2020-21: Art of the Ancient World

The images included with the text below are just a few of those discussed during the season. Click on them to obtain enlargements.

Humans have been creating art at least ever since our species, homo sapiens, first became established in Europe and that’s where this new series of Art History talks began. We looked at selections of works ranging from those of the Ice Age hunter-gather culture, via radical changes in ways of life, to the great achievements of classical Greece and Rome. Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia featured in so far as their art feeds into subsequent European art.

Lion Man Cycladic Figurine The Lion Man (c.38,000 BC, left), made of mammoth ivory, was found in pieces found in a cave in Southern Germany and has been reconstructed. The combination of the head of a lion, the fiercest animal in the environment, and a human body makes it an early example of an artist imagining something that does not actually exist. Three different views of a Cycladic figurine (c.2500 BC, right), one of many found in graves on certain Greek islands, show a kind of stylisation of the human form that’s amazingly elegant. The harmonious proportions express simplicity and calm.

Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux The Standard of Ur The Hall of the Bulls (c.15,000 BC, left) at Lascaux in France, with its large images of aurochs, ancestors of modern oxen, has been called the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory. It’s just one example of various caves with skilfully executed paintings on their walls, dated from different periods of the Ice Age. The Standard of Ur (c.2600 BC, right) served some kind of ceremonial purpose in an early Mesopotamian city-state. It’s a mosaic-covered box decorated with a series of scenes in registers like a strip cartoon, with armed men in war chariots and captured enemies paraded before a king.

Frescoes from Akrotiri Egyptian tomb painting Frescoes from Akrotiri (c.1560 BC, left), on display in Athens, once decorated a Bronze Age house on the island of Thera, buried in a volcanic eruption. The boxers in playful competition are matched by a pair of antelopes facing off on the adjacent wall. Fishing and Fowling in the Marshes (c.1355 BC, right) once decorated the tomb of a high-ranking Egyptian official. He’s shown at leisure, limbs stretched out, standing in a striding posture on a boat, accompanied by his wife and daughter. In the Egyptian convention, we’ve given a side view of the head but a frontal view of the eye and the shoulders.

The Kore of Auxerre Zeus from Artemision Pre-classical Greek art is illustrated by The Kore of Auxerre (c. 630 BC, left), schematic and geometricized as Egyptian statues were. The face is characterised by the so-called archaic smile, infusing the figure with a sense of well-being above the normality of daily life. The Bronze Zeus from Artemision (c.460 BC, right) exhibits the classical qualities of beauty, control, and strength. The action he’s about to unleash seems effortless, elevating the figure above mere striving to represent cosmic power and superhuman excellence. His nudity is the costume of Greek athletes, heroes and gods.

Achilles and Ajax playing a board game Heracles in Egypt The Achilles and Ajax Amphora (c.530 BC, left) exemplifies the black-figure style of vase painting. Two Greek warriors of the Trojan War, still in their armour, are playing a board game during a pause in the hostilities, each leaning forward to concentrate on the game. Herakles in Egypt (c.470 BC) was painted on a vase in the newer red-figure technique, able to show more detail, to be more lively and to better suggest different perspectives. The legendary Greek hero was earmarked to be a human sacrifice on the altar in the centre and is depicted turning the tables on his assailants.

Detail of the Parthenon Frieze The Tomb of Hegeso This detail is from the Parthenon frieze (c.437 BC, left), the quintessential example of the Greek classical style in relief carving. The athletic figures are idealised, while showing understanding of the musculature and the bone structure of the human body. Like most sculpture of ancient Greece, that of the Parthenon was originally painted in bright colours, now lost. On the Tomb of Hegeso (detail c.410 BC, right), the deceased is commemorated by the seated figure taking a ring from a jewel case. Her tranquil pose is set off by the servant’s long dress, which harmonises with the curves of the chair.

Aphrodite of Knidos Detail of the Alexander Mosaic The Aphrodite of Knidos (left, copy of c.340 original) began a tradition of celebrating in life-sized statuary the beauty of the unclothed idealised female body, as had already been that of the unclothed male body. The hand hiding the pubic area draws attention to it, emphasising the goddess’s sexuality. Military prowess is celebrated in The Alexander Mosaic (c.100 BC, right), a copy of a lost painting contemporary with the great man’s conquests that spread Greek culture far and wide, taking art into its Hellenistic Age. Alexander is shown, bare-headed in splendid armour, leading his cavalry.

Bronze Boxer Laocoõn and his Sons Strangled by Snake The bronze statue Boxer at Rest (date uncertain, left) has the typical qualities of Hellenistic art, realistic and representing the character of the subject. This heavily muscled fighter has a face that’s battered and scarred with a broken nose and swollen ears. Laocoön and his Sons (c.30 BC, right), a copy in marble of a Hellenistic bronze original, is a powerful expression of pain and suffering. The three figures are trying to free themselves from the grasp of sinuous serpents, but however much they twist and turn, they remain entangled, culminating in a swirling mass of snakes and limbs.

In the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii Sculptural Relief on the Ara Pacis The frieze on the walls of a room in Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries (c.55 BC, left) makes its viewers feel involved in the ritual of a secret Roman religious cult. The mysterious female figure with huge dark wings is poised to flagellate the young woman who’s being initiated into membership. This relief sculpture on the Ara Pacis (9 BC, right) is to be read as an allegorical representation of peace and prosperity under the rule of the Emperor Augustus. The florid maternal figure seated with two babies in her arms and fruit in her lap personifies fertility, while her two supporters symbolise favourable winds.

Augustus of Prima Porta The Baker and his Wife from Pompeii Augustus of Prima Porta (c. 20 AD, left) shows the Emperor as a handsome young military leader in his prime, making a speech and dominating his audience with an authoritarian gesture. The breastplate is carved to look like bronze so close-fitting that it reveals the form of the torso underneath. This double portrait (c.70 AD, right) from a house joined to a bakery in Pompeii shows an ordinary couple. The husband's large lips, flat nose and high cheeks suggest a likeness of someone not from the upper classes. The wife is depicted with writing materials that advertise her as well educated.

The art of ancient Greece and Rome provided the foundations for that to come in the whole of Europe.