Respectfully inscribed to the venerable and illustrative founder of our National Society, The Right Honourable the Earl of BUCHAN.
“Antiquam exquirite matrem.”
[“Seek out your ancient mother.”]
THERE is (says one of the greatest moralists of ancient times) a sort of melancholy pleasure in retracing the situation of cities once renowned for their opulence and magnificence; the memory of ages, events, and characters, which marked, with an indelible impression, those periods to which they relate, and to which we look back with all the enthusiasm of involuntary attachment is formed even to inanimate objects. The ruined hall, the haunted tower, the overhanging precipice, though in themselves unworthy of such a partial attachment, yet, connected as they are with some of the most pleasing scenes of youthful and romantic fancy, make us take a parting look of such monuments, with all the fondness of regret, and contemplate them as flood-marks of the ever-rolling, ever-increasing, torrent of years.
This indescribable attachment is founded solely on the idea, that a sort of religious veneration encircles the remains of antiquity, and that the solemnity and awful mysteriousness of the situation are in unison with some of the nobler sensations of the immortal mind. The power and extent of this innate principle and admirably depicted by Sophocles in the “Antigone:” It is by means by means of this principle, says he, that we are enabled to triumph over the vicissitudes of time, to bring back the ages that are past, and give to monuments of antiquity an ever-during existence.
The first and most interesting object in the study of this department is the investigation of the Monumental Antiquities of Nations, the venerable relics of a great and mighty people, as exhibiting specimens of the origin and progress of this invaluable department, connected with the taste and improvement of the human understanding.
In an investigation of this nature we are carried back to the remotest period of existence, to the first dawnings of Society, where the infant germs of civil and political institutions begin to expand. There we contemplate the origin and gradual development of art and science, their connection and mutual dependence, and are enabled to form an estimate of the progressive powers and faculties of the mind, under the influence of habit and experience.
Of the various monuments of antiquity, some are civil, others political, others religious, and not a few sepulchral. The former of these record the transactions of man in the earlier stages of society, and preserve memorials of important customs, rites, and ceremonies: the second are, in general, connected with scenes of great and eventful actions, with the memories of those who have laboured to establish the independency of their country, or have bled for her rights and laws: under the third head, are included all those monuments connected with the mythological belief of the earlier periods of the world – the worship of fire – the rites of Sabaiism – the immolation of human victims – or the awful and mysterious modes of worship, incident to Pagan Britain: while the sepulchral antiquities may be considered as comprehending a vast portion of the early history of mankind in general, and as including the Celtic cairnes; the Roman and Grecian tumuli, with the altar, chest, temple, and obelisk tombs; both of ancient and modern erection, and found in almost every corner of the world.
An accurate investigation of those yet remaining monuments of antiquity would certainly tend to throw much light on the origin and progress of monumental architecture, and might form a comparative view of the productions of the different periods to which they relate. This utility will appear in a more general and interesting light, when it is considered that there is not one branch in this department, however insulated, that does not tend to elucidate the manners and customs of former times, and to enable the classical reader to enter more fully into the beauties of his particular author. For want of sufficient knowledge in the study of monumental antiquities, numerous passages, both in the Grecian, Roman, and Italian classics, are frequently involved in much obscurity; and how few readers do we find capable of appreciating the merit of Chaucer, Spenser, or Milton, not to mention those ponderous “Tomes of Romance,” whose merits turn solely on the manners, rites, and ceremonies, with the splendid palaces and halls of Gothic and Arabic fiction!
