To admire the simplicity of a Greek key pattern called so because of its key shape and Greek heritage, a cultural trademark as it were, is to open a series of doors, each one connecting one fascinating space to another. It is to literally walk through stages of history, to traverse landscapes, to cross time spans. It is to travel from the Greek islands, from temples to domestic tales etched onto vases, to Shang dynasty China where it scrolls across majestic bronzes, to stop over in ancient Macedonia as it ornaments the shield of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander Great. It is to fly on carpets of the east bordered by its muscular geometry. It is to imagine ancient market places where tradesmen formed conduits for its journeys into distant lands. It is also a riddle: how and why does it appear in so many civilisations that seemingly had no contact with each other? It is a favourite architectural ornament anchoring classical friezes all over Europe and classicizing political landmarks in North America. Variations appear in Mayan architecture.
The Greek key is also known as a meander from whence we have meander the verb – a twisting and turning – just like the Maeander River in Asia Minor which gives the pattern its name. Google up an image of the river and you will be treated to a topographical image of the Greek key pattern as the river folds back over itself and mimics the pattern. Question: how did the ancients perceive this so clearly without an overhead perspective?
It is a simple, straightforward pattern – linear lines that turn at right angles to form a continuous train. It is thought to represent unity and fertility suggested by the continuity of the lines. The fertility is suggested by its riverine origins. It was critical in funerary decorations appearing in vases that contained the ashes of the dead.
The pattern is also said to resemble an angular version of the labyrinth of mythology, river and myth investing it with powerful symbolism.
And it remains with us today. Like a Dan Brown symbol seen only if we care to look, speaking only if we care to listen.
Is it, to put it simply, beautiful? Subjective as that word is, the fact that it has never been toppled off the décor charts, says much. Strangely it maintains an illusion of uncommonality despite its rather Che Guevara-coffee mug- tee shirt-mouse pad everywhere-ness.
If you fall for the Greek key, if you find yourself lost in its aristocratic grace, marvelling at how such a simple design can add such majesty to a space, it is probably an ancient decorative archetype rearing its stylish head. It is a versatile pattern and a classic in every sense – it’ll complement any trend, any taste. So explore the Greek key in its many guises and stay connected to ancient décor wisdom.
Cover- Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 1- Shield of Philip II of Spain- http://www.makedonijaese.com/filippo%20il%20macedone.htm
Image 3- Greek Terracotta pyxis - Rogers Fund, 1948
Image 4- Pillow decorated with the greek key pattern- https://kelloggcollection.com/decorating-with-the-greek-key-pattern/
By Malini Aikat