Art History Timeline / Art Movements Timeline
History of Art Timeline Introduction
What is Art? The emergence of Art is unknown similar to how language came into being. If Art encompasses activities that have taken place since forever such as Architecture, painting, and sculpture, then not a single civilization has been devoid of Art. On the contrary, if Art is considered to be a luxurious entity or a prized belonging that deserves a place in museums or galleries, then it’s pretty obvious that it is a recent development and that the greatest polymaths and producers of the past never fantasized about it.
This can be best perceived if seen from the architectural lens. Despite the fact that beautiful iconic buildings of the past are considered as Art, we very well know that all these renown masterpieces were constructed for particular reasons be it cultural, religious or any other. However, the people who make use of these buildings for any probable purpose, gauge them on the basis of their utility.
Art was also perceived as objects that fulfilled a particular function. Hence Art of the past can never be understood if we turn a blind eye to the objective it had to serve. Art cannot be understood unless we put ourselves in the shoes of people who lived thousands of years ago and what was it that instigated or directed them towards pictorial representation. We can to quite an extent recapture those feelings of ancient people if, without bias, we are able to identify whether we still retain something of the primitive within us.
Artist frog attempts to serve as a library of information about various art movements timeline, artists, philosophers, writers, art historians, art critics, etc. Its primary purpose is to educate students and Art enthusiasts about the changes Art underwent throughout History and its impact on the Art produced today. Artist frog will cover Art history periods in chronological order, from Stone Age to Art of the 21st century as a continuous weaving and changing of traditions in which works of art refer to the past and point at the future, a chain that links today’s time with history.
Primitive Art; Ancient America
Paleo implies “stone” and Lithic denotes “age” hence Paleolithic meaning Stone Age, i.e the period in ancient human history characterized by the development of stone tools. The oldest paintings to have existed are authentication of human skill that archaeologists failed to acknowledge when they first discovered lifelike representations of animals belonging to the Stone Age. An example is the Altamira cave paintings in Spain.
Upon further discovery of stone-age tools list made out of stones and bones, it was reaffirmed that images of bison and other animals on the cave walls perhaps attacked by the creators themselves who believed that the act would bring them a good fortune to capture their prey eventually. This seems quite logical due to the fact that even today, there are tribes who have preserved their ancient customs such as festivals in which they dress up as animals and dance. Similarly, the Romans believed that Romulus and Remus had been brought up by a she-wolf, and till the present day, they have a bronze she-wolf on the sacred capital in Rome.
Paleolithic Art comprised of small sculptures, and monumental paintings engraved designs and reliefs on cave walls. Such works were produced throughout the Mediterranean region and other scattered parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa but survived in quantity only in eastern Europe and parts of Spain and France.
Small, portable clay figurines and bone and ivory carvings were typical of this period. The works include simple but realistic stone and clay animal figurines, as well as carved stone statuettes of women, the most iconic piece being the “Venus of Willendorf” that’s a raw portrait, an idealization of the female figure with exaggerated features such as her Vulva, breasts and the belly, all these depicting fertility.
Mesolithic Age, Crete
Mesolithic meaning “Middle Age” is the term used to define certain cultures that lie between the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Mesolithic Age spanned a time period dating approximately from 12,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE.
In comparison to the Paleolithic age, that marked the start of hunting and gathering food for survival, the Mesolithic period represented a wide variety of hunting, fishing, and food gathering techniques. Agriculture and the beginning of permanent settlements started. Some people continued with intensive hunting, while others practised the initial stages of domestication.
The types of tools used is a distinguishing factor among Paleo and Mesolithic cultures. Mesolithic tools were advanced, made out of small chipped stone tools called microliths and retouched bladelets. The Paleolithic utilized more primitive stone treatments.
Art from this period is distinctive of the shift to a warmer climate and acclimatization to a relatively sedentary lifestyle, population size, and consumption of plants. Numerous significant Mesolithic rock art sites exist on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. The works comprised of small painted figures of humans and animals, the most advanced and widespread ones surviving from this period in Europe and possibly worldwide. The human figure is a recurring theme in painted scenes. Hunting scenes are the most common, also scenes of battles and leisure such as dance activities and possibly agricultural chores. In some scenes gathering honey is shown, most famously at Cuevas de la Araña en Bicorp, an 8000-year-old cave painting near Valencia, Spain.
Neolithic age marks the climax of the stone age that commenced around 10,000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent, a region of the Middle East where humans first took up farming. This period is frequently linked with agriculture and is familiar with the name Neolithic Revolution which is the time when food cultivation and animal domestication was introduced. It was characterized by stone tools shaped by polishing or grinding, thus the use of metal tools became widespread along with crafts such as Pottery and weaving that were emerging.
Approaching the end of the Neolithic Era, people began to use tools made from metal. Copper was the first metal used for tools. Eventually copper replaced the stone, leading to the Copper Age. Innovations in stone tool fabrication became widespread and embraced by various groups in distant locations, which is evidence for the existence of vital networks of exchange and cultural interaction.
Instead of small family groups of the Old Stone Age, evidence substantiates that the people of the Neolithic period settled in large city complexes. Catal Hoyuk in modern-day Turkey is an ideal example of a Neolithic city. In Neolithic cities, people lived close together and extended cooperation with one another. This led to civilization, which actually means “to live in a city.”
Neolithic art was primarily created for some functional purpose ignoring exceptions. There were more images of humans than animals, and the humans looked more identifiably human. It began to be used for ornamentation.
The sculpture was no longer produced by carving. In the Near East, figurines were made of clay and baked. Evidence of it is the Archaeological digs at Jericho that turned up a marvellous human skull (c. 7,000 BC) overlaid with delicate, sculpted plaster features.
In the cases of architecture and megalithic constructions, art was now created in fixed locations. This was significant. Where temples, sanctuaries and stone rings were built, gods and goddesses were provided with known destinations. Additionally, the emergence of tombs provided unmoving resting places for the dearly departed that could be visited—another first.
When discussing the Neolithic era and the Art and Architecture associated with it, we’re often reminded of the Stonehenge, the iconic image of this early era. Dating to approximately 3000 B.C.E. in England, it is a massive structure, a gigantic monument and more complex than anything built before it in Europe. Stonehenge is an example of the cultural diversity and progression brought about by the Neolithic revolution—the most important development in human history.
Primitive Art bases upon such preconceived notions and gives the artist ample space to bring out creativity. Also when discussing it, the word primitive does not imply to the knowledge the creator has of his craft. Tribes settled in far off areas even today have an astounding set of skills when it comes to what they produce be it carving, basketwork, weaving, etc. However despite the fact that what they produce requires competence and time, still we cannot call it Art as it’s devoid of critical thought and reasoning.
Without explanation, we could never read and understand the meanings and connotations attached to such intricate carvings and value the amount of effort put in. The mask below is a ritual mask from Alaska which on first sight appears to be humorous or comical but it actually depicts a cannibalistic mountain demon with a blood-stained face.
It is worthy of appreciation of how natural/organic shapes take the form of a continuous pattern. There are numerous such marvellous works of this type that have probably lost their intended meaning forever but are still worthy of admiration.
Also, such works shouldn’t be approached with preconceived notions that they were made for the sake of pleasure-seeking or decoration but could also prompt us of the horrendous sacrifices made by the people of that time. An example is the horrid carving of a death head from an altar of the ruins of Copan in present-day Honduras, probably dating back to 504 AD.
Mesopotamia History and Art
Mesopotamian Culture sprouted from the valley between the two rivers, “Euphrates” and “Tigris”, modern-day Iraq and dates roughly from to 3500 b.c.–539 b.c.Mesopotamian Art and Architecture are less familiar in comparison to Egyptian or Greek Art and Architecture due to the diminishing of baked brick buildings and structures over time.
The main reason for just a few early works to have been witnessed by us is probably because unlike Egyptians, the Mesopotamian religion discarded the notions of preservation of the soul. Early on, during the rule of Sumerians, kings were buried along with their slaves and household, to keep them intact in the life hereafter. Proof of this are the graves of that period, from where ancient household items have been discovered and now are part of the British Museum collection.
Back then Artistic skill and expertise went hand in hand with ancient beliefs in the supernatural and the barbaric. An example is one of the tombs that date back to 2800 BC, a harp embellished with an animal figure can be seen resembling heraldic breasts in appearance and arrangement. The intended meaning to use animals is still unknown but it can be ascertained that they were mythological characters from those early days. The scenes depicted that seem to be infantile actually had honest and serious meaning.
