1902 Encyclopedia > Mural Decoration > Mural Decoration - Introduction; Methods: (1) Reliefs Sculptured in Marble or Stone.

Mural Decoration
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Mural Decoration - Introduction. (1) Reliefs Sculptured in Marble or Stone.

There is scarcely one of the numerous branches of decoration art which has not at some time or other been applied to the ornamenting of wall-surfaces. It will be convenient to classify the various methods under different heads. [Footnote 34-1]

1. Reliefs sculptured in Marble or Stone.-- This is the oldest method all of wall-decoration, of which numerous examples still exist. The tombs and temples of Egypt are very rich in this kind of mural ornament of various dates, extending over the enormous period of nearly 5000 years. These sculptures are, as a rule, carved in very low relief; in many cases they are "counter-sunk," that is, the most projecting parts of the figures do not extend beyond the flat surface of the ground. Some unfinished reliefs discovered in the rock-cut tombs of Thebes show the manner in which the sculptor set to work. The plain surface of the stone was marked out by red lines into a number of squares of equal sizes. The use of this was probably twofold: first, as a guide in enlarging the design from a small drawing, a method still commonly practised; second, to help the artist to draw his figures with just proportions, following the very strict canons which were laid down by the Egyptians. No excessive realism or individuality of style arising from a careful study of the lifemodel was permitted.[Footnote 34-2] When the surface had been covered with squares, the artist drew with a brush dipped in red the outlines of his relief, and then cut round them with his chisel.

When the relief was finished, it was, as a rule, entirely painted over with much minuteness and great variety of colours. More rarely the ground was left the natural tint of the stone or marble, and only the figures and hieroglyphs painted. In the case of sculpture in hard basalt or granite the painting appears often to have been omitted altogether. The utter absence of perspective effects and the severe self-restraint of the sculptors in the matter of composition show a keen sense of artistic fitness in this kind of decoration. That the stern rigidity of these sculptured pictures did not in any way arise from want of skill or observation of nature on the part of the artists is act once apparent when we examine their representations of birds and animals; with the most unerring skill and precision the special characteristics of each creature and species were caught by the ancient Egyptian and reproduced in stone or colour, not literally, but in a half-symbolic way, suggesting exactly those peculiarities of form, plumage, or movement which are the essence and " differentia" of each , all other ideas bearing less directly on the point being carefully eliminated.

The subjects of these great mural sculptures are endless in their variety; almost every possible incident in man’s life here or beyond the grave is reproduced with the closest attention to details. The tomb of Tîh at Sakkarah (about 4500 B. C.) has some of the finest and earliest specimens of these mural sculptures, especially rich in illustrations of the every-day domestic life and occupations of the Egyptians. The later tombs, as a rule, have sculptures depicting the religious ritual and belief of the people, and the temples combine hieratic subjects with the history of the reigns and victories of the Egyptian kings.

The above remarks as to style and manner of execution may be applied also to the wall-sculptures from the royal palaces of Nineveh and Babylon, the finest of which are shown by inscriptions to date from the time of Sennacherib to that of Sardanapalus (from 705 to 625 B. C.). These are carved in very low relief with almost gem-like delicacy of detail on enormous slabs of white marble. The sacred subjects, generally representing the king worshipping one of the numerous Assyrian gods, are mostly large, often colossal in scale. The other subjects, illustrating the life and amusements of the king, his prowess in war or hunting, or long processions of prisoners and tribute-bearers coming to do him homage, are generally smaller and in some cases very minute in scale (fig. 1).

Assyrian wall relief at Nineveh image

Fig. 1 -- Assyrian Relief, on a marble Wall-slab from the Palace of Sardanapalus at Nineveh.

The arrangement of these reliefs in long horizontal bands, and their reserved conventional treatment are somewhat similar to those of ancient Egypt, but they show a closer attention to anatomical truth and a greater love for strong dramatic effect than any of the Egyptian reliefs. As in the art of Egypt, birds and animals are treated with far greater realism than human figures. The plastic art of no period or country has ever surpassed in skill and life-like truth the Assyrian reliefs of horses, mules, hounds, goats, lions, and many other animals. A relief in the British Museum, representing a lioness wounded by an arrow in her spine and dragging helplessly her paralysed hind legs, affords an example of wonderful truth and pathos. Very remarkable technical sill is shown in all these sculptures by the way in which the sculptors have obtained the utmost amount of effect with the smallest possible amount of relief (see BABYLONIA, vol.iii. p. 190), in this respect calling strongly to mind a similar peculiarity in the work of the Florentine Donatello.

The palace at Mashita on the hajj road in Moab, built by the Sasanian Chosroes II. (614-627 A. D.), is ornamented on the exterior with very beautiful surface sculpture in stone. The designs of this are of peuliar interest as forming an evident link between Assyrian and Byzantine art, and they are not remotely connected with the decoration on Moslem buildings of comparatively modern date.[Footnote 35-1]

Especially in Italy during the Middle Ages a similar treatment of marble in low relief was frequently used for wall-decoration. The most notable example is the beautiful series of reliefs on the west front of Orvieto cathedral, the work of Giovanni Pisano and his pupils in the early part of the 14th century. These are small reliefs, illustrative of the Old and New Testaments, of most gracefully design and skilful execution. A growth of branching foliage serves to untie and frame the tiers of subjects.

Of a widely different class, but of considerable importance in the history of mural decoration, are the very beautiful reliefs, sculptures in stone and marble, with which Moslem buildings in many parts of the world are ornamented. These are mostly geometrical patterns of great intricacy and beauty, which cover large surfaces, frequently broken up into panels by bands of more flowing ornament or Arabic inscriptions. The mosques of Cairo, India, and Persia and the domestic Moslem buildings of Spain are extremely rich in the magnificent method of decoration. In western Europe, especially during the 15th century, stone panelled-work with rich tracery formed a large part of the scheme of decoration in all the more splendid buildings. Akin to this, though without actual relief, is the very sumptuous stone tracery, —inlaid flush into rough flint walls, —which was a mode of ornament largely used for enriching the exteriors of churches in the countries of Norfolf and Suffolk. It is almost peculiar to that district, and is an admirable example of the skill and taste with which the mediaeval builders adapted their method or ornamentation to the materials came naturally to hand.[Footnote 35-2]


(34-1) See also FRESCO, MOSAIC, KÁSHI, and TAPESTRY.

(34-2) During the earliest times—more than 4000 years before our era –there appear to have been exceptions to this rule.

(35-1) Among the Mashita carvings occurs that oldest and most widely spread of all forms of Aryan ornament—the sacred tree between two animals. The sculptured slab over the "lion-gate" at Mycenae has the other common variety of this motive—the five-altar between the beasts. These designs, occasionally varied by figures of human worshippers instead of the beasts, survived in a most extraordinary way long after their meaning had been forgotten ; even down to the present day in some form or other they frequently appear on carpets and other textiles of Oriental manufacture.

(35-2) Wilkinson, Anc. Egypt. (1847); Descr. De l’ Égypte (Paris, 180 et sq.) ; Layard, Monuments of Nineveh (1849-53) ; Botta, Mon. de Égypte (1835-45) ; Mariette, Descr. De Denderah (1873-75) ; Rossellino, Monumenti d’ Egitto, 1826.

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