The fondness for naturalistic ornament is no doubt due primarily to the instinct of imitation, which inclines us to like what we have seen before and can recognize without difficulty. That this fondness is so persistent is due to our failure to distinguish between the functions of pictorial and decorative art. It is the proper function of a picture to set forth an appearance of nature, whereas it is the sole function of ornament to adorn useful forms, and to make them as agreeable as possible to the eye. To do this ornament must, as we have seen, become an integral part of these forms, adapted to their structural peculiarities, and without any independent character of its own. Thus the rose in a carpet, wall paper or drapery stuff is not in any proper sense a picture of a natural rose. It is simply a means of adorning or embellishing a textile surface, and as such it shares in the nature of the textile and becomes a part of it. In the degree that the rose is designed to copy nature accurately, and to reveal a separate existence apart from the textile, it ceases to be good ornament and becomes a poor picture, and is just as objectionable as any other poor picture would be if it were repeated every few inches.
Ornamental forms are used not only for their purely esthetic value as an ornament or enrichment of structural forms, but also, in many schools of ornament, as symbols, or signs employed to represent and suggest an idea. Thus the trefoil was used in Gothic art not only to embellish structure, but also as the symbol of the Trinity, as the lotus was used in ancient Egypt and throughout the Eastt as the symbol of fecundity and ever-renewing life. Historic ornament is sometimes symbolic, like that of Egypt; sometimes esthetic, like that of Greece; sometimes both esthetic and symbolic, like that of Persia. Primitive art is largely symbolic, while as man advances in intelligence and culture he has less need for a symbolism as such, and is more and more concerned with the esthetic value of all ornamental forms. Thus even when through the influence of religious ideas ornament retains a markedly symbolic character it is more and more expressed in modes based upon symmetry of form and harmony of color, and thus designed to appeal to the sense of the beautiful as well as to the understanding.
Present-day secular ornament is purely esthetic. It employs symbolic forms without reference to their meaning, and only in so far as they are intrinsically pleasing. Yet the pleasure of the decorator in his work, and the pleasure of each of us in his home, is greatly enhanced by a knowledge of symbolic ornament. It is a thread that unites us with the life of the past, a light that reveals a little of the immense and shadowy reaches of human thought and aspiration. Any one can see the beauty of ornament in the swastika or gammadion fret as used to embellish the apron of an eighteenth-century English table. The initiate alone sees twenty-five centuries beyond England to Greece, and twenty-five-fifty-perhaps a hundred centuries beyond Greece to the immemorial East; for the swastika recreates in his imagination that dim time when man tried with a few crude marks to express the daily wonder of the sun's forward course across the heavens, as the lotus and the tree forms of Oriental rugs reveal to him primitive man's awed consciousness of the mysterious generative forces of nature, and half lift the veil from ancient and all-but-forgotten faiths.
Ornamental art was old-probably thousands of years old-at the time of the cave-man. Its historical development can be traced backward in existing monuments to the middle kingdom of Egypt, while there is sound reason to believe that some of the ornamental forms found in modern rugs from Turkestan have persisted unchanged for more than six thousand years. While ornamental forms and symbols have for thousands of years been spread from one land to another, through commercial intercourse and by the tides of immigration and conquest, so that the whole subject of the rise and evolution of ornament is enormously complex, we can say that in the development of European civilization there have been nine great character- istic ornamental styles: in the ancient world, the Egyptian, the Greek and the Roman; in the medieval world, the Byzantine, the Saracenic and the Gothic; and in the modern world, the Renaissance, the Cinquecento and the Louis Quatorze. Several of these styles have had two or more strongly marked modes-as Doric and Alexandrine Greek, or Romanesque, Lombard and Norman Byzantine-while the sub-variants in different countries and among different peoples have been almost innumerable.
The student will, of course, note that historic ornament and historic decoration are by no means the same thing. Many of the so-called period styles in decoration and furniture have been developed since the rise of the last great ornamental style, and have drawn their ornamental detail from whatever historic sources suited the designers. Thus the ornament of the Louis Seize and Empire styles in France, the Adam style in England, and the Biedermaier style in Germany is adapted from classical antiquity.