The artist’s thought wasn’t invited to decorate tomb walls but they had to make certain that the image they painted, kept the robust alive. Mesopotamian kings enjoyed appreciation and self-glorification so they used to commission monuments that portrayed their conquests and triumph. But it wasn’t just this, it was believed that such powerful images of victory ensured utter control upon their opponents that wouldn’t dare to rise up again. Later on, these monuments took the shape of records of events in the order of their occurrence. Quite a few of them are preserved in the British Museum, for instance, the chronicles of the ninth century BC Assyrian king Asurnasirpal II. These documentations depict scenes of the troops crossing rivers and launching attacks on the enemy, image representation resembling the Egyptian portrayal of such events but rugged in comparison.
Characteristic of Egyptian Art
Ancient Egypt, known to the world as the “Land of the Pyramids” is considered to be one of the earliest civilizations of the world and proof of a profoundly organized land. The manner in which these mega-structures such as the great pyramid of Giza that we witness today were built, manpower and other resources that were employed, speak volumes of the grandeur and proficiency of the Egyptians.
The pharaohs of Egypt were considered to be godly, possessing complete control over the land and its people. Thus it was believed that whenever a king departed, he ascended to where he came from, the sky, the realm of the divine. Hence pyramids had great empirical importance and their forms reaching up to the sky assisted the ascent of the ruler.
They had a staunch belief in the hereafter and thus preserved the bodies of their kings, Egyptian mummies as we all are aware of. The body was placed in the centre of the pyramid in a stone coffin, surrounded by magical spells and verses on the walls to ease his journey to the other world. Also, a sculpted head of the departed ruler in imperishable granite was placed in the tomb, which no one could see but it resided to keep the soul alive. Initially, these monuments and rites of preservation were limited just to kings but later on also for the nobles of the royal family, in the form of smaller tombs surrounding the king’s pyramid.
Egyptian Art was characterized by perfect geometry and sharp observation, clearly evident in the relief works and paintings on the walls of the tombs. These works and imagery in the tombs were reflective of servants and helpers, depicting the idea of soul accompanied by his henchmen.
The painters portrayed actual life in a much different way than us and so looking at Egyptian paintings for the first time could be bewildering. This is because of the distinct purpose these paintings were made for. Beauty was not the driving force behind these works instead complete documentation was what mattered most. As a result, they did not draw from real life but a memory, they ensured they laid out all that expressed them and the life they lived.
The working methodology and the techniques Egyptian painters employed in painting resembled more of a mapmaker than that of a painter. All visual constituents and forms that they drew, were from peculiar angles.
For instance, the image above of a pond painting discovered from a tomb in Thebes clarifies the artist’s way of visualizing his subject, which definitely wasn’t a personal choice of the artist but a set of rules to which all complied. The pond is drawn from an aerial perspective whereas the trees from a side view. The fish in the pond are drawn in profile to enhance their visibility or else if they were also drawn from a bird’s eye view, they would’ve hardly been visible.
Another example that substantiates this play of perspective as a visual tool by Egyptian artists, is a relief on a wooden door in a tomb that depicts a portrait of the king. A side view or the profile of a head has the eye of a frontal face incorporated. The top half of the body including the torso is drawn as seen from the front but the limbs or arms attached to the body in an uncomfortable pose.
All these seemingly errors were not mistakes but intentional in order to inculcate all parts of the body in the human form on the basis of a set of principles. Despite criticism of Egyptian paintings as being flat and contorted, we cannot label them as haphazard imagery because of the profound compositional sense they exude.
The Egyptian artist proceeded with image making by drawing a mesh of lines to assist with composing characters in the image. It was not just knowledge that directed the artist but a sight for pattern too. However, incorporating a profound sense of geometry did not prevent the artist from observing minor details of nature so much so that later on zoologists also declared the animal species as recognizable.
Egyptian Art ranging from sculpture to tomb paintings to architecture, all adhered to the laws that constituted to form their signature style. These set of rules were studied by every artist at the beginning of their careers, for instance, seated statues having hands placed on the knees or men painted in darker skin tones than women.
Similarly, the portrayal of gods also had rules to abide by e.g Horns the sun god had to be depicted with a falcon’s head or Anubis the god of death was represented with a jackal’s head. Originality lacked in Egyptian Art because it wasn’t really expected of the artist, a good artist was who imitated admired monuments of the past as closely as possible. Resultantly Egyptian Art didn’t go through changes throughout its span of more than 3000 years. Everything considered praiseworthy was as commendable a thousand years later. New trends did appear overtime but the representation of man and nature remained the same.
It was not until a disastrous invasion of Egypt, that a few significant changes Egyptian style of Art underwent during the period identified as the “New Kingdom”. The person responsible was the 18th dynasty pharaoh “Amenophis IV” whose belief was contrary to the orthodox religious doctrine. He thus negated quite a few customs that were practised as age-old tradition.
For him, only the God of sun “Aton” was supreme whom he worshipped and represented in the form of the sun. He vilified all other gods and named himself Akhnaton after his god. The imagery that he commissioned omitted earlier pharaohs, instead he had himself portrayed, lifting his daughter on his knees and walking with his wife in the garden. A couple of his portraits depict him as an ugly man maybe because he wanted the artists to convey the element of vulnerability or maybe he was convinced of his distinct significance as a prophet.
The next pharaoh to take charge was Tutankhamun, whose tomb was discovered in 1922. During his tenure, ancient Egyptian beliefs were restored, and the window to the outside world was sealed again. The Egyptian style as had existed before his time continued to exist for more than a thousand years with the Egyptians believing it would last forever. Majority of the works we come across in museums belong to this later period in Egyptian history. New themes were introduced but nothing substantially new was added to the achievement of Art.
GREECE (Seventh to Fifth century BC)
Crete, considered to be the fifth biggest island of the Mediterranean and the largest in Greece, was once the main centre of the peninsulas of Greece and Asia Minor. Crete along with other islands of the region was thought to be the hiding places of adventurous seamen and private kings who travelled extensively, piling up wealth in their castles by means of trade and surprise attacks in the sea.
Kings of the main centre, the island of Crete, were wealthy and powerful who sent delegations to Egypt and whose Art created an impression there too. It’s still not determined, who were the people that ruled Crete and whose Art was emulated in Mycenae, part of the Greek mainland. Around 1000 BC, tribes from Europe infiltrated into Greece and the shores of Asia, defeating the previous occupants.
Initially, the Art of these tribal residents for a few centuries seemed tyrannical and crude in nature. Pottery was embellished with plain basic geometric patterns with imagery amalgamated in the design. For instance, the image below is from a Greek vase belonging to 700 BC that depicts the mourning of a death. A dead man lying on a bier with women on both sides experiencing the grief, their hands upon their heads, a custom seen in all ancient societies.
This very simplicity, order, and organization were also clearly evident in the style of Architecture introduced by the Greeks in the early days are still seen in our towns and cities. The image underneath depicts the initial old style of Greek temples, named after the tribe of Spartans, namely the Doric tribe. The earliest of such temples were constructed out of timber, comprising of a small cubicle that held the image of the god.
Around 600 BC, the Greeks began emulating these simple structures in stone. The wooden poles for support were transformed into columns that bore the strong stone cross beams. These crossbeams, called Architraves supported the entire unit, resting on columns and collectively known as “Entablature”. The ends of beams were marked with three slits usually familiar with the name “Triglyphs”, meaning three slits. The space between the beams known as “Metope”.
The fact that architects did not prefer simple cubic pillars or cylindrical columns speaks volumes of their aesthetic sensibilities, instead they shaped the columns with slight swellings towards the middle and tapering off towards the top, that made them look elastic in nature, having the ability to bear the burden of the entire roof.
Around 600 BC, the first stone temples came into being in Athens, Greece. It was here that the most significant and impressive revolution in the history of Art and Architecture took place. Prior to this, artists of ancient East Asian empires had made great efforts to achieve this particular type of magnificence. They tried to imitate the Art of their ancestors as closely as possible and thus stick to the rules they had adopted.
