A collection of Greek Ornaments

Greek Ornaments.

The grammar of ornament by Owen Jones, London 1910.


A collection of the various forms of the Greek Fret or Greek key design ( A meander repeated motif) from Vases and Pavements.


Ornaments from Greek and Etruscan Vases in the British Museum and the Louvre.


1 and 4. From a Sarcophagus in Sicily. — Hittorff. 3, 5-11. From the Propylaea, Athens. — Hittorff. 12-17. From the Coffers of the Ceiling of the Propylaea. — Penrose. 18. String-course over the Panathenaic Frieze. Published by Mr. Penrose in gold only, we have supplied the blue and red. 19-21, 24-26. Painted Ornaments. — Hittorff.
22 and 27. Ornaments in Terra Cotta. 29. Painted Ornament from the Cymatium of the raking Cornice of the Parthenon. — L. Vulliamy, the blue and red supplied. 30-33. Various Frets, the traces of which exist on all the Temples at Athens. The colours supplied.

We have seen that Egyptian Ornament was derived direct from natural inspiration, that it was founded on a few types, and that it remained unchanged during the whole course of Egyptian civilisation, except in the more or less perfection of the execution, the more ancient monuments being the most perfect. We have further expressed our belief that the Assyrian was a borrowed style, possessing none of the characteristics of original inspiration, but rather appearing to have been suggested by the Art of Egypt, already in its decline, which decline was carried still farther. Greek Art, on the contrary, though borrowed partly from the Egyptian and partly from the Assyrian, was the development of an old idea in a new direction; and, unrestrained by religious laws, as would appear to have been both the Assyrian and the Egyptian, Greek Art rose rapidly to a high state of perfection, from which it was itself able to give forth the elements of future greatness to other styles. It carried the perfection of pure form to a point which has never since been reached; and from the very abundant remains we have of Greek ornament, we must believe the presence of refined taste was almost universal, and that the land was overflowing with artists, whose hands and minds were so trained as to enable them to execute these beautiful ornaments with unerring truth.

Greek ornament was wanting, however, in one of the great charms which should always accompany ornament,—viz. Symbolism. It was meaningless, purely decorative, never representative, and can hardly be said to be constructive; for the various members of a Greek monument rather present surfaces exquisitely designed to receive ornament, which they did, at first, painted, and in later times both carved and painted. The ornament was no part of the construction, as with the Egyptian: it could be removed, and the structure remained unchanged. On the Corinthian capital the ornament is applied, not constructed: it is not so on the Egyptian capital; there we feel the whole capital is the ornament,—to remove any portion of it would destroy it.

However much we may admire the extreme and almost divine perfection of the Greek monumental sculpture, in its application the Greeks frequently went beyond the legitimate bounds of ornament. The frieze of the Parthenon was placed so far from the eye that it became a diagram: the beauties which so astonish us when seen near the eye could only have been valuable so far as they evidenced the artist-worship which cared not that the eye saw the perfection of the work if conscious that it was to be found there; but we are bound to consider this an abuse of means, and that the Greeks were in this respect inferior to the Egyptians whose system of incavo relievo for monumental sculpture appears to us the more perfect.

The examples of representative ornament are very few, with the exception of the wave ornament and the fret used to distinguish water from land in their pictures, and some conventional renderings of trees, as at No. 12, Plate XXL, we have little that can deserve this appellation, but of decorative ornament the Greek and Etruscan vases supply us with abundant materials; and as the painted ornaments of the Temples, which have as yet been discovered, in no way differ from them, we have little doubt that we are acquainted with Greek ornament in all its phases. Like the Egyptian the types are few, but the conventional rendering is much further removed from the types. In the well-known honeysuckle ornament it is difficult to recognise any attempt at imitation, but rather an appreciation of the principle on which the flower grows; and, indeed, on examining the paintings on the vases, we are rather tempted to believe that the various forms of the leaves of a Greek flower have been generated by the brush of the painter, according as the hand is turned upwards or downwards in the formation of the leaf would the character be given, and it is more likely that the slight resemblance to the honeysuckle may have been an after recognition than that the natural flower should have ever served as the model. In Plate XCIX. will be found a representation of the honeysuckle: and how faint indeed is the resemblance. What is evident is, that the Greeks in their ornament were close observers of nature, and although they did not copy, or attempt to imitate, they worked on the same principles. The three great laws which we find everywhere in nature—radiation from the parent stem, proportionate distribution of the areas, and the tangential curvature of the lines are always obeyed, and it is the unerring perfection with which they are, in the most humble works as in the highest, which excites our astonishment, and which is only fully realised on attempting to reproduce Greek ornament, so rarely done with success. A very characteristic feature of Greek ornament, continued by the Romans, but abandoned during the Byzantine period, is, that the various parts of a scroll grow out of each other in a continuous line, as the ornament from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates.

