Memorial Art - Ancient and Modern

Date Published: 
September, 1922
Original Author: 
Oscar F. Stotzer
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 36th Annual Convention

The desire to bury the dead reverently, to care for their graves, to erect memorials to perpetuate their memory, comes to us from the primitive man.

It was recognized as a duty by all races, even those which attained only a slight degree of civilization, dating back to thousands of years before Christ. Today as we view the remains of the sepulchers, temples, pyramids and obelisks of the ancient Assyrians, Caldeans, Egyptians and Greeks, many of which are still in a more or less perfect state of preservation, we marvel at their handiwork.  To this desire of perpetuating the memory of those who had departed into eternal life, so deeply embedded in the heart of these early people, we owe the finest art treasures of antiquity, for nearly all of these art treasures are of a mortuary character.

It is exceedingly interesting to trace the developments of monumental art from the crude stone with its roughly hewn Pagan symbol through to the sculptured, memorials of Grecian times; to study our present day memorials, the tablet, the shaft, the sarcophagus the cross and the mausoleum and trace their architectural origin back to these early periods.

The history, of each one of these particular types of memorial is an inexhaustible subject in itself and I shall endeavor, in the limited time assigned me, here to give only a few of the interesting facts as to their origin, etc.

Among the earliest and most remarkable monuments ever erected by man were those built by the Egyptians, the most noteworthy of which are the pyramids, the obelisks and grotto tombs.

The pyramids were built, on the most modest computation at least 3908 E. C. Egypt was then a comparatively highly civilized and populous country and the art of cutting and polishing stones of the hardest nature had reached a degree of perfection in that country in those days, which has never since been surpassed and must have been practiced for hundreds of years before that time to have reached this state of perfection in which we there find it.

In all there were some sixty-nine pyramids built in these days, three of which are called the great pyramids and are respectively the tombs of Kings Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus.  That of King Cheops covers thirteen and one-half acres and rises to a height of four hundred and eighty-four feet.

According to Herodotus, we learn that one hundred thousand men were employed for twenty years in building the great pyramid and ten years alone was occupied in constructing a causeway and in conveying the stone over-this causeway.

The pilasters and walls of the interior chambers were of highly polished granites and porphyry. Within these chambers were found vessels and urns of ornamented wrought bronze. Here again, in the use of bronze the Egyptians attained a development that has never been surpassed. In fact, most of the implements which they used were made of bronze, which proves that these implements were tempered in some manner. This art of tempering bronze was lost with the Egyptians for never since has any methods been found whereby bronze could be tempered.

The most wonderful grotto tombs of central Egypt are those of Beni-Hassen. These tombs were hollowed out of the mountain sides somewhere about the year of 3000 BC. Each one consisted of an entrance chamber, a well leading to the vault and the funeral bier with its usual sarcophagus.

The present day spire and shaft monuments, some beautiful examples of which adorn our modern cemeteries, trace their origin back to the obelisks of the ancient Egyptians, the largest and most famous of which are still standing.  The Egyptian obelisks were always adorned with hieroglyphical representations of the goods to whom they were dedicated and the kings by whom they were erected. As they stand today they appear to rise directly from the ground without a pedestal or even a base of any kind, but excavations have proven that they do have the pedestal and bases, which, however, have been completely covered up by Nile deposits.

These obelisks represent the source of what the Egyptians considered one of the most wonderful and mysterious powers of nature that of renewing and recreating a power so forcefully brought home to them by the quick restoration of vegetable life after each overflow of the Nile. Just as the pyramids (symbolic of death) were originally built on the west bank of the river Nile toward the setting sun so the obelisks (symbolic of life or the power of recreation) always stood on the East bank toward the rising sun.

They were constructed of a highly polished red granite Syene. Unfinished specimens in the quarries show that they were obtained by boring holes in the rock into which holes moistened pegs were driven. The expansion of these wet pegs split the rock.