Fabrication in stone was the next step from where the Egyptians and Assyrians had left. The Greeks studied the human body closely by emulating the Egyptian way of approaching figurative sculpture. The image below represents two Greek stone figures that date back to around 580 BC which clearly bring forward an attempt of experimentation and innovation. The artist seemed to have focused on peculiar details such as that of the knees. Even though less convincing than the Egyptian figures, but the point being the artist deviated from age-old traditions in quest of variation and change. Egyptians had their Art based on knowledge whereas the Greek sculptor adhered strictly to observation.
Once this revolution got underway, sculptors implemented new ways and techniques of portraying the human figure, adding to their own discoveries. If one discovered how to chisel the trunk, another came up with ways to make the sculpture more alive by removing contact of both feet from the ground. Similarly, progress in facial features was perceived, such as the bending of the mouth in an attempt to bring out a smile or a grin to be precise. The obstacles or hindrance that was encountered by them did not fill them with fear, instead convinced them to progress gradually.
Speaking of Greek Art in terms of painting, we’re only aware of it to the extent Greek writers have enlightened us whereas the important point being, Greek painters were celebrated more than Greek sculptors back in the day.
The only way we could form an opinion of Greek painting of the past is by studying imagery we see on pottery. Painted Greek vases that were used to hold wine, formed an identity and industry of their own in Athens. The craftsmen enjoyed innovation in their vases as much as other artists did in the pursuit of coming up with intriguing new outcomes.
In the vases belonging to the 6th century BC, we see great influences of Egyptian methods and techniques e.g the vase we see in the image below is from around 540 BC that depicts Achilles and Ajax playing draughts in their tent. Speaking of the profile view and the big eyes are clear indications of Egyptian influences but the bodies were shown differently. The body postures including the arms were less rigid, making them look more realistic as the artist discarded ancient rules of depicting what they had knowledge of. As discussed earlier, imagery to quite an extent was based on observation.
As a result, painters came up with big discoveries such as the representation of foreshortening. It was also the first time in the history of figurative painting that the artist started illustrating feet from a frontal perspective. This innovation can be observed in the image of the vase below that portrays a young warrior preparing for battle by putting on his armour, his parents on either side, assisting and counselling him before he embarks on his journey. However, the head of the soldier could still be seen in profile, as drawing the head from the front was still considered challenging.
Looking at the two works discussed earlier, we could deduce that lessons from Egyptian Art were not discarded completely. It seemed a fusion of the past and the then present. Greek painters made clear distinctive outlines of their figures and focused on a harmonious and balanced design.
The revelation of organic forms and foreshortening marked the great revolution of Greek Art, a significant period in human history. It was the time when Greeks started to question ancient traditions and myths about the gods, instead started inquiring and dwelling deep into the character of things.
Theatre emerged for the first time in the form of a ceremony in honour of Dionysus. However, despite all this speedy progress, artists were still considered to belong to the inferior class of society lacking intellect. Artists were mere workers who earned each penny at the cost of their labour and sweat, labourers we could address them as. However, their stakes in the city of Athens were far high in comparison to Egyptian or Assyrian craftsmen.
It was considered to be the most overwhelming moment of progress in Athens, a time period characterized by high morale too, because of successfully being able to defend the Persian invasion. The rebuilding of the temples commenced that had been burned down by the Persians, this time constructed with extraordinary dexterity, bringing out a magnificent and splendid appearance. Pericles the ruler at that time treated artists with the utmost dignity and considered them his equivalent. The architect that he called on was “Iktinos” and the sculptor he engaged in the embellishment of temples was “Pheidias”.
Pheidias’s two notable works, Athene and the prestigious statue of Zeus in Olympia are nowhere to be seen today but the temples in which they resided, still exist. As mentioned earlier, Greek figures exuded influences of Egyptian Art and so the magnificence of Greek Sculpture has to be credited to those ancient rules that were brought into practice. Drapery, a featured attraction of Greek Sculpture made use of to mark main divisions of the body speaks volumes of their knowledge of form and human anatomy.
It is this fusion of traditional rules and the freedom of the artist that counts for the extraordinary appreciation received by Greek Art for centuries after. Artists have revisited Greek sculpture and the masterpieces for Greek Art to seek guidance and inspiration.
The sort of work Greek Artists became acquainted with was primarily figurative, representation of perfect bodies as they had a profound sense of anatomy. This ardent fascination and a vehement feeling of self-glorification are strongly manifested in the statues of triumphant athletes, surrounding the temple of Olympia.
The Greeks were deeply passionate about sports, majority of whom belonged to leading wealthy families of Greece and so the victorious ones were perceived as men who God had favoured with a spell of invincibility.
Excavations in Olympia revealed many pedestals on which these famous figures once stood but none of these statues was to be found. It is believed that because they were made of bronze, it is most likely that inhabitants from the Middle Ages, melted them down when they faced scarcity of metal. Only one of such figures has been discovered to date and that is the head of a Charioteer in bronze.
It clearly depicts the artist’s intention of not replicating reality but shaping it according to his own knowledge of the human body. The features are prominent, coloured stones are used in place of the eyes and the light brownish colour of gold that adds to the richness and warmth on the face.
Another work that truly reflects the artist’s obsession with the human form and interest in sports, is the “Discus Thrower” by Myron. This sculptural piece portrays an athlete captured in motion, moments before hurling the discus. On closer and critical examination of the piece, we discover how Myron brought about movement through a new way of ancient artistic practice. Drawing resemblance to Egyptian forms, Myron depicts the trunk in frontal view and the arms and legs in profile. Hence we could infer that Myron captured movement in a similar manner to how painters of his time dominated space.
Nearly every work from this great Greek period is a manifestation of the freedom to capture movement and various postures of the human body in an attempt to represent the emotional and intrinsic states of the figures.
In this regard, it is the portrayal of the subconscious that turned tombstones into great works of art. For instance, the relief below depicts Hegeso buried under the stone. A girl has represented handing over a jewellery box to her, this imagery quite resembles the Egyptian depiction of Pharaoh Tutankhamun perched on his throne and his wife adjusting his collar.
Greek relief was devoid of limitations as was the case with Egyptian reliefs. Greek reliefs maintain an element of beautiful arrangements that are no longer geometrical, accompanied by free-flowing gestures, not rigid as those of the Egyptians. The flow of drapery encompassing the human form seems so calm and serene, thereby giving rise to Greek Art of the 5th century.
GREECE (Fifth century BC to First Century AD)
The sudden awareness of the transition of Art to freedom took place in between 520 BC and 420 BC. As the fifth century concluded, artists along with the public realized the actual power they possessed in terms of skill.
Despite the fact that artists were still identified as craftsmen, an overwhelming population started taking a keen interest in the artist’s work without any bias or perceiving it as something that fulfilled a particular function, entirely viewing Art for its purity. People had started differentiating between various Art schools belonging to different regions, thereby understanding diverse styles, traditions, and processes. As a result of these comparisons of schools, competition increased and artists started putting in all the more effort that eventually gave rise to the variety in Greek Art that was and still is worthy of appreciation.
Changes in architectural styles were notable, particularly the shift from Doric to Ionic style. For instance, the renown Parthenon that was constructed in the Doric style back then was replaced by the Ionic building style, that exuded changes in appearance and character. The photograph below is of Ionic temple namely “Erechtheion”, whose columns are less sturdy and tough. The headpiece on top was no longer unembellished instead, richly ornamented volutes existed on the sides to support the beam upon which the roof rested. So the spiral scroll volutes fulfilled a function instead of mere decorated extensions.
After the generation of the most popular sculptor of Athens namely “Phidias”, Athens indulged in a battle with Sparta, that marked the decline of prosperity and peace in Greece. In 408 BC followed by a brief period of calmness, the goddess of victory was erected on the Acropolis, along with which sculptures and other ornaments also started to exude the Ionic style.
The image above depicts the goddess of victory, sadly mutilated, nevertheless emanating a profound attraction. It is a female figure, one of the numerous goddesses of victory, attaining a peculiar posture to loosen her sandal as she walks. The brief pause is depicted in such a meticulous manner, the thin drape encapsulating her body. These works were a manifestation of the artist’s freedom during that period, this ease and righteousness made him a bit self-conscious too.
In comparison, the artist who did the marble frieze of the Parthenon back then in 440 BC, did not ponder and form opinions of his Art. He knew he had to execute a particular task and that’s it, hardly conscious of the fact that people would be discussing and appreciating his craft a thousand year later and more.
