man, moral and inspired. A world of material splendour, moulded clay, beaten gold, polished stone;—the informing, reasonable soul entering into that, reclaiming the metal and stone and clay, till they are as full of living breath as the real warm body itself; the presence of those two elements is continuous throughout the fortunes of Greek art after the heroic age, and the constant right estimate of their action and reaction, from period to period, its true philosophy.


Published to accompany ‘On Sculpture‘ by Anthony O’Hear.

In this series, from the Fortnightly Review archive:

I.The Heroic Age of Greek Art
II.The Age of Graven Images

The Marbles of Ægina

An essayist, critic and novelist, Walter Horatio Pater was a frequent contributor to the Fortnightly Review. His three essays on Greek sculpture – “The Beginnings of Greek Sculpture” parts one and two and “The Marbles of Aegina”  – appeared in the Fortnightly Review in February, March and April 1880 and were collected by his friend Charles Shadwell and published under the title Greek Studies in 1895, the year after his death at age 54.

NOTES (Pater’s are unsigned; those by the helpful Gutenberg Pater etext editor, Alfred J. Drake, Ph.D., are indicated in text comments and in the notes below):

  1. Il. xviii.468-608.
  2. Od. vii.37-132.
  3. Odyssey, Book VII, Pope. (Ed. Note)
  4. The names are etymological—chalkos, argyros, and chrysos signify, respectively, brass (or copper), silver, and gold. (Drake.)
  5. Liddell and Scott definition: “embroidery . . . (metaph.) cunning.” The metaphorical sense is the one Pater invokes. (Drake.)
  6. Euplœa . . . Anadyomene. Euplœa means “fair voyage”; Anadyomene, a participial form derived from the verb anadyô, “to rise, esp. from the sea,” (Liddell and Scott) may be rendered “she who emerges from the sea.” (Drake.)
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