Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, by W.R. Lethaby, , at sacred-texts.com
'Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images, that have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory: nothing can come of nothing: he who has laid up no materials can produce no combinations.'—REYNOLDS, Discourse II.
THE history of architecture, as usually written, with its theory of utilitarian origins from the hut and the tumulus, and further developments in that way—the adjustment of forms to the conditions of local circumstance; the clay of Mesopotamia, the granite of Egypt, and marble of Greece—is rather the history of building: of 'Architecture' it may be, in the sense we so often use the word, but not the Architecture which is the synthesis of the fine arts, the commune of all the crafts.
As the pigments are but the vehicle of painting, so is building but the vehicle of architecture, which is the thought behind form, embodied and realised for the purpose of its manifestation and transmission. Architecture, then, interpenetrates building, not for satisfaction of the simple needs of the body, but the complex ones of the intellect. I do not mean that we can thus distinguish between architecture and
building, in those qualities in which they meet and overlap, but that in the sum and polarity of them all; these point to the response of future thought, those to the satisfaction of present need; and so, although no hut or mound, however early or rude, but had something added to it for thought's sake, yet architecture and building are quite clear and distinct as ideas—the soul and the body.
Of the modes of this thought we must again distinguish; some were unconscious and instinctive, as the desire for symmetry, smoothness, sublimity, and the like merely æsthetic qualities, which properly enough belong to true architecture; and others were direct and didactic, speaking by a more or less perfect realisation, or through a code of symbols, accompanied by traditions which explained them. The main purpose and burthen of sacred architecture—and all architecture, temple, tomb, or palace, was sacred in the early days—is thus inextricably bound up with a people's thoughts about God and the universe.
Behind every style of architecture there is an earlier style, in which the germ of every form is to be found; except such alterations as may be traced to new conditions, or directly innovating thought in religion, all is the slow change of growth, and it is almost impossible to point to the time of invention of any custom or feature. As Herbert Spencer says of ceremonial generally: 'Adhering tenaciously to all his elders taught him, the primitive man deviates into novelty only through unintended modifications. Every one now knows that languages are not devised but evolve; and the same is true of usages.' It has, rightly, been the habit of historians of architecture to lay stress on the differences of the several styles and schools of successive ages, but; in the far larger sense,
all architecture is one, when traced back through the stream of civilisations, as they followed or influenced one another. For instance, argue as archæologists may, as to whether the columns at Beni Hassan are rightly called proto-Doric, it is a fact to be read as in an open book, that a Greek temple and an Egyptian temple are substantially at one, when we consider the infinite possibilities of form, if disassociated from tradition.
It has often been pointed out, how early examples of stone construction still repeat the forms of the manner of building in wood that went before, and so is it always. How long the steamship retained survivals of the sailing vessel, and how the vocabulary of the coachroad still answers for the railway.
What then, I want to ask, are the ultimate facts behind all architecture which has given it form? Mainly three: First, the similar needs and desires of men; secondly, on the side of structure, the necessities imposed by materials, and the physical laws of their erection and combination; and thirdly, on the side of style, nature. It is of this last that I propose to write; the influence of the known and imagined facts of the universe on architecture, the connection between the world as a structure, and the building, not of the mere details of nature and the ornaments of architecture, but of the whole—the Heavenly Temple and the Earthly Tabernacle. 'Has anyone,' says Mr Lillie in his "Buddhism in Christendom," 'puzzled over the fact, that the only modern representative of the initiates of the ancient mysteries should occupy themselves entirely with the business of the hodman and builder; what is the connection between the kingdom of heaven, and matter of fact mortar, tee-squares and trowels? Esoteric masonry
occupied itself in reality, with a temple built without sound of hammer, axe, or tool of iron. It was the temple of the skies, the Macrocosmos, in point of fact.'
It will be necessary, not only to examine architecture in the monuments, but the contemporary statements which relate to them, the stories about buildings, and even the mythology of architecture, for such a mythology there is.
If we trace the artistic forms of things, made by man, to their origin, we find a direct imitation of nature. The thought behind a ship is the imitation of a fish. So to the Egyptians and Greeks the 'Black Ship' bore traces of this descent, and two eyes were painted at the prow. The custom still lingers on the Mediterranean and on the waters of China: the eyes are given, it is said, to enable the ship to see its way over the pathless sea. Tables and chairs, like the beasts, are quadrupeds; the lion's leg and foot of modern furniture come to us from the Greeks, and, earlier, they were used in Assyria and Egypt. Thrones had beasts on either hand, a custom traditionally followed for thrones, Hittite, Chaldean, or Hindu, that of Solomon, the imperial throne at Constantinople, or our own Coronation chair. The Egyptian funeral bier seems like a joke, so frank and unmodified is the imitation: it looks, as shown on the mummy cases, like a long, flat-backed lion, tail and all; the example preserved in the Boulak Museum, has the ordinary parallelogram of a bed, each leg being a lion's leg; a head is attached to the middle of the front rail, and a tail, like a pump handle, projects far behind in a great sweeping curve.