Perhaps Frieze of the Victory temple marked a change in attitude as the artist felt immense pleasure derived from his achievements. The approach towards Art changed during the 4th century. In contrast to Phidias’s sculptures of gods that gained popularity all over Greece, the fourth-century statues of the great temple acquired admiration by virtue of their beauty as great works of art. Paintings and sculptures then became part of discussions amongst the educated class of Greece, similar to the analysis of poetry and theatre. In a way, Art appraisal and criticism of form and creation made an appearance on the urban landscape of Greece.
Praxiteles was considered to be the master of Greek Art of the 4th Century AD, known for his satisfying, pleasant an expressive creations. His widely popular work was the depiction of the goddess of love, the young charming aphrodite stepping into her bath. This work is also most celebrated because of its mention in poems. Unfortunately, this iconic work had disappeared.
Another known piece by Praxiteles was the statue of the god Hermes holding young Dionysus on his arm and playing with him. In comparison to the Greek sculptures of 580 BC, we can sense the massive transformation in Greek Art over a period of two hundred years. In the work of Praxiteles, sculptures have far more fluidity and are less robust.
The god Hermes stands before us in a calm and composed manner, a comfortable posture that does not diminish or weaken his dignity. This effect achieved by Praxiteles makes us realize the importance of lessons of ancient Art discussed earlier. Praxiteles in his practice focused on body joints that explained the physical working of the human body. He was able to master the art of depicting bones and muscles in the most delicate and realistic manner.
It is important to note that Praxiteles and other Greek artists had immense knowledge of the human body that enabled them to achieve tremendous beauty in their works. Their works are the epitomes of the human form and anatomy in terms of symmetry, delicacy, detail, and realism. They idealized beauty to such an extent that they preferred to omit certain flaws or irregularities that did not conform to their notions of the exemplary body.
Many of the most notable works of Classical Art that were later regarded as perfect sculptures of the human form, were actually copies of the ones created by the Greeks during that period. The image below is of Apollo Belvederes.
The ancient types had begun to breathe under the hands of a skillful sculptor, and they are like real human beings standing in front of us and yet as been from a different world. The Apollo Belvedere represents the ideal physical body of a man, as he stands in front of us with an extended arm and head turned on a side-ways as if he is following the arrow, we have no doubt saying that each part of the body was given characteristic.
”Venus of Milo” which was made in the later period, among the famous classical statues of Venus, The Venus of Milo was found on the island of Melos, is one the best-known sculpture, it also belonged to a group of Cupid and Venus. It was also designed to be seen from a side and Venus was extending her arms towards the Cupid and we can see the representation of simplicity and the clarity.
With this representation of creating beauty and defining characteristic of figures in marble where the material looks like to breathe, there is one drawback. It was actually possible to create convincing human types by this mean but was this method was enough to represent real individual human being? This idea does not occur to the Greeks until rather late in the fourth century, the idea of a portrait. We hear that the portraits were made in earlier times, but those figures were not good likenesses. In the works of Greek Artists, we noticed that they avoided giving the heads a particular expression. The paintings and sculptures are not expressionless in the sense of looking dull, but their features were never much to express strong emotions.
More than that, they learned to seize the workings of the individual soul, the particular character of physiognomy and make portraits in our sense of the word. It was in the time of Alexander that people started to discuss this new art of making and represented portraiture. A writer of that period, caricaturing the irritating habits of flatterers and toadies, mentions that they always burst out in loud praise of the striking likeness of their patron’s portrait.
Alexander himself always preferred to be portrayed by his court sculptor Lysippus, the most celebrated artists of the day, whose faithfulness to nature astonished his contemporaries. His portrait of Alexander is thought to be reflected in a free copy. Which shows How much art has changed since the time of the Delphic charioteer, or even since the time of Praxiteles, who was an only generation older than Lysippus. Of course, the issue with all ancient portraits is that we cannot pronounce on their likeness– in fact then the flatterer in the story. Perhaps if we could see a snapshot of Alexander we should find it quite unlike the bust.
Possibly the Statue of Lysippus resembled a God much more than they did the real Conqueror of Asia but so much we can say; man such as Alexander a restless spirit gifted but rather but spoilt by success might have looked like dispersed with its upraised eyebrows and its lively expressions on the face.
The foundation of an Empire by Alexander was an enormously important event for Greek art, for thereby from being the concern of a few small cities into the pictorial language of almost half of the world. The change was found to affect its character. We mostly referred to this art of the later period, not as Greek Art, But as Hellenistic art, because that is the name usually given to the Empire founded by Alexander’s successor on Eastern soil.
The rich Capitals of these Empires Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria and Pergamon in Asia Minor, made different demands on the artists from those which day had been a custom in Greece. Even in architecture the strong and simple forms of the Doric style and easy grace of ionic style were not enough. A new form of the column was preferred, which had been invented early in the 4th century and which was called after the wealthy merchant city of Corinth, (Figure below).
In the Corinthian style, the foliage was added to the ionic spiral volutes to decorate the capital, and there are generally more and richer ornaments all over the building. This luxurious model suited the sumptuous building which was laid out on a vast scale in the newly founded cities of the East. Few of them have been preserved, but what remains from later periods gives us an impression of great magnificence and splendour. The styles and inventions of Greek art were applied on the scale, and to the traditions, of the Oriental Kingdoms. I have said that the whole of the Greek art was bound to undergo a change in the Hellenistic period. This change can be noticed in some of the most famous sculptures of that age.
One of them is an altar from the city of Pergamon which was erected around 170 BC- (Figure 0.1)- The group on in the image represents the struggle between the gods and the giants, the work is magnificent but we look in the vein for the harmony and refinement of early sculptures. The artist was for sure aiming at strong dramatic effects. The battle rages with terrible violence.
The clumsy giants are overwhelmed by the triumphant gods, and they look up in agony and frenzy. Everything is full of wild movement and fluttering drapery. To make it all more striking the relief is no longer sit flat on the wall but is composed of almost free-standing figures which in their struggle, seem to overflow on to the steps of the altar as if they hardly troubled about where they belonged. Hellenistic art loved such wild expressions in the artworks. It is certainly impressive.
Some of the works of classical sculpture which have enjoyed the immense fame afterwards were formed in the Hellenistic period. When the group of the Laocoon (Figure 0.2) came to light in 1506, art lovers and artists were overwhelmed by the effect of this tragic group.
The scene is read as terrible which is also described in Virgili’s Aeneid: the Trojan priest Laocoon has warned his compatriots against accepting the wooden horse in which Greek soldiers were hiding. The gods who see their plans of destroying Troy thwarted send two gigantic snakes from the sea which catch the priest and his two unfortunate sons in their coils and suffocate them. It is one of the stories of senseless cruelty perpetrated by the Olympians against poor mortals which are quite frequent in Greek and Latin mythologies.
One would like to know how the story struck the Greek artist who conceived this impressive group. Did he want us to feel the horror of a scene in which an innocent victim is made to suffer for having spoken the truth? Or did he mainly want to show off his power of representing a terrifying and somewhat sensational fight between man and beast? He had many reasons to be proud of his skill. The way in which the muscles of the trunk and the arms convey the effort and the suffering of the hopeless struggle, the expression of pain in the face of the priest, the helpless wriggling of the two boys and the way all this turmoil and movement is frozen into a permanent group have excited admiration ever since.
But I cannot help suspecting sometimes that this was an art which was meant to appeal to a public which also enjoyed the horrible sites of the gladiators’ fights. Perhaps it is wrong to blame the artist for that. The fact is probably that by this time, the period of Hellenism, art had largely lost its old connection with magic and religion. Artists became interested in the problems of their craft for their own sake, and the problem of how o represent such dramatic contest with all its movement, its expression and its tension, was just the type of task which would test an artist’s mettle. The rights and wrongs of Laocoon’s fate may not have occurred to the sculptor at all.
It was in the time and that context that tick people began to collect work of art, to have famous ones copied if they could not get hold originals, and to pay prices for those which they could obtain. Writers began to be interested in art and wrote about the artists’ lives, collected anecdotes about their oddities and composed guide-books for tourists.
Many of the masters were painters rather than sculptors, and we certainly know nothing about their works except what we find in those extracts from classical art books which have come down to us. We know that these painters were also interested in the problems of their craft rather than their art serving a religious purpose.
We hear of masters who specialized in subjects from everyday life who painted scenes from the theatres or from barber’s shop, but all of these paintings are lost to us. The only way to form some idea of the character of ancient painting is by looking at the decorating wall paintings and the mosaics which have come to light in Pompeii and elsewhere. Pompeii was well to do country town and it was buried in the ashes of Vesuvius in AD 79.