In the Byzantine, the Arabian Moresque, and Early English styles, the flowers flow off on either side from a continuous line. We have here an instance how slight a change in any generally received principle is sufficient to generate an entirely new order of forms and ideas. Roman ornament is constantly struggling against this apparently fixed law. At the head of the Roman chapter is a fine example, which may be taken as a type of all other Roman ornament, which scarcely ever got beyond the arrangement of a volute springing from a stem fitting into another stem, encircling a flower. The change which took place during the Byzantine period in getting rid of this fixed law was as important in its results to the development of ornament, as was the substitution of the arch by the Romans for the straight architrave, or the introduction of the pointed arch in Gothic architecture. These changes have the same influence in the development of a new style of ornament as the sudden discovery of a general law in science, or the lucky patented idea which in any work of industry suddenly lets loose thousands of minds to examine and improve upon the first crude thought.

Plate XXII. is devoted to the remains of coloured ornaments on the Greek monuments. It will be seen that there is no difference whatever in the character of the drawing to those found on the vases. It is now almost universally recognised, that the white marble temples of the Greeks were entirely covered with painted ornament. Whatever doubts may exist as to the more or less colouring of the sculpture, there can be none as to the ornaments of the mouldings. The traces of colour exist everywhere so strongly, that in taking casts of the mouldings the traces of the pattern are strongly marked on the plaster cast. What the particular colours were, however, is not so certain. Different authorities give them differently: where one will see green, another finds blue—or imagines gold where another sees brown. We may be quite certain, however, of one point,—all these ornaments on the mouldings were so high from the ground, and so small in proportion to the distance from which they were seen, that they must have been coloured in a manner to render them distinct and to bring out the pattern. It is with this consideration that we have ventured to supply the colour to 18, 29, 31, 32, 33, which have hitherto been published only as gold or brown ornaments on the white marble.
Plate XV. In this Plate are given a collection of the different varieties of the Greek fret, from the simple generating form No. 3, to the more complicated meander No. 15. It will be seen, that the variety of arrangement of form that can be produced by the interlacing of lines at right angles in this form is very limited. We have, first, the simple fret, No. 1, running in one direction with a single line; the double fret, No. 11, with the second line interlacing with the first; all the others are formed by placing these frets one under the other, running in different directions, as at No. 17; back to back, as at Nos. 18 and 19 ; or enclosing squares, as at No. 20. All the other kinds are imperfect frets,—that is, not forming a continuous meander. The raking fret, No 2, ‘ is the parent of all the other forms of interlacing ornament in styles which succeeded the Greek. From this was ‘first derived the Arabian fret, which in its turn gave birth to that infinite variety of interlaced ornaments formed by the intersection of equidistant diagonal lines, which the Moors carried to such perfection in the Alhambra.

The knotted work of the Celts differs from the Moresque interlaced patterns only in adding curved terminations to the diagonal intersecting lines. The leading idea once obtained, it gave birth to an immense variety of new forms.
The knotted rope ornament of the Greeks may also have had some influence in the formation both of these and the Arabian and Moresque interlaced ornaments.
The Chinese frets are less perfect than any of these. They are formed, like the Greek, by the intersection of perpendicular with horizontal lines, but they have not the same regularity, and the meander is more often elongated in the horizontal direction. They are also most frequently used fragmentally, – that is there is a repetition of one fret after the other, or one below the other, without forming; a continuous meander.

The Mexican ornaments and frets, of which we here give some illustrations from Mexican pottery in the British Museum, have a remarkable affinity with the Greek fret; and in Mr. Catherwood’s illustrations of the architecture of Yucatan we have several varieties of the Greek fret: one especially is thoroughly Greek. But they are, in general, fragmentary, like the Chinese: there is also to be found at Yucatan a fret with a diagonal line, which is peculiar.

The ornaments on Plate XVI. have been selected to show the various forms of conventional leafage to be found on the Greek vases. They are all very far removed from any natural type, and are rather constructed on the general principles which reign in all plants, than attempt to represent any particular one. The ornament No. 2 is the nearest approach to the honeysuckle,—that is, the leaves have the peculiar turn upwards of that flower, but it can hardly be called an attempt to represent it. Several of the ornaments on Plate XVII. are much nearer to Nature: the laurel, the ivy, and vine will be readily distinguished. Plates XVIII., XIX., XX., and XXL, present further varieties from borders, necks, and lips of vases in the British Museum and the Louvre. Being produced by one or two colours, they all depend for their effect on pure form: they have mostly this peculiarity, that the groups of leaves or flowers all spring from a curved stem, with a volute at either end, and all the lines grow out of this parent stem in tangential curves. The individual eaves all radiate from the centre of the group of leaves, each leaf diminishing in exquisite proportion as it approaches the springing of the group.

When we consider that each leaf was done with a single stroke of the brush, and that from the differences which appear we may be sure no mechanical aids were employed, we must be astonished at the high state of the Arts which must have existed for artists to be found in such numbers able to execute with unerring truth what it is almost beyond the skill of modern times even to copy with the same happy result.

Source: The grammar of ornament by Owen Jones, London 1910. Illustrated by examples from various styles of ornament. Drawn on stone by F. Bedford, and printed in colors by Day and Son, London.