Ancient art  

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"Butades and the 'invention of art', the contest of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, that same Zeuxis and the Five Maidens of Croton, and Sosus of Pergamon's The Unswept Floor are stories of the mythology of art as told by Pliny the Elder." --Sholem Stein

Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
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Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Illustration: The Unswept Floor (detail)
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Illustration: The Unswept Floor (detail)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Arts of the ancient world refers to the many types of art that were in the cultures of ancient societies, such as those of ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

The art of pre-literate societies is normally referred to as Prehistoric art and is not covered here. Although some Pre-Columbian cultures developed writing during the centuries before the arrival of Europeans, on grounds of dating these are covered at Pre-Columbian art, and articles such as Maya art and Aztec art. Olmec art is mentioned below.

Contents

Africa

Morocco

The earliest figurine the Venus of Tan-Tan discovered to date originated somewhere between 500,000 and 300,000 BCE, during the Middle Acheulean period. Discovered in Morocco, it is about 6 centimeters long. Evidence suggests that this Moroccan piece may have been created by natural geological processes with a minimum of human tool-work, but the piece bears evidence of having been painted; "a greasy substance" on the stone's surface has been shown to contain iron and manganese and indicates that it was decorated by someone and used as a figurine, regardless of how it may have been formed.

Egypt

Faience that was produced in ancient Egyptian antiquity as early as 3500 BC was in fact superior to the tin-glazed earthenware of the European 15th century. Ancient Egyptian faience was not made of clay but instead actually of a ceramic composed primarily of quartz. Approximately two hundred of these "masterpieces of faience" are the subject of the on-line article posted at.

Due to the highly religious nature of Ancient Egyptian civilization, many of the great works of Ancient Egypt depict gods, goddesses, and Pharaohs, who were also considered divine. Ancient Egyptian art is characterized by the idea of order. Clear and simple lines combined with simple shapes and flat areas of color helped to create a sense of order and balance in the art of ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptian artists used vertical and horizontal reference lines in order to maintain the correct proportions in their work. Political and religious, as well as artistic order, was also maintained in Egyptian art. In order to clearly define the social hierarchy of a situation, figures were drawn to sizes based not on their distance from the painter's point of view but on relative importance. For instance, the Pharaoh would be drawn as the largest figure in a painting no matter where he was situated, and a greater God would be drawn larger than a lesser god.

Symbolism also played an important role in establishing a sense of order. Symbolism, ranging from the Pharaoh's regalia (symbolizing his power to maintain order) to the individual symbols of Egyptian gods and goddesses, was omnipresent in Egyptian art. Animals were usually also highly symbolic figures in Egyptian art. Color, as well, had extended meaning— Blue and green represented the Nile and life; yellow stood for the sun god; and red represented power and vitality. The colors in Egyptian artifacts have survived extremely well over the centuries because of Egypt's dry climate.

Despite the stilted form caused by a lack of perspective, ancient Egyptian art is often highly realistic. Ancient Egyptian artists often show a sophisticated knowledge of anatomy and a close attention to detail, especially in their renderings of animals. During the 18th Dynasty of Egypt a Pharaoh by the name of Akhenaton took the throne and abolished the traditional polytheism. He formed a monotheistic religion based on the worship of Aten, a sun god. Artistic change followed political upheaval. A new style of art was introduced that was more naturalistic than the stylized frieze favored in Egyptian art for the previous 1700 years. After Akhenaton's death, however, Egyptian artists reverted to their old styles.

Asia

Japan

According to archeological evidence, the Jōmon people in ancient Japan were amongst the first to develop pottery, dating to the 11th millennium BC. The Jōmon people were making pottery figures and vessels decorated with patterns made by impressing the wet clay with braided or unbraided cord and sticks with a growing sophistication.

China

Prehistoric artwork such as painted pottery in Neolithic China can be traced back to the Yangshao culture and Longshan culture of the Yellow River valley. During China's Bronze Age, Chinese of the ancient Shang Dynasty and Zhou Dynasty produced multitudes of artistic bronzeware vessels for practical purposes, but also for religious ritual and geomancy. The earliest (surviving) Chinese paintings date to the Warring States period, mostly on the lacquer ware items, while the earliest surviving paintings on silk date to the Han Dynasty (example: the intricate silk paintings found at the tombs of Mawangdui).

One of ancient China's most famous artistic relics remains the Terracotta Army, an assembly of 8,099 individual and life-size terracotta figures (such as infantry, horses with chariots and cavalry, archers, and military officers), buried in the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the First Qin Emperor, in 210 BC. Chinese art arguably shows more continuity between ancient and modern periods than that of any other civilization, as even when foreign dynasties took the Imperial throne they did not impose new cultural or religious habits and were relatively quickly assimilated.