Almost every villa and house in the town had paintings on the walls, painted vistas and columns imitation of framed pictures and of the stage. These were not all masterpieces, though it is astonishing to see how much good work of art was there in such a small and unimportant town. The interior decorators of Pompeii and neighbourhood cities obviously drew freely on the stock of inventions made by the great Hellenistic artists. Among much that is humdrum, we sometimes discover a figure of such exquisite beauty and grace as (Fig 0.3) which represents one of the Hours, picking a blossom as if in a dance.
Or we find such details as the head of a faun (Figure 0.4), from another painting, which gives us the idea of the mastery and freedom which theses artists had acquired in the handling of expression. Nearly every kind of thing that would go into a picture is to be found in these decorative wall paintings. Pretty still lifes for instance such as two lemons with a glass of water, and pictures of animals. Even landscape paintings existed there.
This was perhaps the greatest innovation of the Hellenistic period. Ancient oriental art has no use for landscapes except as setting for their scenes of human life or of military campaigns. For Greek art at the time of Pheidias or Praxiteles, the man remained the main subject of the artist’s interest. The poets like Theocritus discovered the charm of simple life among shepherds in the time of the Hellenistic period, artists also tried to conjure up the pleasure of the countryside fir sophisticated town-dwellers.
These paintings are not the view of a particular country house or beauty scenes. They are a collection of everything that makes a perfect scene. Cattle and shepherds, shrines at distant villas and mountains as shown in (Figure 0.5). Everything was charmingly arranged in these pictures, and all the set pieces were looking and arranged they’re at best. We really feel that we are looking at a peaceful scene.
Nevertheless, even these works are less realistic than we might think at first glance. If we were to start asking awkward questions or try to draw a map if locality, we should soon find out that it could not be done. We do not know how great the distance between the villa and shrine is supposed to be nor how near or how far is the bridge from the shrine.
The fact is that even Hellenistic artists did not know what we call the laws of perspective. The famous avenue of poplars, which recedes to a vanishing point and which we drew at school, was not then standard task. Artists drew distant things small and near or important things large, but the law of regular diminution of objects as they become more distant, the fixed framework in which we can represent a view, was not adopted by classical antiquity.
Indeed it tools more than another thousand years before it was applied. Thus even the latest, freest and most confident works of ancient art still preserve at least remnant of the principle which we discussed in our description of Egyptian painting. Even here knowledge of the characteristic outline of individual objects counts for as much as the actual impression received through the eye.
We have long recognized that this quality is not a fault in works of art, to be regretted and looked down upon, but that it is possible to achieve artistic perfection within any style. The Greeks broke through the rigid taboos of early Oriental art and went out on a voyage of discovery to add more and more features from observation to the traditional images of the world. But their works never looks like mirrors in which any odd corner of nature is reflected. They always near stamp of the intellect which made them.
The World Conquerors, Jews, Christians, Romans and Buddhists (First to Fourth Century AD )
The Roman town, Pompeii contained many of the reflections of Hellenistic ar. The art form which remained more or less unchanged while the Romans ruled the world and founded their own empire on the ruins of the Hellenistic Kingdoms.
Most of the artists were Greek who worked in Rome and most of the Romans collectors bought works of the great Greeks masters or copies of those works. When Rome became the mistress of the world the making and seeing of art did change to some extent. The artists were given the tasks with methods of adaptation to tasks on their own. Civil engineering was probably Roman’s most outstanding achievement at that time, everyone knows about their aqueducts their public baths and roads. Even the ruins of the building of Roman Amphitheatre still look extremely impressive. When we walk between their enormous pillars, it feels like an ant between them.
One of the most famous buildings in Rome is perhaps, the huge arena known as the Colosseum (Fig 0.6), it is characteristic Roman Building which excited much admiration in later days. On the whole, it is a utilitarian structure, with three stories of arches, one above the other, to support the seats of the vast amphitheatre inside. But in front of these arches, the Roman architect has put a kind of screen of Greek forms. Indeed, he has applied all three styles of building used for Greek temples.
The ground floor is a variation on the Doric style even the metopes and triglyphs are preserved, the second storey has Ionic and the third and fourth Corinthian half-columns. This combination of Roman structure with Greek forms had a great influence on the later architects. We can also found these examples in our towns.
None of their architectural creations made a more lasting impression than the triumphal arches the Romans set up all over in Italy, France (Fig 0.9), Asia and North Africa. Greek architecture was having properties of identical units and the same is even true of the Colosseum: but the triumphal arches use the orders to frame and accent the large central gateway and to flank it by narrower openings. It was an arrangement that could be used for architectural compositions much as a Chord is used in the music.
The most important feature of Roman architecture is the use of Arches. This invention had played little or no role in Greek buildings though it may have been known to Greek Architects. To construct an arch out of separate wedge-formed stones is quite a difficult feat of engineering. Once this technique is mastered the constructor can use it for increasingly bold designs. He can span the pillars of a bridge or of an aqueduct, or he can even make use of this device for constructing a vaulted roof.
Romans became experts in the art of vaulting by various technical devices. Temple of all Gods is or the Pantheon is the great proof of that. The only temple with classical antiquity which always remained the place of worship. It was converted into a church in the early Christian era and was therefore never allowed to fall into ruin. Its interior Fig (0.8) is a huge round hall with a vaulted roof and circular opening at the top through which one sees the open sky. There is no other window but the whole room receives ample and even light from harmony. There is no feeling of heaviness. The enormous dome seems to hover freely over you like a second dome of heaven.
It was typical of the Roman to take from Greek architecture whatever they liked and to apply it on their own needs. They did the same in all the fields. One of their principal needs was for good lifelike portraits. Such portraits had played part in the early religion of the Romans. It had been customary to carry wax images of ancestors in funeral processions.
There is little doubt that this usage has been connected with the belief that the likeness preserves the soul, which we know from ancient Egypt. Later when Rome became an empire, the bust of the emperor was still looked upon with religious awe. We know that every Toman had to burn incense in front of this bust in token of his loyalty and devotion, and we know that the persecution of Christians began because of the refusal to comply with this demand. The strange thing is that despite this solemn significance of portraits, the Romans allowed their artists to make them more lifelike and complimentary than anything the Greeks had attempted. Perhaps they sometimes used death masks and thus acquired their astounding knowledge of the structure and features of the human head.
At any rate, we know Pompey, Augustus, Nero or Titus almost as if we have seen their faces in the newsreel. There is no flattery in bust of Vespasian Fig (1.1) nothing mark him out as a god. He might be any wealthy man, a banker of the owner of the shipping line. But there is nothing pretty in these Roman portraits. Somehow artists succeeded in being lifelike without being trivial.
Another new task which the Romans set the artists revived a custom which we know from the ancient orient Fig (0.01). They too wanted to proclaim their victories and to tell storeys of their campaigns, Tarjan, for instance, erected a huge column to show a whole picture chronicle of his wars and victories in Dacia (modern Romania). There we see the Roman legionaries embarking, camping and fighting ( Fig 1.2). All the skill and achievements of centuries of Greek art were used in these feats of war reporting. But the importance which Romans attached to an accurate rendering of all details, and to a clear narrative which would impress the feats of the campaign on the stay at homes, rather changed the character of art.
The main aim was no longer that of harmony, beauty or dramatic expression, The Romans were a matter of fact people and cared less fo fancy goods, Yet their pictorial methods of telling the deeds of a hero proved of great value to the religions which came into contact with their far-flung empire.
During the countries after Christ, Hellenistic and Roman Art completely displaced the arts of the oriental kingdom, even in their own former strongholds. Egyptians still buried their dead like mummies, but instead of adding their likeness in the Egyptian style, they had them painted by an artist who knew all the tricks of Greek portraiture Fig (1). The portraits which were certainly made by humble craftsmen at a low price, still astonish us by their vigour and realism, There are few works of ancient art which look so fresh and modern like these.
The Egyptians were not the only one to adopt the new art methods to their religious needs. Even in the far distance, India, Roman way of telling a story and glorifying a hero was adopted by artists who set themselves the task of illustrating the story of peaceful conquest, the story of the Buddha.
The art of sculpture had flourished in India long before this Hellenistic influence reached the country, but it was in the frontier region of Gandhara that the figure of Buddha was first shown in the reliefs which became the model for later Buddhist art. Fig (1.3) represents the episodes from the Buddha legend which called The Great Renunciation.
