Before art and design made the gradual move from pretty to witty, from merely decorative to symbolic, from simplistic reflections of the environment to abstractions of the mind, classic patterns adorned our ancient and great structures. Like the meander, the paisley, the chevron – the evolutions of which I have traced in earlier blogs.
What is fascinating is how most settlements of humans came up with the same patterns – in a few cases independently. In, of course, most cases patterns travelled, like language and customs, with the movement of man and took on the characteristics of the people they travelled with new environments informing their development while fundamentally remaining the same.
A Greek meander and a Chinese meander are essentially the same as is the border of meanders found in the senate hall in Washington. But the first has cleaner lines while the next is distinctly Asiatic in look and feel and the Senate meanders are – well – American.
We move on. To the scroll. The magical thing about scrolls is that children make them. It seems to be part of an innate decorative impulse. If you want to beautify something, you add a border of scrolls – incomplete circles sometimes ending in flowers, sometimes sprouting leaves along the stem. We are, of course, children of nature, and the beauty of flowers and tendrils are our most immediate points of reference when it comes to beauty.
Scrolls are to be found in the earliest of architecture – elaborate ands sumptuous ones on 12th century Indian temples, 13th century Chinese plates, delicately realized one on 19th century European friezes, and all the way back to the stunning scroll work on Roman panels dating 27 AD.
Scrolls are the simplest of ornaments that can be made as complex as the artist wishes. They are graphic spirals and incomplete circles, some feature flowers and leaves, some are inhabited by magical creatures. Scrolls are found everywhere from a five year old’s drawing for a favorite teacher to buildings to woodcarvings to painted ceramic and mosaic and murals and illuminated stained glass. When scrolls interlace or cross over they become arabesques ( see earlier blog on the subject). Like the meander they cover wide areas and like the arabesque can grow into more and more complex expansions.
The plants that grow out from scrolls are usually acanthus, vine, lotus and peony – the usual suspects throughout art history. Islamic and Chinese scrolls began to represent more and different flowers, becoming prettier and prettier.
Scrolls are generally free flowing with no orientation as in Oriental carpets, in architecture however there are identifiable stems with a top and a bottom with the vine spreading out – shrub like. In textiles and pottery, scrolls run free.
The beauty of scrollwork run all the way back to the Bronze Age and carry on to flourish in Greek and Roman architecture. They may have first taken root in Greek painted pottery continuing on to Greco-Roman decoration and Anglo-Saxon art. They sprout afresh in 5th Century Chinese art and include the sacred lotus. The lotus scroll went where Buddhism went to survive long after the religious significance was lost and the lotus an unknown plant.
The Mongols carried the scroll to the Islamic world from Chinese designs. Greco-Buddhist art imported the scroll to India where they curled themselves around sub-continental temples.
Scrolls have been useful to decorate large spaces. A heart shaped core is formed by two confronted volutes or two curving lines facing each other. Any number of volutes can grow out of this core to fill top a large area, their intricacy, delicacy and beauty dazzling the eye. Sometimes there is no heart shaped core and the scroll takes the form of the letter “S” with volute ends, usually in confronted pairs. The innate complexity of scrolls make them ideal for the Baroque period and perfect for wrought iron work – and wallcoverings. They are also used by bakers in cake making! The Notre dame took with it astonishing scrollwork which will hopefully reappear with its restoration.
Now when you buy an elaborately decorated birthday card, or are charmed by wrought iron furniture or when you gaze up at a ceiling of a palace or temple – follow the scrollwork and it will please you to know that you what you deem to be beautiful was considered so centuries ago.
By Malini Aikat