Where else, indeed, should we go for the highest imagination? In the modern Greek folk stories, the hero usually has three marvellous robes; one
embroidered with the heavens and its stars, the second with the sea and fish swimming there, the third with the earth in May and all its flowers. Could anyone produce finer designs?
The commonplaces of poetry, in which the world is likened to a building, 'heavenly vaults,' or 'azure domes,' 'gates of sunrise,' and the rest, are survivals of a time when the earth was not a tiny ball, projected at immeasurable speed through infinite space, one, among other fireflies of the night, but was stable and immovable, the centre of the universe, the floor on which the sky was built. The whole, a chamber lighted by the sun, moon, and stars.
The ceremonial of religion during the great building ages in Chaldea, Egypt, and India, was going through the phase of Nature worship, in which the sky, the sun, the sea were not so much veiled, as afterwards to the Greeks, until they became persons, not things; but open and understood, astronomical observation was closely associated as part of the cultus.
In all this there is enough to dispose us to receive evidence of a cosmical symbolism in the buildings of the younger world, and we shall find that the intention of the temple (speaking of the temple idea, as we understand it) was to set up a local reduplication of the temple not made with hands, the World Temple itself—a sort of model to scale, its form governed by the science of the time; it was a heaven, an observatory, and an almanack. Its foundation was a sacred ceremony, the time carefully chosen by augury, and its relation to the heavens defined by observation. Its place was exactly below the celestial prototype; like that it was sacred, like that strong, its foundations could not be moved, if they were placed foursquare to the walls of the firmament, as are still
our churches—and was it not to be like the heavenly sanctuary, that Solomon built the temple without the sound of tool?
I do not necessarily claim that this was the origin of all structures set apart for a purpose in a sense sacred; nor possibly in every case was this the first interpretation of some of the symbols. Customs have many explanations. I claim that, given the idea of a universe and universe gods, the phase here set out was a necessary one; and as this stage certainly everywhere preceded the age, when works, worthy the name of architecture, were produced—buildings which enshrined ideas—it is here we shall find the formative factor in their design. And for this there is ample authority; De la Saussaye, in his comprehensive 'Manual of the Science of Religion' (1891), says 'the symbolism of temple buildings sometimes seems to refer to the structure of the world, sometimes to the religious relationship of men to the gods.'
Beginning with the form of the world in the first chapter, the three or four which follow, deal with the relation of the building to it as a whole, and the rest with parts and details.
We need not suppose that temples were a sum of these symbols in all cases, if in any; but that from this common book of architecture, each took what he would, little or much, sometimes openly, sometimes with more or less translation, sometimes at first hand, often as a half-remembered tradition.
The ritual side of symbolism is entirely neglected here, but there is ample evidence that sacred ceremony, the state that surrounded a throne, and the pageant of war, all had reference to the ritual and
pomp of nature; so that man might be one with her and share her invincible strength. Ridiculous as, at first, it may seem, the Throne, Crown, and Orb of Her Majesty Queen Victoria can only be explained in this way: they are all symbols of a God in his temple; and hereditary kingship has everywhere, as Mr Spencer has shown, claimed divinity, God descent, and afterwards God consent—the right divine. As is said in the old Chinese book, the Li Ki (Sac. Books of E. Vol. 28), 'all ceremonial usages, looked at in their general characteristics, are the embodiment of the ideas suggested by heaven and earth; take their laws from the changes of the four seasons; imitate the operation of the contracting and developing movements in nature, and are conformed to the feelings of men. It is on this account that they are called the Rules of Propriety; and when anyone finds fault with them, he only shows his ignorance of their origin.'
Old architecture lived because it had a purpose. Modern architecture, to be real, must not be a mere envelope without contents. As M. Cesar Daly says in his Hautes Etudes, if we would have architecture excite an interest, real and general, we must have a symbolism, immediately comprehensible by the great majority of spectators. But this message cannot be that of the past—terror, mystery, splendour. Planets may not circle nor thunder roll in the temple of the future. No barbaric gold with ruddy bloom; no jewels; emeralds half a palm over, rubies like an egg, and crystal spheres, can again be used more for magic than for beauty. No terraced temples of Babylon to reach the skies; no gold-plated palaces of Ecbatana, seven-walled; no ivory palaces of Ahab; nor golden
houses of Nero with corridors a mile long; no stupendous temples of Egypt at first all embracing, then court and chamber narrowing and becoming lower, closing in on the awed worshipper and crushing his imagination; these, all of them, can never be built again, for the manner and the materials are worked out to their final issue. Think of the Sociology and Religion of all this, and the stain across it, "each stone cemented in the blood of a human creature." Those colossal efforts of labour forced on by an implacable will, are of the past, and such an architecture is not for us, nor for the future.
What, then, will this art of the future be? The message will still be of nature and man, of order and beauty, but all will be sweetness, simplicity, freedom, confidence, and light; the other is past, and well is it, for its aim was to crush life: the new, the future, is to aid life and train it, 'so that beauty may flow into the soul like a breeze.'