CT&D #7. Human Portrayal in Art

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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 characteristics. Starting with the Egyptians, their view of characterizing human figures was via 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 could be sculpted by stone where a method of keeping negative space (the stone) intact with positive space (the frontal carved figure) strengthens the physique of the art-form.

This ensures that the figure could remain in one piece and likely never prone to being destroyed by means of deterioration; a profound symbol for an art-form 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 concentration 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 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 to how the Egyptians were making figures (i.e., out of respect, rather “boldly” in stance).

Looking at the Romans, I sensed their portrayals of humans being essentially adopted from both Egyptians and Greeks. Like the Egyptians, the Romans were looking to immortalize their leaders like Augustus but with the added Greek attribute of depicting their physical (body) details. 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 mood/behavior at their given reign). Later on, towards the end of the empire, the Romans would drop the classical, naturalistic style in favor of a more abstract and idealistic interpretation of art-form figures. This became apparent with adopting Christian themes such as showcasing 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 king in the “Sacrophagus of Junius Bassus” in the lecture. 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 in prominence, interpreting Biblical figures would be widespread. Abstraction would be still used here as one art piece shows God being larger than the surrounding angels and humans (the latter whom are small, elongated and similarly shaped) which furthers the argument how the message of abstract figures is more prominent than visual appearance. Naturalistic importance would later make a comeback by the Gothic era where by then, artists would stress the the nature of a figure “moving”, even in 2D print as an artist could make a figure stylized in 3D.

To summarize, the portrayal of humans in figure form changed in a multitude of ways. Although physical means in carving and sculpting has remained consistent, the visual messages and interpretations have varied from the naturalistic to the abstract and from the spiritual to the temporal. Among the reasons for these changes include different views on humanity and life and differences between a civilization’s focus on themes.

Furthermore, the portrayal of humans in these eras reveal a lot about their traits in such a time period. For sure, religion was consistent throughout each era (polytheistic in Egypt/Greece/Early Rome and monotheistic in Late Rome/Middle Ages) and it reflected greatly on who was depicted in human form either as a representation of a god or a follower of such. Namely with Rome, their characteristics in politics could be drawn from its figure forms encompassing 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 envisioned via their human figure portrayals. With history, we can draw that all these civilizations were to an extent, monarchies with religion being an underlying trait; yet each culture had its own variations. Certainly with Greece being “open” with their naturalistic tendencies marks a great difference to the era of the Middle Ages where emphasis on dark and gothic themes were the norm in that culture.

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