Indian Painting

The earliest Indian paintings were the rock paintings of prehistoric times, the petroglyphs as found in places like the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, and some of them are older than 5500 BC. Such works continued and after several millennia, in the 7th century, carved pillars of Ajanta, Maharashtra state present a fine example of Indian paintings, and the colors, mostly various shades of red and orange, were derived from minerals.

Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India are rock-cut cave monuments dating back to the second century BCE and containing paintings and sculpture considered to be masterpieces of both Buddhist religious art and universal pictorial art.

Indian Sculpture

The first sculptures in India date back to the Indus Valley civilization, where stone and bronze carvings have been discovered. This is one of the earliest instances of sculpture in the world. Later, as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism developed further, India produced some of the most intricate bronzes in the world, as well as unrivaled temple carvings. Some huge shrines, such as the one at Ellora were not

Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), is often considered the "cradle of civilization." Within its boundaries, some of the most ancient civilizations known first developed writing and agriculture. Many civilizations flourished there, leaving behind a rich legacy of ancient art.

Sumer

Sumer was once considered to be the first civilization. Archaeological evidence attests to their existence during the 5th millennium BC. The Sumerians decorated their pottery with cedar oil paints. The Sumerians also developed jewelry.

One of the most remarkable artifact remaining from the Sumerian civilization is known as the Standard of Ur. Dated to approximately 2500 B.C., the Standard is a wooden box inlaid with shells and lapis lazuli. It depicts soldiers presenting their king with prisoners on one side and peasants presenting him with gifts on the other - stunning evidence attesting to the vibrancy of art in this ancient culture.Sumer had made many great advances, for example there is the wheel, it had made transportation easier for the sumerians. The ARCH was the greatest architectural achievement of Sumer.The ziggurats were pyramid-shaped temples the sumerian architects built.They believed the gods lived at the top of the temple.The kings would declare the gods had sent them to rule and the sumerian would happily follow the kings laws.The king had many important jobs like leading the army and looking after irrigation,irrigatio was a way sumerians could control the water in the river, so it could send water when they needed it and keep the rivers from flooding. The rulers would have battles over land and life went on for the sumerians.

Babylon

The conquest of Sumer and Akkad by Babylon marks a turning point in the artistic as well as political history of the region.

The Babylonians took advantage of the abundance of clay in Mesopotamia to create bricks. The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster and column, as well as of frescoes and enameled tiles. The walls were brilliantly coloured, and sometimes plated with bronze or gold as well as with tiles. Painted terra-cotta cones were also embedded in the plaster.

The sean were also great metal-workers, creating functional and beautiful tools with copper. It is possible that Babylonia was the original home of copper-working, which spread westward with the civilization to which it belonged. In addition, the want of stone in Babylonia made every pebble precious and led to a high perfection in the art of gem-cutting. The arts of Babylon also included tapestries, and Babylonian civilization was from an early date famous for its embroideries and rugs.

Assyria

Like all other kingdoms, the Babylonian kingdom did not last forever. When Babylon fell into decline it was eventually conquered by Assyria, one of its former colonies, Assyria inherited its arts as well as its empire.

At first, Assyrian architects and artists copied Babylonian styles and materials, but as time went by, however, the later Assyrians began to shake themselves free of Babylonian influences. The walls of the Assyrian palaces were lined with slabs of stone instead of brick, and were colored instead of painted as in Chaldea. In place of the bas relief we have sculpted figures, the earliest examples being the statues from Telloh which are realistic but somewhat clumsy.

No remarkable specimens of metallurgic art from early Assyria have been found, but at a later epoch great excellence was attained in the manufacture of such jewellery as ear-rings and bracelets of gold. Copper was also worked with skill.

The forms of Assyrian pottery were graceful; the porcelain, like the glass discovered in the palaces of Nineveh, was derived from Egyptian originals. Transparent glass seems to have been first introduced in the reign of Sargon II. Stone as well as clay and glass were employed in the manufacture of vases. Vases of hard stone have been disinterred at Tello similar to those of the early dynastic period of Egypt.

Ashurbanipal had promoted art and culture and had a vast library of cuneiform tablets at Nineveh.

Persia (Iran)

Iran succeeded to the Hittite Empire and initially took much of its artistic styles from them. Huge palaces in rural settings, often worked on by craftsmen drawn from other nations, subject or not, were distinctive features. After the Empire was decisively overthrown by Alexander the Great a new Sassanian culture emerged, notable for palaces and metalwork. The capitals Susa, Persepolis, Ecbatana and Estakhr have revealed much rich Persian art.