As the sun was the god to whom the obelisk was usually dedicated many of the Egyptian obelisks stood in Heliopolis the City of the Sun. They were erected by the various kings as early as 2000 BC.

Of special interest is the so-called Cleopatra's Needle, which rises in one single piece to a height of seventy-six and one-half feet. Today with our modern quarries with our modern machinery and our so-called specialized labor, it is heralded as an exceptional occurrence if we are able to quarry a stone from fifty-five feet in length in one piece.

Although this needle of Cleopatra's was originally erected during the sixteenth century BC at Heliopolis, according to tradition, it was transported to Alexandria by Cleopatra's orders and re-erected by the Romans under Augustus in front of the Temple of the Caesars where it remained until 1879 when it was presented to the United States by the Khedive of Egypt, funds for its transportation being furnished by one of the Vanderbilts.  It now stands in Central Park, in New York.

Obelisks were so popular with the Romans that they transported many from Egypt and also quarried many in Egypt for use in Rome.

In our own country the obelisk has been used effectively in public memorials, two well known examples being the Washington monument at Washington, DC and the McKinley Memorial in Buffalo, NY

From the ancient grotto tombs built in the hillsides of Egypt and Asia Minor, we trace the development of the mausoleum which reached its perfection in the tomb of Mausolus, King of Caria. Probably of all examples of marvelous art of the Greeks none has excited more curiosity and admiration than this splendid mausoleum at Halicarnassus, regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Its architects Satyrus and Pytheus were the leaders of their times. All the famous artists, Scopas, Bryaxis, Timotheus and Leochares were the sculptors employed on this structure. Queen Artemisia died in the year of 351 BC before the tomb for her husband was completed. But the sculptors continued their work as a labor of love.

In 200 BC the Romans conquered the Carians and the entrancing beauty of the structure with its colonnades, its hundreds of pieces of statuary including figures of lions, horsemen, etc., its carved friezed depicting the warriors in action, made such a profound impression upon them that thereafter all their more pretentious sepulchers were called "Mausolia". And so the term "Mausoleum" has been handed down to us.

The tomb of General Grant in New York is the most imposing mausoleum in America. The super structure is made of Barre, Vermont, Granite and the sarcophagus wherein repose the remains of our great General is made of granite from the quarries at Montello, Wisconsin.
A sarcophagus is a receptacle designed to hold the remains of a body, but the word is commonly applied to any monument low and broad in its lines. When we consider this and the original purpose which it served, the word has become a misnomer. It derives its meaning from the two Greek words sarkos, meaning “flesh” and phago meaning “to eat” or “consume”.  We learn from Theophrastus and Pliny that the name originated with the use of Assius stone from Assos in Asia Minor.  The stone was hollowed out to the shape of the body and carved and ornamented on the exterior.  Because of the peculiar caustic properties of this Assius stone, the body was consumed within a few weeks.

Again the oldest known sarcophagi are those of Egypt found in the pyramids and the grotto tombs.  By means of hieroglyphics, the inscriptions and the decorative art found on these sarcophagi we are able to link more closely the various periods of Egyptian history. The Romans were especially partial to the use of the sarcophagus but did not aid particularly to its development beyond the Grecian period.

Of the early Romans sarcophagi that of Scipio found in the Appian Way outside the Gate of Rome is noteworthy as it splendid example of applied Grecian architecture.  The design has been generally used in our modern times and one of the best copies in America is that of the monument erected to the memory of Postmaster General Payne in Forest Home Cemetery,
Milwaukee, Wis.

It is generally supposed that the cross in its various forms had its origin with Christianity. As a matter of fact we find the monuments and other remains of prehistoric races plentifully inscribed with the symbol of the cross, showing that it existed as a Pagan emblem hundreds and, yes, thousands of years BC.

