Ancient art is more of an umbrella term that refers to the many different types of art that were produced by the advanced culture of ancient societies. These refer primarily to ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The art of pre-literate societies is normally referred to as pre-historic art and doesn’t actually typically fall into this category. This is also referred to as the Stone Age. For the sake of these writings and to create a clear, cohesive image of the timeline of mankind, we are going to cover the Stone Age as part of ancient art, for it was there that the journey really started.
Between approximately 5000BC and 300AD “advanced” civilizations emerged. An “advanced” Civilization is generally considered one with written language and they thrived in regions like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Mexico and Asia, amongst many others. Mesopotamia is a historical region of Western Asia which is now more commonly known as the area which houses Iraq, Kuwait, parts of Northern Saudi Arabia and parts of Syria and Turkey. Art played an important role in these growing societies by providing a means of enforcing religious and political order. For example, one of the most famous works of art from Mesopotamia, which, as a land, was often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” is the Code of Hammurabi. This was a set of laws carved in stone and adorned with an image of King Hammurabi and the Mesopotamian god Shabash. It was created to govern and exemplify the importance of the law in the land. Similarly, the art of ancient Egypt includes symbolic imagery alongside text, which is referred to as hieroglyphs, that tell the stories of rulers, gods and goddesses. Although prehistoric humans made art as far back as 40,000 years ago, ancient art is considered to be the foundation of all of art history with many of its techniques, forms and subject matter continuing to be explored by the art of today. Art reflected the culture it came from and can give us so much insight into civilizations and cultures long dead.
In the next few weeks we will explore the different ages associated with Ancient Art in much more depth, but for now, let’s look at what they are briefly about.
Stone Age 30 000 B.C – 2500 B.C
The first Ice Age ended around 10 000 – 8000 BC and the first permanent settlements started popping up. Which meant that life was not necessarily about surviving the deadly cold anymore. There were obviously still great dangers but humanity was in a critical phase of development. Life was about the survival of the human race more than anything else so most pictorial depictions and artifacts that come out of this era feature fertility icons, goddesses associated with women and birth, the hunt and the group. Natural resources were always utilized and many things involved stone in some way. Cave paintings, etchings and sculpture were the primary mediums.
Mesopotamian 3500 BC – 539 B.C
The Mesopotamian era was largely associated with the emergence of ‘advanced’ civilization, although there is some evidence to consider that the first attempts at writing and language started in the Stone Age. Warrior art was key here and many things were carved or narrated into stone. There are three key things to consider here in Mesopotamian art. First was the impact of the socio-political organization systems of the Sumerian city-states, and of the Kingdoms and Empires that succeeded them. The second was the role of organized religion in the affairs of the state and the third was the influence of the natural environment. Each of these three concepts influenced the art that was made and was usually a response to things that had occurred within those bounds.
Egyptian 3100 B.C – 30 B.C
The ancient Egyptians heavily revered the gods and represented them in any way they could. Monstrous temples and monuments were built in awe of the gods and a common theme that ran throughout their art was the thought of an afterlife. Tombs were ordained with priceless jewels and painted with ornate images and hieroglyphs. Egyptian Art reached a high level of painting and sculpture and was both highly stylized and very symbolic. One could stare at a wall of Egyptian art for years and still never fully understand the intricacies of the symbolism.
Ancient Greece 850 B.C – 31 B.C
The case for art reflecting culture is nowhere truer than in the case of the ancient Greeks. Through their temples, sculpture and pottery, the Greeks incorporated a fundamental principle into their culture. This was the principle of arete. To the Greeks, this meant excellence and the ability to reach one’s full potential. Ancient Greek art emphasized the importance and accomplishments of human beings. Even though much of Greek art was meant to honour the gods, those very gods were often created in the image of humans.
Roman 500 B.C – 476 A.D
The ancient Roman way of art was to capture the beauty of life. In many ways they were Realists and it is here too that scholars writing worldly philosophies and epic novels found their place. Their art was practical in many ways and exhibited the gentle quality of man and nature but also the fury and majesty of the gods. It also encompasses a massive spectrum of work, ranging from marble, silver and bronze sculpture to painting, mosaic work and terracotta pots.
Indian, Chinese and Japanese 653 B.C – 1900 A.D
Works from these regions typically took on a serene, almost meditative quality and much of it was about self-introspection. Many of the developments of Eastern art parallel those of Western movements, in fact, in general, they made the developments a few centuries earlier. Much like the Western world, Eastern art was a melting pot of various cultures and societies and they borrowed and took influence from these many cultures and religions. From Buddhist art to works coming out of Korea, Thailand and India, there is an abundance of history present here.
Byzantine and Islamic 476 A.D – 1453 A.D
This emerged primarily from the depths of the Roman decline and the Byzantine Empire flourished under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great. They borrowed heavily on Greek art and culture and decorated the capital city with elaborate Greek statues, exquisite gold and marble art and mosaics that glorified the Christian religion. Their focus lay in these heavenly mosaic works but also in the impeccable, finely detailed designs on their architecture. They embellished everything with rich, gold mosaics and this carried across both Byzantine and Islamic culture.