A knowledge of our oldest writers, but especially those of poetry and romance, is absolutely necessary for the understanding of the ancient manners and customs described by them, and likewise for the better understanding of the peculiarities of style, taste, and composition, in their more successful imitators.1 By means of those productions, we enter into a more ample field of the manners and customs of former ages: there every thing is great and marvellous; nothing but the most exalted feats of generosity and prowess; while the imagination is often elevated to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, by contemplating the tremendous solemnities of Gothic superstition – by the most alarming scenes of magic and incantation – by sepulchral rites and ceremonies, which could have originated only in the darker and more dismal regions of Scaldic demonrie.2 The study of antiquities has frequently become subservient to the Genius of History, and has enabled her to roll back the ponderous shroud, which had been deepening for ages over the various incidents and motives of national event. “By the diligence of the investigator, circumstances have been brought to light totally unknown to the historian, and has frequently thrown a higher degree and strength of colouring over particular passages and events altogether inconsistent with the arrangement and design of general history.”3 In surveying the proud monuments of feudal splendour and magnificence exhibited in the remains of ancient castles, towers, and fortalices, the Spirit of Chivalry seems to present himself amid the venerable ruins with a sternness and majesty of air and feature, which plainly indicate what he had once been, mingled with a spirit of disdain for the degenerate posterity that had robbed him of his honours. We dwell with a romantic pleasure on those vestiges of former hospitality and munificence, the – pride and ornament of England – on those halls, for ever open to deeds of “courtesie and high emprize.” Seated amid the pomp and blaze of romantic chivalry, the ancient baron heard, with emotions of pride and dignity, the narrations of his minstrels, as they reared in honourable song the heroic deeds and warlike achievements of his feudal forefathers; thus exciting the first efforts of wit and fancy, and largely contributing to every species of polite literature.4
From these awful remains of Gothic and faerie magnificence, we pass, with sensations of religious veneration, to the investigation of those monuments, where Science was for ages nursed in the lap of Austerity and Contemplation.
The history of monasteries, cells, and abbeys, is a subject fraught with the greatest interest, and its execution equals the ardour and enthusiasm of the most zealous antiquary. It is impossible to inspect that immense and invaluable treasure of records, charters, &c. contained in the histories of our monastic antiquities, without experiencing a degree of admiration almost divine, when we consider the vastness of the undertaking, the years of research and labour taken to arrange the materials collected from every corner of the kingdom, before it could be specified even in outline.5
Though we have been accustomed from prejudice, to regard the histories of these monastic institutions as fraught with ignorance, indolence, and superstition, yet, we ought ever to remember, with sentiments of gratitude, that to the inhabitants of the cloister are owing the foundation and accomplishments of most of our celebrated monuments of architectural grandeur. Abbeys, cathedrals, churches, bridges, and embankments, bear ample testimony to the utility of these institutions in a period when civilization was in a manner unknown, and the art and science committed to the protection of monks, and other religious denominations of that period, sarcastically held out as the dark ages of Christian Europe.
The most important branch of this study, and which seems to present the utmost latitude for the investigations of the antiquary, is the history of our ancient churches. Besides the solemnity which the sacredness of the place naturally inspires, funereal monuments connected with their antiquity, breathe over the mind of the inquisitive investigator, sensations mournfully pleasing, and which frequently recall to his remembrance actions and events worthy to be enrolled in the archives of universal history. – By an accurate investigation of these genealogical antiquities, the memories of many persons have been revived, who would otherwise have passed into an unmerited oblivion.6 The statesman, the senator, the patriot, and the warrior, have been rescued from the overwhelming tide of time, and placed in niches appropriated for them in the temples of immortality. From sources such as these, great and important accessions have been made to our store of general history and biography, the lives of individuals have been illustrated, and the disputed lines of family genealogy traced to their remote sources, and freed from fable and absurdity. – Another and very important use which ancient MSS. and records have in common with coins and tomb-architecture, is, to represent in their marginal illuminations forms of ancient armour, buildings, and other curious particulars, characteristic of the different ages to which they allude.7 Coins and marbles