Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, by W.R. Lethaby, , at sacred-texts.com
'He first framed,
WE speak of the sky as a vault, a dome; but before domes or vaults were invented it evidently could have been likened to neither. It was then without doubt a ceiling, a flat extension.
Of course the sky was understood to be hollow, semi-spherical, at a very early time indeed; but it is evidently a more advanced and philosophical view than the other.
If we may take it as proved that the architectural dome was known and first reared in Chaldea (see Perrot) by a people who saw in the sky a solid hemisphere, and much given to nature symbolism in their buildings; may not the design and daring construction of the cupola be attributed to the form of the heavenly dome, and the desire that the 'ceiling' of the temple should still recall the ceiling of the great nature temple?
There is such a clear and constraining congruity between them that to describe a dome seems to call for the simile to the firmament: St Paul's, for instance—
It may be said that at great periods of architecture ceilings were always skies. Viollet-le-Duc tells us, in his Dictionnaire de l’Architecture (Art. Peinture), that the whole scheme of interior colour had to be readjusted in the thirteenth century to harmonise with the vaults, which were painted the most brilliant of blues, parsemee, with gold stars, against which nothing could hold its
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In Giotto's Arena Chapel at Padua, the walls are covered with pictured panels, the background of all alike being of blue leading up to the sky of the vault. Again in Italy—but this time in pure Byzantine style direct from Constantinople—the dome of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, at Ravenna, is a
magnificent instance in brilliant mosaic; blue, powdered with a profusion of stars to the zenith. (See figure.) In Sta. Sophia itself, the ciborium over the altar was supported on four silver pillars, the under side of the dome twinkling with stars. The manual obtained by Didron on Mount Athos describes how ceilings should be designed as heavens.
In 'Roman' Rome, the gorgeous taste of Nero seems to have affected these ceilings at the Golden Palace; and Tacitus gives an account of the scene at Pompey's theatre on the occasion of the reception of an Eastern prince:—'The stage and the whole inside of that noble structure were cased with gold: such a profusion of wealth and magnificence had never been displayed to view. To screen the spectators from the rays of the sun, a purple canopy, inlaid with golden stars, was spread over their heads.' A Roman example may be seen in Smith's 'Dictionary' (Art. Penates).
As showing that it touched the imagination and was no mere decorative tradition, better than facts, we have fiction and legends, the twelfth century guidebook to the eternal city, the Mirabilia Vrbis Romæ (Nichols) contains the account of 'a temple that was called Holovitreum, being made of glass and gold by mathematical craft, where was an astronomy with all the signs of the heavens, the which was destroyed by St Sebastian.' A MS. of the fourteenth century, incorporated in the same book, tells of the wonders of the Flavian amphitheatre. 'The Colosseum was the temple of the sun, of marvellous greatness and beauty, disposed with many diverse vaulted chambers, and all covered with a heaven of gilded brass, where thunders and lightnings and glittering fires were made, and where rain was shed through slender tubes. Besides this,
there were the signs super-celestial and the planets Sol and Luna, that were drawn along in their proper chariots. And in the midst abode Phœbus—that is, the god of the sun—which, having his feet on the earth, reached into heaven with his head, and did hold in his hand an orb, signifying that Rome ruled over the world.' Our own Higden, in the Polychronicon, adds to the might and marvel of the sun-god in this place:—'This brazen statue, gilded with imperial gold, continually shed rays through the darkness, and turned round in even movement with the sun, carrying his face always opposite to the solar body; and all the Romans when they came near worshipped, in token of subjection.' The story of a temple of glass is especially interesting. Benjamin of Tudela about the same time describes another as existing at Damascus.
In the Dietrich Romances, King Laurin of the Rose Garden has a subterranean palace to which he carries off his bride. In it 'the walls were of polished marble inlaid with gold and silver; the floor was formed of a single agate, the ceiling of a sapphire, and from it there hung shining carbuncles like stars in the blue sky of night.'