Steppe Art

Superb samples of Scythian art - mostly golden jewelry and trappings for horse - are found over a vast expanse of land stretching from Hungary to Mongolia. Dating from the period between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC, art objects are usually diminutive, as may be expected from nomadic people always on the move. Art of the steppes is primarily an animal art, i.e., combat scenes involving several animals (real or imaginary) or single animal figures (such as golden stags) predominate. Probably the most famous find of Scythian items was made in 1947, when the Soviet archaeologist Sergei Rudenko discovered a royal burial at Pazyryk, Altay Mountains, which featured - among many other important objects - the most ancient extant pile rug.

Central America (Mexico)

Olmec art

The ancient Olmec "Bird Vessel" and bowl, both ceramic and dating to circa 1000 BC as well as other ceramics are produced in kilns capable of exceeding approximately 900°C. The only other prehistoric culture known to have achieved such high temperatures is that of Ancient Egypt.

Much Olmec art is highly stylized and uses an iconography reflective of the religious meaning of the artworks. Some Olmec art, however, is surprisingly naturalistic, displaying an accuracy of depiction of human anatomy perhaps equaled in the pre-Columbian New World only by the best Maya Classic era art. Olmec art-forms emphasize monumental statuary and small jade carvings. A common theme is to be found in representations of a divine jaguar. Olmec figurines were also found abundantly through their period.

Europe

Greece

The Minoan Civilization

The greatest civilization of the Bronze Age was that of the Minoans, a mercantilist people who built a trading empire from their homeland of Crete and from other Aegean islands. Minoan civilization was known for its beautiful ceramics, but also for its frescos, landscapes, and stone carvings. In the early Minoan period ceramics were characterized by linear patterns of spirals, triangles, curved lines, crosses, fishbone motives and such. In the middle Minoan period naturalistic designs such fish, squids, birds and lilies were common. In the late Minoan period flowers and animals were still the most characteristic, but variability had increased. The 'palace style' of the region around Knossos is characterized by strong geometric simplification of naturalistic shapes and monochromatic painting. The Palace at Knossos was decorated with frescoes showing aspects of everyday life, including court ritual and entertainment such as bull-leaping and boxing. The Minoans were also skilled goldsmiths, creating beautiful pendants and masks in the precious metal.

The Mycenaen Civilization

Mycenaen art is close to the Minoan and includes many splendid finds from the royal graves, most famously the Mask of Agamemnon, a gold funeral mask. As may be seen from this item, the Mycenaens specialized in gold-working. Their artworks are known for a plethora of decorative motives employed. At some point in their cultural history, the Myceneans adopted the Minoan goddesses and associated these goddesses with their sky-god; scholars believe that the Greek pantheon of deities does not reflect Mycenean religion except for the goddesses and Zeus. These goddesses, however, are Minoan in origin.

Greek art

Ancient Greek art includes much pottery, sculpture as well as architecture. Greek sculpture is known for the contrapposto standing of the figures. The art of Ancient Greece is usually divided stylistically into three periods: the Archaic, the Classical and the Hellenistic. The history of Ancient Greek pottery is divided stylistically into periods: the Protogeometric, the Geometric, the Late Geometric or Archaic, the Black Figure and the Red Figure. Ancient Greek art has survived most successfully in the forms of sculpture and architecture, as well as in such minor arts as coin design, pottery and gem engraving.

The most prestigious form of Ancient Greek painting was panel painting, now known only from literary descriptions; they perished rapidly after the 4th century AD, when they were no longer actively protected. Today not much survives of Greek painting, except for late mummy paintings and a few paintings on the walls of tombs, mostly in Macedonia and Italy. Painting on pottery, of which a great deal survives, gives some sense of the aesthetics of Greek painting. The techniques involved, however, were very different from those used in large-format painting. It was mainly in black and gold and was painted using different paints than the ones used on walls or wood, because it was a different surface.

Rome

It is commonly said that Roman art was derivative from Greek and Etruscan art. Indeed, the villas of the wealthy Romans unearthed in Pompeii and Herculaneum show a strong predilection for all things Greek. Many of the most significant Greek artworks survive by virtue of their Roman interpretation and imitation. Roman artists sought to commemorate great events in the life of their state and to glorify their emperors as well as record the inner life of people, and express ideas of beauty and nobility. Their busts, and especially the images of individuals on gravestones, are very expressive and life-like, finished with skill and panache.

See also

ancient European art, Ancient Roman art, Ancient Greek art, history of art




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