Art History for Chapter 2:
Wanderers and Settlers: The Ancient Middle East to 400 B.C.
The oldest art, of course, existed before the beginnings of Western Civilization with the first human beings. We were and are artistic creatures. Hunters and gatherers wandered across the mountains and plains of Europe in search of food and shelter. 25,000 years ago they were capturing images, surviving today in a few remnants of cave paintings and sculptures found where they lived.
Unfortunately, it is impossible now to know for sure what their art meant to them. Their art could have been for decoration or religious significance, or both to one degree or another. Scholars will forever debate meaning, as long as no serious evidence can decide the issues. What is certain, is that people needed art.
From a tracing of a human hand to elaborate portrayals of hunting game, the earliest art remains preserved in caves. Most famous are those of Lascaux, France.
Many small sculptures of human figures survive, but we cannot know what they meant to their creators and audience. Were the little statues of men and women fertility idols or humorous caricature?
Most famous is the Venus of Willendorf.
Hunter-gatherers do not build permanent residences, only agricultural people do, to connect them to their farmland. Some monumental structures do survive from the stone age, patterns of megaliths (large stones) with astronomical and religious connections. The most famous is Stonehenge in England.
The wealth produced by farming and the permanence provided by towns and cities allowed more numerous, sophisticated, and diverse art. Many examples have survived which can be divided into two main categories: myth/legend/religion and the every day life of people. Art of rulers often mixes the two, showing the human connection to the divine.
The civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt created art of wonderful naturalism and attractive abstraction. Their art directly influenced and inspired the Greeks, one of the three founding people’s of the Ancient West.
Architecture begins with the first civilizations.
Structures can be divided into four different categories: buildings for government, religion, business, and private homes. These categories can and do overlap, as when government and religious structures are the same, or businesses are run out of private residences.
The close connections of ancient polytheistic gods to absolutist rulers encouraged massive constructions to impress with the people with the power of both the divine and the worldly authorities. While little creativity was spent on the dwellings of average people, the palaces of kings and aristocrats, and the temples dedicated to the gods deserved special attention.
Some art of drawing does survive. Both size of figures and clothing conveyed status, with the rich larger and wearing more jewelry and designed textiles than the common people.
The Royal Standard of Ur protrays many aspects of Mesopotamian life and social hierarchies.
Sculptures ranged from giant imposing statues of gods and rulers down to toys for children. Many bas-relief sculptures told stories important to the various civilizations that rose and fell, with incisions of their form of writing, cuneiform.
The Ishtar Gates of Babylon provide beautiful baked ceramic bricks with slightly raised sculpture (called bas-relief) illustrate powerful mythological forces.
Most Mesopotamian structures of ancient history lie in fragmentary ruins. Massive ziggurats in Mesopotamia were both sites of worship and storehouses for gain in time of need.
Even the walls that defended a city, especially the gates [such as the Ishtar Gate] through which people passed, could have a design and attractiveness. Any flat surface might be decorated with colored brick or bas-relief sculpture.
Egyptian art was usually formulaic, appearing stiff to modern eyes. Except during the Amarna period innovation was discouraged, as artists kept to basic design rules. The Egyptians’ concerns for the afterlife often commemorated people in their tombs, showing the joys and travails of this world.
Many illustrations, whether painted onto walls of tombs or incised on the facades of temples, give us a rich bounty of Egyptian drawing. Even Egyptian writing, hieroglyphics, was an art form.
Statues and carvings were made for the greatest pharaohs and the simplist of farmers. They believed that statues might even house the spirit, or ka, if a mummy was insufficient.
The most famous small sculpture is the bust of Nefretiti from the Amarna period. The largest is the Sphinx.
In Ancient Egypt we can find largely intact some of the oldest surviving buildings of any civilization, the pyramids. Pharaohs built them to house their bodies for the afterlife. Generations of pharaohs built many temples up and down the Nile River Valley, declaring their power and glory.