In the 'Parsifal,' Titurel, the ancestor of the hero, builds on Mount Salvatch a temple worthy to enshrine the sangreal. It was discovered that the rock or core of the mountain was one entire onyx of enormous size, and this was flattened into a flooring and polished with great care. One morning the plan was found miraculously marked out and all the materials ready, and with supernatural aid the temple was soon completed. It was circular in form, and had seventy-two octagonal choirs and thirty-six belfries. In the midst was a tower with many windows, its topmost point a ruby, out of which rose a cross of clear crystal surmounted by a golden eagle with outstretched wings. 'Within the building, sculptured vines, roses, and lilies
twined about the pillars, forming bowers, on whose branches birds seem to flutter as if alive. At every intersection of the arches was a glowing carbuncle that turned night into day; and the vaulted roof was blue, of sapphire, in which a miracle of art was to be seen. The sun, moon, and stars, placed there by the builders, moved in, the same order as the real luminaries in the heavens. In the wide inner space of the great temple a second and smaller sanctuary was built, resembling the first, but far more beautiful. This was the place intended for the sangreal should it come down to earth' (Wagner and M‘Dowall).
The alliterative Romance of Alexander (Early English Text) describes the palace of Candace as built all of gold, encrusted with precious stones, on pillars of polished porphyry. An inner chamber was by sorcery wonderfully founded, and 'made by marvel to move.' 'Twenty tamed oliphants turned it about,' and, as the Queen and Alexander entered, it began to revolve.
Similar imagery is used in the popular mediæval history, 'The Invention of the Cross' in Caxton's 'Golden Legend,' and other earlier Cross poems. One of the thirteenth century, published by the Early English Text Society, says: There was a king named 'Cosdre' (Chosroes). He conquered many lands. He came to Jerusalem and took possession of a part of the sweet Cross, which he removed to Persia.
Here he rears a throne, and set himself up as a god. Heraclius, the emperor, makes war on Chosroes, and finds him on the throne in his false heaven where he slays him, and then restores the sacred wood to Jerusalem.
Sir H. Rawlinson, writing of Ecbatana in the 'Journal of the Geographical Society,' quotes Cedrenus, the Byzantine historian, on the wars of Justinian and Heraclius against Chosroes. Heraclius, when he took possession of Canzaca, 'found the abominable image of Chosroes; a figure of the king enthroned beneath the globular dome of the palace, as though he were seated in the heavens; around him were emblems of the sun and moon and stars, to which, in his superstition, he seemed to offer adoration, as if to the gods, while sceptre-bearing angels ministered on every side, and curiously-wrought machines distilled drops of water, to represent the falling rain, and uttered roaring sounds in imitation of the peals of thunder. All these things the emperor consumed with fire, and, at the same time, he reduced to ashes the temple and the entire city.'
Canzaca was taken by Heraclius in 628. Rawlinson (VII. Monarchy) tells us of the even greater splendours of Dastagherd:—'The Orientals say that the palace was supported on forty thousand columns of silver, adorned by thirty thousand rich hangings upon the walls, and further ornamented by a thousand globes suspended from the roof' (p. 528). 'The royal crown—which could not be worn, but was hung from the ceiling by a gold chain exactly over the head of the king when he took his seat in his throne-room—is said to have been adorned with a thousand pearls, each as large as an egg. The throne itself was of gold, and was supported on four feet, each formed of a single enormous ruby' (p. 640). The globes were
[paragraph continues] 'probably of crystal or gold.' A curtain shut off the king from ordinary gaze, and the courtiers were organised in seven ranks. In the paradise attached were beasts for the chase—lions and tigers, gazelles, peacocks and pheasants. But the most splendid of these palaces was that of Ctesiphon, taken by the Arabs not ten years later than the campaign of Heraclius, the facade of which stands to-day with its great arched portal, seventy-two feet wide and eighty-five feet high. 'In the centre was the Hall of Audience—a noble apartment one hundred and fifteen feet long and eighty-five feet high, with a magnificent vaulted roof, bedecked with golden stars so arranged as to represent the motions of the planets among the twelve signs of the zodiac—where the monarch was accustomed to sit on a golden throne.' The treasury was full of gold, gems, and arms; spices, gums, and perfumes. 'In one apartment was found a carpet of white brocade four hundred and fifty feet long and ninety broad, with a border worked in precious stones of various hues, to represent a garden of all kinds of beautiful flowers. The leaves were formed of emeralds, the blossoms and buds of pearls, rubies, and sapphires, and other gems of immense value.' There was a horse of gold with a jewelled saddle, and a camel of silver; suits of gold armour, scimitars, and 'cuirasses of Solomon' (Rawlinson (VII. Mon. 565).