frequently throw great light on the literature of past ages; and the inscription upon a coin or a tomb has restored a disputed passage in a favourite author to its classical and original import. From a retrospective view of the coins, medals, seals, &c. of ancient times, we are enabled to form a critical estimate of the various gradations of sculpture and architecture, as exhibited in the structures of their sepulchral monuments. Graves, circles, tombs, pillars, and cairns, were the ancient memorials of past actions, and erected, either to instruct posterity in some great and important event, or to perpetuate the memory of their more illustrious dead. In the Genesis of Scripture, frequent mention is made of memorials of this nature, to record the descent of Omnipotence – the Patriarchal covenant; or to mark out their places of sepulture,8 which remained uninjured through a succession of ages, and, but for the barbarity of their conquerors, might have existed to the present day.9 Great and mighty masters in every department, whether of art or of science, have always endeavoured to illustrate their subjects by these grand and comprehensive ideas, caught from a contemplation of the venerable, though scattered remnants of antiquity. A beautiful church, a beautiful palace, or even a beautiful ruin, must preserve all their consistent and associated attributes before they can enter into the composition of a perfect or a finished whole.10 Those remains of antiquity can never be studied too much, or with too great attention. The grand outline of beauty, the free and easy flow of drapery, and certain undescribable touches, characterize those unique specimens, which may be successfully imitated, but which we must despair of ever seeing rivalled. It is well known, that in ancient Greece and Rome, architecture was in its highest perfection, and that, after their several empires were overthrown, these glorious monuments of their taste and genius were almost entirely destroyed. Still the contemplation of these divine specimens, even tho’ mutilated and in ruins, gave rise to some of the noblest architectural monuments which succeeding ages have to boast of. Let us never be told, in the unmeaning jargon of indolence and ease, that there are obstacles thrown in the way of a modern artist with regard to his imitation of these immortal works of the ancients. To men of genius, obstacles act but as a stimulus; what quenches others, gives them fire – for nothing is denied to persevering and well-directed industry.
In examining the funeral monuments and sepulchral devices of modern times, however valuable in a genealogical and historical point of view, the antiquary looks in vain for that high degree of entertainment he had been accustomed to receive from the sepulchral inscriptions of the Grecian and Roman monuments. In no department do the moderns fall so short of their carmina sepulchralia, or monumental inscriptions. The spirit of the latter are characterized by a tenderness and delicacy of sentiment expressed with the greatest simplicity and elegance of language; while the former are so constructed as to destroy the pathos and effect intended to have been conveyed to the mind of the reader. Still there are glorious exceptions to be found in every country; and in the precincts of our great national mausoleum, inscriptions and devices are to be met with inferior to none that have adorned the walls of the Acropolis, or the Pantheons of ancient Greece and Rome. Even in Scotland, monuments exist worthy the investigation of the philosopher or the antiquary. There repose the dust of a long line of illustrious patriots – men venerable for their virtue, and whose memories are enshrined in the bosom of their country. It would certainly be a highly meritorious act to endeavour by every means to give a more than temporary existence to these sacred relicts, and to hand down to posterity the memorial of their forefathers, while it is yet possible to trace that last fading outline.
A work of this nature has long been a desideratum amongst our Scottish Antiquities, and a perfect sepulchralia would give universal satisfaction. Nothing of this nature has as yet been attempted in Scotland. – A few epitaphs and inscriptions in particular countries, given in a diffuse and incorrect manner, are all that has ever been attempted, and as such, are only calculated for the amusement or instruction of a few. But a “Sepulchralia Scotiæ” would be interesting to every person; as there is a sort of melancholy connection exists between the living and the dead, through the medium of these monitors and funereal instructors in every corner of the kingdom; and the restoration of a decayed monument, or obliterated inscription, would be in a manner restoring their friends to them again, from the silent mansions of mortality.
Edinburgh, March 14. 1814. W. S. Irving.
1 Warburton’s Essays on the Genius of Pope. Warton’s Observations on Spenser, Vol. II., p. 264.
2 Hurd’s Letters on Ch. and Romance, Letter VI.
3 Essays on the Study of Ant. 26.
4 Letters on the Reign of Queen Eliz. I. p. 177, &c.
5 Vide Pref. to Leland’s Collectanea. – Dugdale’s Trav.
6 Archæologia, vol. I. Int.
7 Addison on Medals. Warton’s Obs. on Spenser, vol. II. p. 243.
8 Chap. xi. xxv. and xxxiii.
9 Shaw’s Travels, &c.
10 Opie’s Lect. on Painting, 15.