The young prince Guantama is leaving the palace of his parents to become a hermit in the wildness. He thus addresses his favourite charger Kanthaka: ‘ My dear Kanthaka, please carry me once more for this one night. When I shall have become Buddha with your help I shall bring Salvation to the world of gods and men. ‘If Kanthaka had only so much as neighed or made a sound with his hoofs the city would have been roused and the prince’s departure discovered. So the gods muffled his voice and placed their hands under his hoofs wherever he stepped.
Greek and Roman art which had taught men to visualize gods and heroes and beautiful form, also helped the Indians to create an image of their saviour. The beautiful head of the Buddha with its expression of deep repose was also made in this frontier region of Gandhara (Fig 1.4)
Yet another oriental religion that learned to represent its sacred stories for the instruction of believers was that of the Jews. Jewish law actually forbade the making of images for fear of idolatry. Nevertheless, the Jewish colonies in eastern towns took to decorating the walls of their temples with stories of the Old Testament. One of these paintings was discovered in recent times in a small Roman garrison in Mesopotamia called Dura-Europos. It is not the great work of art by any means, but it is an interesting document from the third century AD.
The very fact that the style seems clumsy and that the scene looks rather flat and primitive is not without interest. Fig(1.5). It represents Moses striking water from the rock. But it is not so much an illustration of the biblical account as an explanation, in pictures of its significance to the Jewish people. That may be the reason why Moses is represented as a tall figure standing in front of the Holy Tabernacle in which we can still discern the seven-branched candlestick.
In order to signify that each tribe of Israel received its share of the miraculous water, the artists have shown twelve rivulets each flowing to a small figure standing before a tent. The artist was doubtless not very skilful, and that accounts for his simple methods. But perhaps he was not very much concerned with drawing lifelike figures. The more lifelike they were the more they sinned against the commandment forbidding images. His main intention was to remind the beholder of the occasion when God had manifested his power. The humble wall painting from the Jewish synagogue is of the interest to us because of similar consideration began to influence art when the Christian religion spread from the East and also took art into service.
When Christian artists were first called upon to represent the saviour and His apostles it was again the tradition of Greek art which came to their aid. Fig (1.6) shows one of the earliest representation of Christ, from the fourth century AD. Instead of the bearded figure to which we have become accustomed through later illustrations, we see Christ in youthful beauty, enthroned between St Peter and St Paul, who looked like dignified Greek philosophers. There is one detail in particular, which reminds us how closely such a representation is still linked with the methods of pagan Hellenistic art: to indicate that Christ is enthroned above the heavens the sculptor has made his feet rest on the canopy of the firmament, held aloft by the ancient god of the sky.
The origins of Christan art go even farther back than this example, but the earliest monuments never show Christ himself. The jews of Dura has painted scenes from the Old Testament in their synagogues, not so much to adorn it but rather to tell the sacred tale in visible form. The artists who were first called upon to paint images for Christian places of burial- the Roman catacombs-acted very much in the same spirit.
Paintings such as that of the ‘Three Men I the Fiery Furnace’ Fig (1.7), from the third century AD, shows that these artists were familiar with the style of Hellenistic paintings used in Pompeii. They were quite capable of conjuring up the idea of a human figure with few rough strokes of the brush. But we also feel that these effects and tricks did not interest them very much. The picture no longer exist as a beautiful thing in its own right. Its main purpose was to remind the faithful of one of the examples of God’s mercy and power, We read in the Bile (Daniel iii) of three high Jewish officials under king Nebuchadnezzar who refused to fall down and worship on a given signal when a gigantic golden image of the King was set up in the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Like so many Christians of the period when these paintings were made, they had to pay the penalty for their refusal.
They were thrown into fiery furnace ‘in their coats’ their hosen and their hats’. But, lo, the fire had no power upon their bodies ‘ nor was a hair of their heads singed, neither were their coats changed”. The Lord sent his angel and delivered his servants.’
We need only imagine what the master of the Laocoon would have made of such a subject to realize the different direction art was taking. The painter in the catacombs did not want to represent a dramatic scene for its own sake. To present the consoling and inspiring example of fortitude and salvation it was quite sufficient if the three men in their Persian dress, the flames and the dove- a symbol of divine help- were recognizable. Everything which was not strictly relevant was better left out. One more idea of clarity and simplicity began to outweigh ideals of faithful imitation yet there is something touching in the very effort which the artist made to tell his story as clearly simply as possible.
These three men who are in front, looking at the beholder, their hands raised in prayer, seem to show that mankind had begun to concern itself with other things besides earthly beauty.
It is not only in religious works of the period of the decline and fall of the Roman empire that we can detect something of that shifting of interest. Few artists seemed to care much for what dad been the glory of Greek art, its refinement and harmony. Sculptor no longer had the patience to work marble with a chisel and to treat with that delicacy and taste which had been the pride of the Greek craftsmen. Like the painter of the catacomb picture, they used more rough and ready methods, such as for instance, a mechanical drill with which to mark the principal features of a face or a body.
It has often been said that ancient art declined in these years and it is certainly true that many secrets of the best period were lost in the general turmoil of wars, revolts and invasions. But we have seen that this loss in skill is not the whole story. The point is that artists at this time seemed no longer satisfied with the mere virtuosity of the Hellenistic period, and tried to achieve new effects. Some of the portraits of this period, the fourth and fifth centuries AD, in particular, shows perhaps more clearly what it was these artists aimed at (Fig 1.9). To a Greek of the time of Praxiteles, these works would have looked crude and barbaric. Indeed, the heads are not beautiful by any common standards.
A Roman used to striking likenesses of portraits such as that of Vespasian, might have dismissed them as of poor workmanship. And yet, to us, these figures seem to have a life of their own, and a very intense expression which is due to the firm marking of the features and the care bestowed on such traits as the part around the eyes and the furrows of the brow. They portray the people who witnessed and finally accepted, the rise of Christianity which meant the end of the ancient world.
Rome and Byzantium, 5th to 13th century
When in the year, AD 311, the Emperor Constantine e Christian Church as a power in the State, the problems with which it saw itself confronted were enormous. During the periods of persecution there had been no need, and indeed no possibility, of building public places of worship. The churches and assembly halls that did exist were small and inconspicuous. But once the Church had become the greatest power in the realm, its whole relationship to art had to be reconsidered. The places of worship could not be modelled on the ancient temples, for their function was entirely different.
The interior of the temple was usually only a small shrine for the statue of the god. Processions and sacrifices took place outside. The church, on the other hand, had to find room for the whole congregation that assembled for service when the priest read Mass at the high altar or delivered his sermon. Thus it can about that churches were not modelled on pagan temples, ou type of large assembly halls which had been known in classes under the name of ‘basilicas’, which means roughly ‘royal halls buildings were used as covered market-halls and public law court, and
mainly consisted of large, oblong halls with narrower, lower compartments on the longer sides, divided from the main hall by rows of columns. At the far end, there was often room for a semicircular dais (or apse), where the chairman of the meeting, or the judge, could take his seat. The mother of Emperor Constantine erected such a basilica to serve as a church, and so the term established itself for churches of this type. the semicircular niche or apse would be used for the high altar, towards which the eyes of the worshippers were directed.
This part of the building, where the altar stood, came to be known as the choir. The main central hall, where the congregation assembled, was known later as the nave, which really means ‘ship’, while the lower compartments at the side were called side-aisles, which means ‘wings’. In most of the basilicas, the lofty nave was simply roofed with timber, and the beams of the loft were visible. The side-aisles were often flat-roofed. The columns, which separated the nave from the aisles, were often sumptuously decorated. None of the earliest basilicas has remained quite unchanged, but despite the alterations and renovations made in the course of the 1,500 years since that time, we can still form an idea of what these buildings generally looked like (Fig. 2.1).
The question of how to decorate these basilicas was a much difficult and serious one, because here the whole issue of the image and its use in religion came up again and caused very violent disputes. On one thing nearly all early Christians were agreed: there must be no statues in the House of God. Statues were too much like those graven images Cand heathen idols that were condemned in the Bible. To place a figure of God, or of one of His saints, on the altar seemed altogether out of the question.