The three forms of the cross as we know it from which it is possible that all the others were derived are the Tau cross - so-called because it is shaped like the Greek letter T: the St. Andrews cross shaped like the letter X and the Latin cross with its long perpendicular and short cross bar.   The Tau cross is sometimes called the cross of Egypt. Figures of the priests of their god Horus have been found, their vestments decorated with this Tau cross. Some date back 1100 years BC. Often the Egyptians attached a circle (the emblem of eternity) to the top of the Tau cross.

The Greeks made a peculiar use of the Tau cross. When a man had been condemned to death they recorded it on their judicial records with the Greek letter "Theta" the first letter of the Greek word for death. But if he was acquitted it was recorded with a Tau cross, the symbol at life.

The earliest so-called cross of Christianity appeared during the rule of Constantine, when, after his vision of the cross in the heavens with the inscription meaning "in this sign conquer" he added the "Chrisma" to his imperial banner.

Not until the end of the fifth century was the cross regarded as the sacred symbol of Christ's redemption of fallen humanity, and the best of our present day cross memorials are the same in general design as those of centuries past.

Before leaving the subject of ancient memorials, I must say a word regarding sculpture and its relation to the present.

Sculpture had its origin in Egypt and its fullest development in Greece. Rome only handed down Grecian traditions. To know anything about sculpture one had, of necessity, to know something of their view point. It developed through the deep religious motive and a sense of duty to the dead. The Egyptians believed that a double dwelt in every man and after death waited with his body and his name for the soul to return and reunite in a resurrection. If the body and the double both should perish it would mean annihilation. If either remained immortality was assured. For this reason the dead body was carefully embalmed and as a safeguard in the event of possible destruction of a statue of the double, made of the most enduring material in the image of the man himself, was placed in the tomb. Countless thousands of these statues were fashioned in wood, baked clay, limestone and polished granites.

With the Greeks as with the Egyptians, their Pagan religions were the very breath of their sculpture as well as their architecture. Their gods were embodied in the fairest human forms. To the Greek, man was the consummate flower of all creation. The soul of Greek art was a passion for naked male beauty. His gods, therefore, were patterned from his own image in heroic size with certain powers added. These conditions causing a definite need for this art made the Greeks not only the great sculptors of the ancient world, but the greatest sculptors of all time.

Surrounding the shrine of Appolo at Delphi there were at one time a hundred and sixty thousand statues. Ten thousand marble cutters in the Mediterranean World were chiseling a hundred thousand figures every year, besides vast numbers of public and temple figures and reliefs. The roads leading to the principal cities were flanked with private chapels, seats, memorial steles and sarcophagi.

The enthusiasm which produced the marble and bronze masterpieces, which are the glory of the museums and galleries of the world died when the ancient deities and heroes ceased to be objects of veneration of mankind. Painting, literature and music are living arts because demanded by our conditions and expression of our emotions. When the worship of man-made images ceased the demand for creative sculpture passed away.

That was the great day for the sculptor and if a faint light has broken since, as in Italy in the time of Michael Angelo or in our times on French soil, it is but a reflection of this Grecian period.

Memorial art, the monument to the dead, is practically all that is left to the present day sculptor. Each statue or group made by us depends for its significance on laws laid down by the ancients.

All their wonderful masterpieces are our heritage-products of the ages untainted by commercialism. We of today, living in a purely materialistic age cannot even hope to follow in their footsteps. Yet it is our constant duty to utilize every form of propaganda available for the purpose of keeping up as high a standard of art and workmanship as is within our power and within the means given us to carry out our task-ever bearing in mind the thoughts expressed by Ruskin when he said:

"All works of quality must bear a price in proportion to the skill, time, expense and risk attending their invention or manufacture. Those things called "dear" are, when justly estimated, the cheapest; they are attended with much less profit to the artist than those things which everybody calls cheap. Beautiful forms and compositions are not made by chance; nor can they ever, in any material, be made at small expense. A composition of cheapness, and not for excellence of workmanship, is the most frequent and certain cause for rapid decay and entire destruction of arts and manufactures."

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 36th Annual Convention
Omaha, Nebraska
September 18, 19, 20 and 21, 1922