There can be no doubt that these many notices show us the ceremony of the Persian court continued through centuries. The king was a god, 'brother of the sun and moon,' as he calls himself; and he sat in the middle of a universe of his own, ministered to by the seven orders of the heavenly hierarchy—as in China, there are nine who surround the throne.
It accords well with the theatrical genius of Nero that he should have copied this solemn and magical
symbolism (which; we have also seen, formed part of the Mithraic ritual) in a mere supper-room of his palace.
Of this wonderful palace, called the Golden House, sober annalists give accounts marvellous in comparison even with the marvels of romance. 'In nothing,' says Suetonius, was he more prodigal than in his buildings. He completed his palace by continuing it from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill, calling the building at first only "The Passage;" but after it was burnt down and rebuilt, the "Golden House." Of its dimensions and furniture it may be sufficient to say thus much: the porch was so high that there stood in it a colossal statue of himself a hundred and twenty feet in height, and the space included in it was so ample that it had triple porticos a mile in length; and a lake like a sea, surrounded with buildings that had the appearance of a city; within its area were cornfields, vineyards, pastures, and woods containing a vast number of animals of various kinds, both wild and tame. In other parts it was entirely overlaid with gold, and adorned with gold and mother-of-pearl. The supper-rooms were vaulted, and compartments of the ceilings, inlaid with ivory, were made to revolve, and scatter flowers; while they contained pipes which shed unguents upon the guests. The chief banqueting-room was circular, and revolved perpetually, night and day, in imitation of the motion of the celestial bodies. The baths were supplied with water from the sea and the Albula. Upon the dedication of this magnificent house, after it was finished, all he said in approval of it was: 'That he had now "a building fit for a man."'
It is said, by Philostratus, that Appolonius of Tyana, when in Babylon, 'visited an apartment belonging to the men, the ceiling of which was domed in the form of the heavens, and covered with sapphire
which is a stone of an azure colour resembling the sky. Under this canopy were suspended the images of their reputed deities, wrought in gold, and shedding a light as if from heaven. Here it is where the king sits in judgment. Four golden figures in form of birds are hung from the roof.' It was doubtless in such a place that Ahasuerus sat, god-like, when Esther feared to approach. In Persia, where modern ceilings still imitate the sky, it would seem to be an unbroken tradition from the earliest days. Not a ceiling remains to us from the buildings of Assyria, but it is significant that an inscription reads: 'I caused a ceiling of cedar wood to be made, beautiful as the stars of heaven, adorned with gold.' It is probable that the shrines were lined over the ceiling and walls with lapis lazuli, or blue tiles, as fragments have been found. In Mexico, the shrine represented a star-strewn sky; and in China, the roofs of the sacred buildings of Pekin are covered with azure porcelain.
In the temples of Syria, zodiacs are sculptured on the stone ceilings. The Hindus, in the temples of Orissa, followed the same custom.
In Athens, it is said, in the third cent. B.C. concave ceilings were emblazoned with the heavenly signs. The many fragments we have of Greek ceilings found in excavation, and figured in books, show that they were usually divided into small square panels or coffers, the field of which was blue, each charged with a golden star. The British Museum, and other modern classics, follow this method; sometimes the coffers were slightly concave.
A modern ceiling designed with a real feeling for mystery, is that arranged by the Marquis of Bute at Mount Stuart House, where the aspect of the heavens at his birth is correctly set out on the library ceiling.
It is in Egypt that we shall find this dedication of the ceiling to the sky the most completely accepted, and that not only in the temple but in the tomb also; there, on the table of offerings, are food and wine for sustenance, and on its walls are figured all the works of the days of the earthly year and its pastimes; no mere decoration, but a 'double' of the things of earth, so that the dead may suffer no want in his long habitation. Over all is the sky in semblance; the deep blue of night with its stars, cloudless and still; never intended to be seen by other eyes than the eyes of the dead.
In sacred pictures the upper edge of the scene is occupied by the ideogram for sky or ceiling, a horizontal bar with a nib turned down vertically at each end, sometimes blue and the field for a line of stars. 'By the band of stars along the top of each scene, they represented the sky, or the ceiling of the temple, where the ceremony which is made the subject of the picture was supposed to have taken place. In fact, the ceilings of temples are very often decorated with white stars, with a red spot in the middle, scattered on a blue sky; these stars sometimes cover the whole ceiling, and form then the only decoration' (Description de l’Egypt.).
