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Bulfinch's Mythology The Age of Fable

Page: 230

SKETCH OF THE HISTORY OF GREEK SCULPTURE

We have seen throughout the course of this book how the Greek and Norse myths have furnished material for the poets, not only of Greece and Scandinavia, but also of modern times. In the same way these stories have been found capable of artistic treatment by painters, sculptors, and even by musicians. The story of Cupid and Psyche has not only been retold by poets from Apuleius to William Morris, but also drawn out in a series of frescoes by Raphael, and sculptured in marble by Canova. Even to enumerate the works of art of the modern and ancient world which depend for their subject-matter upon mythology would be a task for a book by itself. As we have been able to give only a few illustrations of the poetic treatment of some of the principal myths, so we shall have to content ourselves with a similarly limited view of the part played by them in other fields of art.

Of the statues made by the ancients themselves to represent their greater deities, a few have been already commented on. But it must not be thought that these splendid examples of plastic art, the Olympian Jupiter and the Athene of the Parthenon, represent the earliest attempts of the Greeks to give form to their myths in sculpture. Our most primitive sources of knowledge of much of Greek mythology are the Homeric poems, where the stories of Achilles and Ulysses have already taken on a poetic form, almost the highest conceivable. But in the other arts, Greek genius lagged behind. At the time when the Homeric poems were written, we find no traces of columned temples or magnificent statues. Scarcely were the domestic arts sufficiently advanced to allow the poet to describe dwellings glorious enough for his heroes to live in, or articles of common utility fit for their use. Of the two most famous works of art mentioned in the Iliad we must think of the statue of Athene at Troy (the Palladium) as a rude carving perhaps of wood, the arms of the goddess separated from the body only enough to allow her to hold the lance and spindle, which were the signs of her divinity. The splendor of the shield of Achilles must be attributed largely to the rich imagination of the poet.

Other works of art of this primitive age we know from descriptions in later classical writers. They attributed the rude statues which had come down to them to Daedalus and his pupils, and beheld them with wonder at their uncouth ugliness. It was long thought that these beginnings of Greek sculpture were to be traced to Egypt, but now-a-days scholars are inclined to take a different view. Egyptian sculpture was closely allied to architecture; the statues were frequently used for the columns of temples. Thus sculpture was subordinated to purely mechanical principles, and human figures were represented altogether in accordance with established conventions. Greek sculpture, on the contrary, even in its primitive forms was eminently natural, capable of developing a high degree of realism. From the first it was decorative in character, and this left the artist free to execute in his own way, provided only that the result should be in accordance with the highest type of beauty which he could conceive. An example of this early decorative art was the chest of Kypselos, on which stories from Homer were depicted in successive bands, the reliefs being partly inlaid with gold and ivory.


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