Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Why Sculpture Reached Perfection with the Greeks
By Horace Binney Wallace (18171852)
[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1817. Died in Paris, France, 1852. Art, Scenery, and Philosophy in Europe. 1855.]
THE CAUSE of the special and unapproached excellence of the Greeks in sculpture will be found intimately connected with the circumstance that their theology was an anthropomorphous one. The human form was to them an image of worship. They conceived of the gods as possessing that shape. Indeed, it is evident from the facility with which eminent persons in their earlier civilization were deified, that to their natural sentiments humanity partook of a divineness, and, in its higher phases, passed readily into that sphere. The peculiarity of their case is this, that their mental organization was such that instinctively the personality of man was to them an adoration: the free emanation of their religious conceptions was in a pantheon of men and women possessing merely natural impulses and characteristics. This is a condition which we, who have always sought and possessed a religion purely spiritual and abstract, can scarcely comprehend. It is not as if we, with natures adapted to moral and intellectual apprehensions of our object of worship, were to turn ourselves toward human forms with a resolution to make them themes of homage. The fact that the Greeks spontaneously made or found a religion in them proves that the Greek nature was exquisitely sensitive to the highest impression of the human subject, and felt its finest graces, its most evanescent beauties, with a force, an emotion, a delicacy of interest, which we cannot follow. The whole intellectual being of the Greek passioned towards this type: to him it was a representative, the embodimentin its imaginative conceptionthe very identity of divinity. All the susceptibilities of his immortal spirit, all the endless enthusiasms of a nature, in all things, as the Apostle thought, too superstitious, or, according to a better version, very religious, were concentrated in reacting upon this image, and glorifying and exalting it. It is not wonderful that Hellenic artists accomplished such an idealization of every variety of the human shape as Christian efforts have wholly failed to approach .
From the fervent mind of the Attic sculptor, to whom the augmentation of beauty was a service of piety, sprang forth a throng of shapes flashing with all the lustre that the souls idolatry could lavish upon them.
It has sometimes been suggested that the superiority of the Greeks in delineating the figure arose from the familiarity with it which they acquired from their frequent opportunities of viewing it nude,on account of their usages, costumes, climate, etc. This is too superficial an account of that vital faculty of skill and knowledge upon this subject which was a part of the inherent capacity of the Greek. His superiority, in this matter, is rather to be referred to that susceptibility to the mental impression of this image which is implied in his making a religion of it,to the enduring distinctness with which it stamped itself upon a moral nature in this respect peculiar in its organization,to the revering interest, the pious scrutiny, the adoring earnestness of attention with which he was predisposed always to contemplate and study its form,to the ethereal sensibility and intensity of apprehension with which his consciousness riveted itself upon it. The outflow and characteristic exercise of Grecian inspiration in sculpture was in the representation of their mythology, which included heroes, or deified men, as well as gods of the first rank. Later, it extended to winners at the public games, athletes, runners, boxers;but this class of persons partook, in the national feeling, of a heroic or half-divine superiority. A particular type of form, highly ideal, became appropriate to them, as to the heroes, and to each of the gods. It may be added, that a capacity thus derived from religious impressibility extended to a great number of natural forms, which were to the Greeks measurably objects of a divine regard. Many animals, as connected with the gods, or with sacrifices, were sacred beings to them, and became subjects of their surpassing gift in sculpture. In general, naturethe visible, the sensible, the actualwas to the Hellenic soul Religion, as inward and reflective emotions were and are to the modern European.