This hieroglyph is also the symbol of the impersonation of the sky, Tpe. Wilkinson says: 'She was a deification of the heaven itself, or that part of the firmament in which the stars are placed; she is sometimes represented under the hieroglyphic character signifying "the heavens" studded with stars, and sometimes as a human figure, whose body, as it bends forward with outspread arms, appears to overshadow the earth and encompass it, in imitation of the vault of heaven, reaching from one side of the horizon to the other. In this posture she encloses the zodiacs, as at Esneh and Denderah.'
Champollion says: 'The Egyptians compared the sky to the ceilings of an edifice, and those of the greater part of the temples are painted blue, powdered with stars. . . . The goddess of the sky is figured under the form of a woman, whose body, placed horizontally, and out of all proportion long, embraces a large space, circumscribed by the legs and arms, which are vertical. . . . It is to be remarked that the body of the goddess Tpe, shown on the astronomical
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sculptures, is disposed in a manner to recall the form of the hieroglyph.'
Sometimes two goddesses are shown, who are thus described by Lenormant: 'Two female figures posed in such a manner that their bodies form, as it were, a flat ceiling, of which the legs and arms are of each end the supports; they are Tpe, the sky, and Nut, the celestial ocean.' The ceiling of the portico at Philæ, figured in the Description of the French Commission, has both these figures extended on the ceiling; their bodies are laid down in profile,
with legs and arms bent at right angles to the torso, the Egyptians never drawing the figure in full face until a late time. At Denderah, this difficulty has been surmounted, and the goddess is full face, and particularly well rendered. The third figure, sometimes found, which the over-shadowing goddess touches with finger tips and toes, is Seb, the earth.
In the first volume of the Description there are other examples given. At Esneh, the ceiling of the portico has one of these figures at each end, perfectly rectangular in form, and the space is filled with zodiacal signs as well as stars. At Erment, three sides of the ceiling are surrounded by one of these figures, the body being drawn out to immense length, and ruled perfectly straight, filling the longitudinal side of the ceiling, which exceeds by three times the ends occupied by the arms and legs.
The ceiling of the portico at Denderah furnishes the most exaggerated example of all. The bodies of the goddesses, covered with the zigzag of water, stretch along the sides, like long streams, on which float lines of stars, the mid-space being occupied by the signs of the zodiac, and other astronomical figures and stars.
Much earlier, and by far the most impressive, is that in the tombs of the kings at Thebes, of the great period of the nineteenth dynasty. This nude figure is beautifully proportioned, drawn with the precision of a Greek vase painting, and fearlessly coloured the brightest lapis lazuli blue. The watchful goddess of the sky, all-embracing, lost in the darkness in the farther part of the chamber, peers down from the ceiling, her body bedecked with the planets as bright discs, 'the stars on the body of the heavenly goddess Nut.'
There is another variety of sky ceiling at Denderah. A square apartment has a large circle touching its
sides; around an outer zone are the signs of the zodiac, and the central space is filled with the northern constellations.
The simpler form, of stars only, thickly strewn as daisies in a meadow, is the most beautiful representation of 'the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven.' A good coloured plate of one of these is given in Lepsius. On a bright blue sky large white five-rayed stars (why do stars appear to have five rays?),
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are regularly spaced, almost touching one another. In the middle of every one is a spot of bright red, which, on the white with the surrounding blue, seems to make them dance and flicker before the eyes; others have white stars on an expanse of black, as in the pyramids of Dashour; or, again, the stars may be gold. 'The ceilings of the temples of Thebes had generally a blue ground, upon which vultures, with their great wings outspread, floated among golden stars' (Perrot). Not to give a catalogue of these, we will content ourselves by looking at an early one.
[paragraph continues] In 1881, Maspero opened a pyramid at Sakkarah, belonging to a king, the last Pharaoh of the fifth dynasty. Here, at a time to which no man can number back the years, 'the side walls are covered with fine hieroglyphs, painted green, and the roof sprinkled with stars of the same hue.'
Last of all, more pathetic than temple or tomb with their ceilings like the sky, the coffin itself was adorned in the same way. Coffins in the British Museum of a late period have their lids painted on the under side to resemble the sky, a greenish-blue studded with stars; along the margins are the signs of the zodiac in two rows; in the middle of these, longways, is the goddess of the heavens, in full face, white and serene, her eyes for ever looking down into his whom she watches and guards.
These men of Egypt loved the same sky that we also love.