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CT&D #7. Human Portrayal in Art

In what ways did the portrayal of the human change in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Medieval art? What does the portrayal of the human in these eras tell us about their religion, politics, history, and culture?

The artistic portrayal of human figures throughout the early to medieval historical eras have each had their defining characteristics. Starting with the Egyptians, their view of characterizing human figures was through their gods. Considering the Egyptians believed that their rulers were the sons of the god Re, special attention was given to immortalize a pharaoh’s existence and legacy. In one case, the likeness of a pharaoh would be carefully sculpted by stone, where a method of keeping negative space (the uncarved sides) intact with positive space (the carved frontal figure) strengthens the physique of the art form. This ensures that a figure could remain in one piece and likely never prone to destruction by means of deterioration; fitting for a profound art form symbol catered to such a revered human figure.

Greeks, like the Egyptians, have also practiced creating human figures from stone carving but more notably, with less emphasis on selected individuals and more on humanity (males and females alike). A case in point here would be how the Greeks began to exploit the human body as a source of objectification, where beauty could be appreciated. Strikingly enough, sculptures of human bodies and their intimate parts were being showcased in full display, which marked a clear difference in how the Egyptians were producing figures (mostly out of bold bodily respect rather than bold display of a body).

Looking at the Romans, I sensed their human portrayals being essentially adopted from both the Egyptians and Greeks. Like the Egyptians, the Romans were looking to immortalize their leaders such as Augustus but with the added Greek attribute of depicting their physical, bodily details (likely to emphasize masculinity). In a few cases however, the Romans focused on physical facial gestures, depicting emotion in the form of portraits (which can be reflections of an emperor’s signature mood / behavior during their reign of power). Later on towards the end of the empire, the Romans would drop the classical, naturalistic style of sculpting in favor of a more abstract and idealistic interpretation of art form figures. This became apparent in the Romans adopting Christian themes including the showcasing of the life of Christ and his followers. Again, the mindset of respect would play a role here as divine figures like Christ would be crafted as a respected leader, notably in the work “Sacrophagus of Junius Bassus.” This wouldn’t be the last time that a religious, Christian setting be used for depicting human figures.

During the medieval era as churches rose to prominence, interpreting Biblical figures would become widespread practice. Abstraction would be still used here as a one art piece example shows God being larger than the surrounding angels and humans (the latter whom are small but similarly shaped) which demonstrates the prominence of ambiguity than clarity through simple visual appearance. Naturalism would later make somewhat a comeback during the Gothic era where by then, artists would stress the the nature of a figure “moving” realistically / dynamically, even in 2D print as an artist could produce a figure stylized in 3D.

To summarize, the portrayal of humans in figure form has changed in a multitude of ways. Although physical means in carving and sculpting have remained consistent, the visual messages and interpretations have varied from imitating the real to expressing the abstract and from portraying the spiritual to showcasing the temporal. Among the reasons for these changes include different views on humanity and life plus differences in cultural focus.

Furthermore, the portrayal of humans in these eras reveal a lot about their traits in a given time period. For sure, religion was consistent throughout each era (polytheistic in Egypt, Greece, and Early Rome and monotheistic in Late Rome and the Middle Ages) and it reflected greatly on who was depicted in human form, either as a representation of a god or a follower of one. Namely with Rome, their characteristics in politics could be drawn from its figure forms encompassing prominent rulers and political officials (plus their architecture in columns and buildings) as one that was democratic and later, imperialistic.

And finally, the history and culture of each era can be interpreted through their human figure portrayals. With history, we can always draw that all these civilizations were to an extent monarchies with religion being an underlying structural trait; yet each culture had its own variations and effect on the human way of life. Certainly with Greece being “open” in naturalistic tendencies of showcasing physique, there is a huge difference here in contrast to the later era of the Middle Ages where emphasis on dark and gothic themes were the norm in that culture, characteristics that likely resulted from higher power influence and worship adherence.

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