The birth of art itself—its babyhood, its adolescence, its prime, its decrepitude, and its decay may all be traced on the walls of the world’s buildings—no matter whether these walls are monolithic or architechtonic in construction.
The rise of the graphic arts had its origin in the decoration of wall-spaces, and Painting has until very modern times citing to the skirts of Architecture. It was a bad day for Painting and for Architecture when the two parted company, it was an unnatural disunion of twin souls; and the restoration of art in its all pristine glory must await the renewal of that close alliance as it existed in the good old days.
All lovers of India will be keenly and deeply solicitous to see revived in that country this entente between painter and architect, this union, which is essential if India is to become fully articulate and to impart the message which is hers alone, to the world.
Discoveries in recent times have established the extreme antiquity of mural painting—this Parent of the Fine Arts;—an antiquity so vast that it justifies us in the assumption that art is almost as old as man himself. Before our primitive Fathers had discovered the use of fire, clothing, or implements, they had formed a desire and found a means to depict on the walls, not rough, but beautifully drawn images of the beasts of the chase, as can be seen in many a cavern in France to-day. And far later, but still long before the dawn, in darkest Ethiopia glimmered the coloured frieze, the illuminated wall, the variegated column. And so Art was carried into Egypt, and in the very first flush of the sunrise of History we perceive mural painting as an art of long established popularity and of immensely ancient tradition.
But from the influence of Egyptian art’s rigid fetters the spirit of Mural Painting at last made her escape, to fly lightly across blue Ionian seas, and to be welcomed by a people in whose warm-hearted worship of beauty its North-African rigidity and coldness melted into supple charm. It was in the Halls of Delphi, and in the colonnades of Athens that Mural Painting was first acclaimed the Queen of the Arts. The sway this art wielded over the Athenians, is too often forgotten by us to-day. The reason is not very far to seek, because of all the well-attested triumphs of Mural Painting of ancient Greece no trace that is worthy remains, so that it is only by refreshing our memories with the descriptions of contemporary authors that we realise the vast importance accorded by the Greeks to the art of painting upon the walls.
That must, in truth, have been a Golden Age of painting. “If anything were wanting” writes an eminent authority, “to convince us of the high estimation painting was held in by the Greeks, two facts alone, namely, that Plato studied it, and Socrates was a sculptor by profession are enough” Another historian writes, “What must have been the effect on the rising youth of Greece when the Amphictyonic Council decreed that Polygnotus, their greatest monumental painter, should be maintained at the public expense wherever he went, as a mark of National admiration for his great work, the Mural Paintings in the Hall at Delphi.”
Again we read that “Zeuxis” (the painter) “became very rich, grew very haughty and always appeared at the Olympic games in a purple robe with his name on the border.” Apelles who came next in this great trio received if possible even more public praise and patronage than his predecessors. The greatest works of all these great artists were executed upon the walls.
But with the conquest of Greece by the Romans, Mural Painting slipped steadily downwards from its high place till under the Emperor Justinian, the art that had delighted the accomplished Athenians was finally banished from the walls and vaultings as vulgar!
Mosaic with its dazzling pretensions had ousted the purer art. It was not until the Italian Renaissance that the buildings of Europe once more received at the hands of great artists the accolade of colour.
But if that dainty spirit whose perigrinations we are attempting to trace, was well-nigh banished from Europe throughout the period of the Dark Ages, she had found a place of refuge.
In the seventh century Huen Tsang, a Chinese pilgrim, home-returned from his wanderings among the Buddhist shrines of India, told his marvelling hearers of “a great mountain with towering crags and a continual stretch of piled up rocks and scarped precipice” He told them of a wondrous monastery carved out of that dark valley; of its “lofty halls and side-aisls,” deep-hewn in the solid rock, and how on these walls were painted in glowing tints living pictures illustrating the life of the Master.
Here then was the “Desired Haven”! Here the spirit outcast from the flaunting palaces of the Caesars, condemned to imprisonment in crypt, and catacomb; scarcely tolerated at the Court of Charlemagne, and derided by the barbarian hosts that invaded Europe, here had she found a resting place.
It was in the caves of Ajanta, to the music of foaming cataract, and to the chant of Buddhist hymn that Mural Painting rose again as from the dead; and while Attila, the scourge of God, was sweeping the very name of beauty and art from the face of the Western World, lo! the Buddhist monks deep-buried in their mountain fastness painting and painting, until they had indeed made the Desert to “rejoice and blossom like the Rose” The Western traveller who approaches the Cave-Temples of Ajanta should do so with feelings of reverence akin to these with which he treads the Sacred Way at Delphi, or climbs the Acropolis at Athens.
He cannot but feel that he is approaching one of the great landmarks of the world; one of those ancient external monuments that towering upward, overtop all their surroundings, like the tall rock fronting for all time the useless fury of stormy seas.