For how would the poor pagans who had just been converted to the new faith grasp the difference between their old beliefs and the new message, if they saw such statues in churches? They might too easily have thought that such a statue really “represents’ God, just as a statue by Pheidias was thought to represent Zeus. Thus they might have found it even more difficult to grasp the message of the one Almighty and Invisible God, in whose semblance we are made. But, although all devout Christians objected to large lifelike statues, their ideas about paintings differed a good deal. Some thought them useful because they helped to remind the congregation of the teachings they had received and kept the memory of these sacred episodes alive.
This view was mainly taken in the Latin, western part of the Roman Empire. Pope Gregory the Great, who lived at the end of the sixth century AD, took this line. He reminded the people who were against all paintings that many members of the Church could neither read nor write, and that, for the purpose Of teaching them, these images were as useful as the pictures in a picture-book are for children. ‘Painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read,’ he said. It was of immense importance for the history of art that such a great authority had come out in favour of painting. His saying was to be quoted again and again whenever people attacked the use of images in churches.
But it is clear that the type of art which was thus admitted was of a rather restricted kind. If Gregory’s purpose was to be served, the story had to be told as clearly and simply as possible, and anything that might divert attention from this main and sacred aim should be omitted. At first, artists still used the methods of story-telling that had been developed by – Roman art, but gradually they came to concentrate more and more on what was strictly essential. (Fig. 2.2) shows a work in which these principles have been applied with the greatest consistency.
It comes from a basilica in Ravenna, then, roundabout AD 500, a great seaport and the capital city on Italy’s east coast. It illustrates the story from the Gospels in which Christ fed five thousand people on five loaves and two fishes A Hellenistic artist might have seized the opportunity to portray a larger crowd of people in a gay and dramatic scene. But the masters of these days choose a very different method. His work is not a painting done with deft strokes of the brush-it is a mosaic, laboriously put together, of stone or glass cubes which yield deep, full colours and give to the church interior: covered with such mosaics, an appearance of solemn splendour The way in which the story is told shows the spectator that something miraculous and sacred is happening.
The background is laid out with fragments of golden glass and on this gold background, no natural or realistic scene is enacted. The still and calm figure of Christ occupies the centre of the picture. It is not the bearded Christ known to us, but the long-haired young man as He lived in the imagination of the early Christians. He wears a purple robe and stretches out His arms in blessing on both sides, where stand two apostles offering him the bread and fishes in order that the miracle may be accomplished.
They carry the food with covered hands, as subjects bringing tribute for their rulers used to do at that time. Indeed, the scene looks like a solemn ceremony. We see that the artist attached a deep significance to what he represented. To him, it was not only a strange miracle which had happened a few hundred years before in Palestine. It was the symbol and token of Christ’s abiding power which was embodied in the Church. That explains, or helps to explain, the way in which Christ looks steadfastly at the beholder: it is he whom christ will feed.
At first glance, such a picture looks rather stiff and rigid. The nothing of the mastery of movement and expression which was the pride of Geek art, and which persisted until Roman times. The way the figures are planted in strict frontal view may almost remind us of certain children’s drawings. And yet the artist must have been very well acquainted with Greek art. He knew exactly how to drape a cloak around a body so that the main joints should remain visible through the folds. He knew how to mix stones of different shades to convey the colours of flesh or of the rocks.
He marked the shadows on the ground and had no difficulty in representing foreshortening. If the pictures look rather primitive to us, it must be because the artist wanted to be simple. The Egyptian ideas about the importance of clarity in representation of all objects had returned with great force because of stress which the church laid on clarity. But the forms which the artists used in this New attempt were not the simple forms of primitive art, but the developed forms of Greek painting. Thus Christian art of the Middle Ages became a curious mixture of primitive and sophisticated methods. The power of observation of nature, which we saw awakening in Greece about 500 BC, was put to sleep again about AD 500. Artists no longer checked their formulae against reality.
They no longer set out to make discoveries about how to represent a body, or how to create the illusion of depth. But the discoveries which had been made were never lost. Greek and Roman art provided an immense stock of figures standing, sitting, bending down or falling. All these types could prove useful in the telling of a story, and so they were assiduously copied and adapted to ever-new contexts. But the purpose for which they were used was now so radically different that we cannot be surprised that, superficially, the pictures betray little of their classical origin.
This question of the proper purpose of art in churches proved of immense importance for the whole history of Europe. For it was one of the principal issues on which the Eastern, Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire, whose capital was Byzantium or Constantinople, refused to accept the lead of the Latin Pope. One party was against all images of a religious nature. They were called iconoclasts or image- smashers. In 745 they gained the upper hand and all religious art was forbidden in the Eastern Church. But their opponents were even less in agreement with Pope Gregory’s ideas. To them images were not just useful, they were holy. The arguments with which they tried to justify, this point of view were as subtle as those used by the other party.
If God in His mercy could decide to reveal Himself to mortal eyes in the human nature of Christ,’ they argued, ‘why should He not also be willing to manifest Himself in visible images? We do not worship these images themselves as the pagans did. We worship God and the Saints through or across their images.’ Whatever we may think of the logic of this plea, its importance for the history of art was tremendous. For when this party had returned to power after a century of repression the paintings in a church could no longer be regarded as mere illustrations for the use of those who could not read. They were looked upon as mysterious reflections of the supernatural world. The Eastern Church, therefore, could no longer allow the artist to follow his fancy in these works. Surely it was not any beautiful painting of a mother with her child that could be accepted as the true sacred image or ‘icon’ of the Mother of God, but only types hallowed by an age-old tradition.
Thus, the Byzantines came to insist almost as strictly as the Egyptians on the observance of traditions. But there were two sides to this question. By asking the artist who painted sacred images to keep strictly to the ancient models, the Byzantine Church helped to preserve the ideas and achievement of Greek art in the types used for drapery, faces or gestures If we look at a Byzantine altar-painting of the Holy Virgin like (Fig.2.3) it may seem very remote from the achievements of Greek art. And yet the way the folds are draped around the body and radiate around the elbowé and knees, the method of modelling the face and hands by marking the shadows, and even the sweep of the Virgin’s throne, would have been impossible without the conquests of Greek and Hellenistic painting.
Despite a certain rigidity, Byzantine art, therefore, remained closer to nature than the art of the West in subsequent periods. On the other hand, the stress on tradition, and the necessity of keeping to certain permitted ways of representing Christ or the Holy Virgin, made it difficult for Byzantine artists to develop their personal gifts. But this conservatism developed only gradually, and it is wrong to imagine that the artists of the period had no scope whatever. It was they, in fact, who transformed the simple illustrations of early Christian art into great cycles of large and solemn images that dominate the interior of Byzantine churches.
As we look at the mosaics done by these Greek artists in the Balkans and in Italy in the Middle Ages, we see that this Oriental empire had in fact succeeded in reviving something of the grandeur and majesty of ancient oriental art, and in using it for the glorification of Christ and His power. (Fig. 2.4) gives an idea of how impressive this art could be. It shows the apse of the church of Monreale, in Sicily, which was decorated by Byzantine craftsmen shortly before 1190.
Sicily itself belonged to the western or Latin Church, which accounts for the fact that among the saints arrayed on each side of the window we find the earliest representation of St Thomas Becket, the news of whose murder some twenty years earlier had resounded throughout Europe. But apart from this choice of Saints, the artists have kept close to their native Byzantine tradition. The faithful assemble in the church would themselves face to face with the majestic figure of Christ, represented as the ruler of the universe. His right hand raised in blessing. Below is the Holy Virgin, enthroned like an Empress, flanked by two archangels and the solemn row of Saints.
Images such as these looking down on us from the golden, glimmering walls, seemed to be such perfect symbols of the Holy Truth that there appeared to be no need ever to depart from them. Thus they continued to hold their sway in all countries ruled by the Eastern Church. The holy images or ‘icons’ of the Russian’s still reflect these great creations of Byzantine Artists.
Eastward, Islam, China, 2nd to 13th Century
Before returning to the Western world and take up the story of art in Europe, we must at least cast a glance at what happened in other parts of the world during these centuries of turmoil. It is interesting to see how two other great religions reacted to the question of images, which so engaged the mind of the Western world. The religion of the Middle East, which swept everything before it in the seventh and eighth centuries AD, the religion of the Mohammedan conquerors of Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa and Spain, was even more rigorous in this matter than Christianity had been.
