Mimenta for Visual Arts


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Page 1 Art HistoryThe Ancients

Believe it or not, the way we use art today, purely for decoration, is a recent development in civilisation - it wasn't always like that.

Ancient cave dwellers painted hunting scenes, symbols representing gods and ancestral spirits of the deceased as records of events and reminders of religious rites. These were akin to notes, not items of pure adornment like we use art today.

Ancient Cave Paintings in Lascaux France

Ancient Assyrians developed a written language, cuneform, which was used like we use captions on a picture today, to notate what was going on in their friezes and pictures but once again their art was created to glorify the deeds of kings and to remind the public of battles won. This was probably the worlds earliest propaganda rather than earliest art.

Cuneform - Assyrian Art
Ancient Assyrian cuneform is written over the art image while it is created.

The ancient Egyptians developed this concept further and decorated their walls with records set out to a strict formula. True likeness was not important - the message was all that mattered. The human form was always drawn front on, facing us. The head was shown side on but the eye was portrayed front on again.

Nefertari and IsisAncient Egyptia wall art Seti III
Ancient Egyptians used strict formula to represent thier subject rather
than exact likenesses like we use today. Characters were defined by
their costume and written inventories of their posessions and official
symbols for their social status and occupation.

We know from their sarcofagai that they were certainly capable of creating an exact likeness but even in their bass relief carvings, the Egyptians did not attempt to capture an exact physical likeness of their subject. An official was portrayed by his or her dress and accompanying symbols of estates, slaves, closeness to a deity or possessions.

The Greeks were the first ancient race to use art for beautifying their homes and civic places, however they, like the Egyptians used strict rules for portrayal of people. Unlike the Egyptians, the Greeks accurately measured the human form and defined a perfect figure for a man and a woman. They repeated this process with facial features too and created what we refer to today as "classical beauty". They did this so well that the figures look lifelike - today we recognise the Greeks for introducing "Realism" into art.

Greek Art heralded the birth if Realism in artGreek art produced the first lifelike images
The Greeks introduced Realism into art by using a stereotyped human form for a man and
a woman. Objects, referred to as icons, were added to individualize the person.

Their identity was defined, by their costume and specific objects added to the composition; a scroll in the hand for an administrator, a tablet, stylae and scrolls for a scholar, scales for a judge, rod of caesar for a senator or with armour - a great favoured general and of course the Laurel wreath for a king or caesar. These objects became known as icons and over time became a language associated with art.The Romans were the fist civilisation we find, to emphasize exact physical likeness. For the first time their statuary shows us what Caesar really looked like.

Bust of Julius Ceasar
This bust of Julius caesar is the first known
public rendition that is totally lifelike. We can
see the face of the man that was caesar and
know what he really looked like.

Whilst sculptors could capture an exact likeness in 3-D artworks, painting was handicapped because no-one understood how to accurately portray distance in a picture. Roman art consisted of an object in the foreground and the background showing on either side of the object. Romans favoured mosaic art - pictures made of small coloured tiles on their floors and pigments mixed in the plaster of their walls - a technique called fresco.

A Roman Mosaic
An excavated mosaic floor from a Roman home. The
Romans could make glass, which was ideal for the
small mosaic tiles. The colours never faded so were
ideal for floors because they withstood the high traffic.

The Romans took pride in decorating their homes with classical themes. Often a large wall would be bisected into alcoves, each with its own story. However this art was once again a tribute to gods, a reminder of great victories or flattery of the head of the household. Whilst it was decoration, is was also propaganda.

Roman tiled floor in a house Roman frescoed walls in a house in Pompeii
These two views show the extent of Roman decoration of their homes in Pompeii.

The Egyptians used their art as a form of recording, just like we use words and numbers today. The Romans appreciated the ease that images could communicate events and used their art as propaganda and advertising.

Yes folks - the Romans might have given those wonderful things like the arch, plumbing and stable governance but they are also to blame for taxes and advertising.

Ornate Bar