The column originated with the Egyptians. It was at first heavy, broad compared to its length, and was usually covered with hieroglyphics. The architecture of Egypt, of which the principal forms are pyramids, sphinxes, obelisks, and temples, is characterized by massiveness of material, grandeur of proportion, and simplicity of parts - a style well suited to its flat, sandy soil, though it would look heavy and out of place in a country where nature had herself supplied the elements of grandeur and massiveness in the form of lofty mountains or mighty forests. Egyptian art greatly influenced all the succeeding styles, and to this time is unsurpassed in many of its qualities.
2. Greek Art. - The next great historic style is the Greek. Its spirit differed entirely from the Egyptian, being aesthetic and not symbolic. Its sole aim was to create beautiful forms, without any thought of attaching to them a meaning. It adopted many Egyptian forms, such as the lotus, fret, and scroll, but divested them of all symbolism or significance. The most characteristic feature of Greek ornament is the anthemion, a conventionalized flower form resembling our honeysuckle bud, which was usually alternated with the lotus or lily form bud. The Greeks also borrowed the column and flat arch from the Egyptians, but changed it to a more slender, graceful form. The three principal orders of Greek architecture are named from the style of the column used that characterized them, viz., the Corinthian, the Doric, the Ionic. Of these the Doric is the simplest and the Corinthian the most elaborate.
For harmony of proportions, elegance of form, and simplicity of detail, Greek architecture and ornament has probably never been surpassed. These qualities are admirably displayed in the Parthenon, a temple in Athens, dedicated to Venus. Though in ruins, it is still one of the greatest attractions to travelers in Greece. A very fine collection of fragments taken from it is to be seen in the British Museum. They are known as the Elgin marbles.
The most flourishing period of Greek art, as will be found in the history of almost all nations, was identical with the most flourishing period of its literature and general welfare.
3. Roman Art. - In the 6th century B.C. the Greeks, already on the decline, were conquered by the Romans, a nation hardier and more powerful, though ruder and less civilized than themselves. The conquerors recognized this, and immediately set to work to copy or steal from their vanquished foes everything that might enhance the beauty and splendor of their own city. Greek artists were transported to Rome and placed in charge of the most important public works. Roman art is, consequently, but a development or adaptation of the Greek. It is noticeable, however, that it almost completely ignored the most characteristic and popular of the Greek forms - for example, the anthemion - and adapted those, such as the acanthus and the scroll, which had been considered of minor importance among the Greeks. They added another to the three orders of the Greek architecture, viz., the Composite, the most elaborate of all, being a combination of the Ionic and the Corinthian. This leads us to consider the leading features of Roman ornament - richness and profusion. With the acanthus and scroll as their principal units of design, they elaborated and enriched every form that would admit of it.
The most elaborate Greek example cannot compare in this respect to the simplest Roman. The Roman style of architecture was very similar to the Greek, though more massive in its proportions, probably on account of the larger number of people to be accommodated. The details were also bolder and the curves fuller. They used the round arch to a great extent. The column of Trajan and the Forum are fine examples of their architecture.
The Roman empire, after having reigned as mistress of the world for upward of five centuries, commenced to show signs of decay. Its people had gradually lost the sturdy spirit of independence, endurance, and courage which had characterized their forefathers, and had degenerated into a race of effeminate slaves and cowards. Ostentation became the feature of their art; immorality and luxury, of their mode of living. They thus fell an easy prey to the rude but vigorous barbarians of the North. The latter, rude and uncivilized as they were, extended the contempt they had for the nation they had conquered to their works of art as well, and mutilated or destroyed them whenever they could lay hands on them.
This spirit of antagonism was strengthened upon their conversion to Christianity, and everything that savored of paganism in art or literature was severely proscribed. For the heathen forms, whose only aim and object was beauty, were substituted religious symbols, the cross and other implements of the passion, the lily, the fish, the aureole, etc., whose object was to recall to the faithful the mysteries of religion. Gradually, however, as the artistic feelings of the new people became awakened, principles of beauty commenced to be regarded, and, while symbolism remained an important feature of European art until the period of the Renaissance, and even then was not entirely superseded, magnificent artistic results were obtained.
1. Byzantine Art. - The principal of the early mediaeval art developments was the Byzantine. It flourished principally in the eastern part of Europe. In the west it was known, with a few variations, as the Lombard and the Norman. All three are often included under the term Romanesque.
Byzantine art was essentially Christian in its spirit and motives. It used religious symbols extensively, but incorporated in its ornament a few pagan elements, such as the acanthus and the scroll. Natural forms were always conventionally treated. Its coloring was rich and gorgeous. The principal features of its architecture were the dome and round arch. The plan of the churches was often in the form of a Greek or Latin cross, with the dome placed over the intersection of the two arms. The church of St. Sophia, in Constantinople, is the most magnificent example of Byzantine architecture and ornament. Although now a Mohammedan mosque, it is, probably, in the motive and spirit that actuated its construction, the most Christian building in the world.