The making of images was forbidden. But art as such cannot so easily be suppressed, and the craftsmen of the East, who were not permitted to represent human beings, let their imagination play with patterns and forms. They created the most subtle lacework ornamentation known as arabesques. It is an unforgettable experience to walk through the courtyards and halls of the Alhambra (Fig. 2.5) and to admire the inexhaustible variety of these decorative patterns. Even outside the Islamic dominions the world became familiar with these inventions through Oriental rugs (Fig. 2.6).
Ultimately we may owe their subtle designs and rich colour schemes to Mohammed, who directed the mind of the artist away from the objects of the real world to this dreamworld of lines and colours. Later sects among the Mohammedans were less strict in their interpretation of the ban on images. They did allow the painting of figures and illustrations as long as they had no connexion with religion. The illustrating of romances, histories and fables done in Persia from the fourteenth century onwards, and later also in India under Mohammedan (Mogul) rulers, shows how much the artists of these lands had learned from the discipline which had confined them to the designing of patterns.
The moonlight scene in a garden (Fig. 2.6.1) from a Persian romance of the fifteenth century is a perfect example of this wonderful skill. It looks like a carpet which has somehow come to life in a fairy-tale world. There is little illusion of reality in it as in Byzantine art. Perhaps even less. There is no foreshortening, and no attempt to show light and shade or the structure of the body. The figures and plants look a little as if they had been cut out of coloured paper and distributed over the page to make a perfect pattern. But, because of that, the illustration fits even better into the book than it might have done if the artist had wanted to create the illusion of a real scene. We can read such a page almost as we read a text. We can look from the hero, as he stands with his arms crossed in the right-hand corner, to the heroine, who approaches him. and we can let our imagination wander through the moonlit fairy garden without ever getting too much of it.
The impact of religion on art was even stronger in China. We know little about the beginnings of Chinese art, except the fact that the Chinese had been skilled in the art of casting bronze at a very early date, and that some of the bronze vessels used in the ancient temples go back to the first millennium before Christ-some say even earlier. Our records of Chinese painting and sculpture, however, are not so old.
In the centuries immediately before and after Christ, the Chinese adopted burial customs somewhat reminiscent of the Egyptians, and in these burial chambers, as in the Egyptian ones, there are a number of vivid scenes which reflect the life and the habits of these long bygone days (Fig. 2.7). At that time, much of what we call typically Chinese in art had already developed. The artists were less fond of rigid angular forms than the Egyptians had been, and preferred swerving curves. When a Chinese artist had to represent a prancing horse, he seemed to fit it together out of a number of rounded shapes. We can see the same in Chinese sculpture, which always seems to twist and turn without, however, losing its solidity and firmness (Fig. 2.8).
Some of the great teachers of China appear to have had a similar view of the value of art to that held by Pope Gregory the Great. They thought of art as a means of reminding people of the great examples of virtue in the golden ages of the past. One of the earliest illustrated Chinese book scrolls that have been preserved is a collection of great examples of virtuous ladies, written in the spirit of Confucius. It is said to go back to the painter Ku K’ai-chi, who lived in the fourth century AD.
The illustration (Fig. 2.9) shows a husband unjustly accusing his wife, and it has all the dignity and grace we connect with Chinese art. It is as clear in its gestures and arrangement as one might expect from a picture which also aims at driving home a lesson. It shows, moreover, that the Chinese artist had mastered the difficult art of representing movement. There is nothing rigid in this early Chinese work, because the predilection for undulating lines imparts a sense of movement to the whole picture.
However, the most important impulse to Chinese art probably came through yet another religious influence: that of Buddhism. The monks and ascetics of Buddha’s circle were often represented in amazingly lifelike statues (Fig. 3.0). Once more we see the curved outlines in the shape of the ears, the lips or the cheeks, but they do not distort the real forms; they only weld them together. We feel that such a work is not haphazard, but that everything is in its place and contributes to the effect of the whole. The old principle of the primitive masks ( Fig. 0.1) serves its turn even in such a convincing representation of a face.
Buddhism influenced Chinese art not only by providing the artists with new tasks. It introduced an entirely new approach to pictures, a reverence for the artist’s achievement such as did not exist either in ancient Greece or in Europe up to the time of the Renaissance. The Chinese were the first people who did not think of the making of pictures as a rather menial task, but who placed the painter on the same level as the inspired poet. The religions of the East taught that nothing was more important than the right kind of meditation. To meditate is to think and ponder about the same holy truth for many hours on end, to fix an idea in one’s mind
and to look at it from all sides without letting go of it. It is a kind of mental exercise for Orientals, to which they used to attach even greater importance than we attach to physical exercise or to sport. Some monks meditated on single words, turning them over in their minds while they sat quite still for whole days and listened to the stillness which preceded and followed the holy syllable. Others meditated on things in nature, on water, for instance, and what we can learn from it, how humble it is, how it yields and yet wears away solid rock, how it is clear and cool and soothing and gives life to the thirsting field; or on mountains, how strong and lordly they are, and yet how good, for they allow the trees to grow on them.
That is, perhaps, how religious art in China came to be employed less for telling the legends of the Buddha and the Chinese teachers, less for the teaching of a particular doctrine-as Christian art was to be employed in the Middle Ages–than as an aid to the practice of meditation. Devout artists began to paint water and mountains in a spirit of reverence, not in order to teach any particular lesson, nor merely as decorations, but to provide material for deep thought.
Their pictures on silk scrolls were kept in precious containers and only unrolled in quiet moments, to be looked at and pondered over as one might open a book of poetry and read and reread a beautiful verse. That is the purpose behind the greatest of the Chinese landscape paintings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is not easy for us to recapture that mood, because we are fidgety Westerners with little patience and little knowledge of the technique of meditation–no more, I suppose, than the old Chinese had of the technique of physical training. But if we look long and carefully at a picture such as (Fig. 3.1), we shall perhaps begin to feel something of the spirit in which it was painted and of the high purpose, it was to serve.
We must not, of course, expect any portraits of real landscapes, picture-postcards of beauty spots. Chinese artists did not go out into the open, to sit down in front of some motif and sketch it. They even learned their art by a strange method of meditation and concentration in which they first acquired skill in ‘how to paint pine-trees’, ‘how to paint rocks’, “how to paint clouds’, by studying not nature but the works of renowned masters. Only when they had thoroughly acquired this skill did they travel and contemplate the beauty of nature so as to capture the moods of the landscape. When they came home they would then try to recapture these moods by putting together their images of pine-trees, rocks and clouds much in the way a poet might string together a number of images which had come into his mind during a walk.
It was the ambition of these Chinese masters to acquire such a facility in the handling of brush and ink that they could write down their vision while their inspiration was still fresh. Often they would write a few lines of poetry and paint a picture on the same scroll of silk. The Chinese, therefore, consider it childish to look for details in pictures and then to compare them with the real world. They want, rather, to find in them the visible traces of the artist’s enthusiasm. It may not be easy for us to appreciate the boldest of these works, such as (Fig. 3.2), which consists only of some vague forms of mountain peaks emerging out of clouds. But once we try to put ourselves in the place of the painter, and to experience something of the awe he must have felt for these majestic peaks, we may at least get an inkling of what the Chinese value most highly in art.
For us it is easier to admire the same skill and concentration in more familiar subjects. The painting of three fishes in a pond (Fig. 3.3) gives an idea of the patient observation that must have gone into the artist’s study of his simple subject, and of the ease and mastery with which he handled it when he came to paint this picture. Again we see how fond the Chinese artists were of graceful curves, and how they could exploit their effects to suggest movement. The forms do not seem to make any clear symmetrical pattern.
They are not evenly distributed as in the Persian miniature. Nevertheless, we feel that the artist has balanced them with immense assurance. One can look at such a picture for a long stretch of time without getting bored. It is an experiment well worth trying.
There is something wonderful in this restraint of Chinese art, in its deliberate limitation to a few simple motifs of nature. But it almost goes without saying that this approach to painting also had its dangers. As time went on, nearly every type of brushstroke with which a stem of bamboo or a rugged rock could be painted was laid down and labelled by tradition, and so great was the general admiration for the works of the past that artists dared less and less to rely on their own inspiration.
The standards of painting remained very high throughout the subsequent centuries both in China and in Japan (which adopted the Chinese conceptions) but art became more and more like a graceful and elaborate game which has lost much of its interest as so many of its moves are known It was only after a new contact with the achievements of Western art in the eighteenth century that Japanese artists dared to apply the Eastern methods to new subjects. We shall see how fruitful these new experiments also became for the West when it first got to know them.