The following list is Part I of my attempt to trace the history of human artistic endeavors by finding the best, most significant, and most highly-regarded works of visual art (primarily painting and sculpture) from all times and places and presenting them in chronological order. The five Art History 101 lists contain every work of art that was on at least two of the 18 ‘Best Works of Art’ lists that I collected from the Internet and books. Although most of the resources available to me focused almost exclusively on the art of Western Civilization, the list does identify some of the most significant artworks produced by the artists of Asia, Africa and South America. Because I believe visuals are essential for discussing the visual arts, I have included images of the art works, In most cases, you can click on the images to enlarge them. (I have tried to use public domain images where possible. In other cases, I believe this is a fair non-commercial use for educational purposes. If there are copyright concerns, please let me know.) Each entry includes the date of the work, the artist’s name, the name (or names) of the work, the style or culture associated with the work, and the location where the work was produced. In addition, I have included a brief essay with description (including measurements), artistic materials used, background and interpretation. Much of the information in these essays comes from Wikipedia or from the website of the museum or other site where the artwork is located. Art History 101, Part II (1400-1599) is here. Part III (1600-Present) is here. Part IV (1800-Present) is here.
For a list of the greatest works of visual art organized by rank, that is, with the artworks on the most lists at the top, go here.
38,000 BCE – 1 BCE
c. 38,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel [Upper Paleolithic; Germany]
In 1939, Dr. Robert Wetzel was excavating caves in the German Alps where people of the Aurignacian culture lived 45,000-35,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic Era when he noticed something unusual. In the Stadel-Höhle Cave in Hohlenstein, Wetzel and Otto Völzing found approximately 200 fragments of ivory from a mammoth tusk that showed signs of carving, but they had little time to study their find, due to the outbreak of World War II. No further study occurred for 30 years when, in 1969, Dr. Joachim Hahn was able to reassemble the ivory fragments into a standing figure with the characteristics of both a human and an animal (specifically, a cave lion). Hahn believed it was a male figure. Carbon dating of nearby organic material placed the approximate date of the figurine at 30,000 BCE. After more fragments were found in the previously-excavated material, Elisabeth Schmid conducted additional reconstruction in 1989. Schmid believed the figure was female. Then, in 2010, scientists returned to the original cave and found 1000 additional fragments. Scientists removed the glue and filler from the 1989 reconstruction and put the figurine together again with the new fragments included. The development of more sophisticated dating techniques has led scientists to revise the date of the figure to about 38,000 BCE, which would make the Lion Man not only the oldest zoomorphic sculpture ever found, but one of the oldest known figurative sculptures of any kind. The Lion Man was carved using a flint stone knife and stands 11.7 inches tall, 2.2 in. wide, and 2.3 in. deep, making it one of the largest figurines from this era. As for the purpose of the figurine, scholars have put forth various theories – some say it represents a man-lion god; others say it is a charm for hunting or avoiding predation; others believe it represents a shaman wearing a lion mask – but there is no consensus. The figurine is now in the Ulmer Museum in Ulm, Germany.
c. 30,000-28,000 BCE: Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Chauvet Cave
[Paleolithic; Ardèche, France]
The Chauvet Cave, which contains hundreds of paintings by Paleolithic humans, was discovered by three French speleologists led by Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994. Due to the fragile nature of the art, the cave is closed to the public, although Werner Herzog was able to bring in a film crew to make his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Almost all the paintings are of animals – 13 species are depicted, including some that are extinct. (See rhinoceroses in first image and horses in second image, above.) Unlike most cave paintings, a significant number of predator animals are depicted (e.g., cave lions, panthers, bears and cave hyenas), and there are scenes of animals interacting, such as two woolly rhinoceroses fighting. Some of the techniques used are also unusual. For example, the artists prepared the rock surface before painting by scraping off debris; they also etched around the outlines of some figures to create a three dimensional effect. In addition to animal figures, the artists made red hand prints and hand stencils, and painted abstract markings throughout the caves. While theories for the purpose of the paintings abound, the scientific community has been unable to reach consensus.
c. 28,000-25,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Venus of Willendorf [Paleolithic; Austria]
During the Upper Paleolithic era (c. 28,000-18,000 BCE), the Gravettian a culture flourished in parts of Europe. The culture is known for its many bone, stone, or clay statuettes of women, usually with large breasts, bellies, thighs, hips and buttocks, that are referred to as Venus figurines, even though they predate the Greco-Roman Venus mythology by many thousands of years. Many of the figurines are either headless or faceless. The 4.25 in. tall carved limestone figurine known as the Venus of Willendorf (see images above) was found in 1908 at a Paleolithic site in the Danube valley of Austria, near the town of Willendorf. The figure has the exaggerated features of the typical Venus figurine. It has no face, only streaks which may be hair, and no feet, so it could not stand by itself. There are traces of red ochre on the figurine, indicating it was once painted. The type of limestone used was not found locally, indicating the existence of a trade network. The purpose of the Venus of Willendorf and other Venus figurines is debated, but the sculptor’s emphasis on the female body’s sexual and childbearing characteristics has led many to conclude that this and other such figurines were fertility goddesses or otherwise played a role in fertility rituals. The Venus of Willendorf is now at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna.
c. 23,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Venus of Laussel [Paleolithic; France]
In 1911, French physician J.G. Lalanne was exploring a natural shelter created by a rock overhang in the Dordogne Valley near Marquay in southwestern France, when he discovered a series of human figures carved onto the limestone wall. He also found a block of limestone on the cave floor that appeared to have detached from the wall, that contained a bas relief carving of a female figure once decorated with red ochre paint (see image above). Now known as the Venus of Laussel, the carving on the limestone block measures 17.5 in. high and depicts a nude female with some typical Venus figurine characteristics: exaggerated breasts, hips, buttocks and genitalia, no facial features, and no feet. One hand is pressed on her lower abdomen. The other, in a departure from Venus iconography, holds a device with 13 lines carved on it. Scholars have had lively debates about the meaning of the object and the 13 lines. Many believe the figure holds a hollowed-out bison horn which some interpret as a cornucopia and others as a musical instrument. A few experts believe the object is a crescent moon. As for the number 13, some have identified it as the number of days of the waxing moon; others note that it may stand for the 13 months, or menstrual cycles of the lunar year. As with many other Venus images, the carving has been dated to the Gravettian culture of the Upper Paleolithic. It is now in the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, France.
c. 24,000-22,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Venus of Brassempouy [Paleolithic; France]
The Venus of Brassempouy is a partial figurine carved from mammoth ivory that was discovered in a cave near French village of Brassempouy in 1894, along with a number of other fragments of statuettes. The figurine consists of a head and neck measuring 1.44 in. tall, 0.87 in. deep and 0.75 in. wide. The figurine contains one of the very earliest representations of a human face, although the face lacks a mouth. The pattern of carvings on the top, side and back of the head appears to represent hair or a decorated hood. The figurine has been dated to the Gravettian culture in the Upper Paleolithic and is considered a Venus figurine, despite the absence of evidence about the body characteristics. It is now located at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France.
c. 23,000-21,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Venus of Kostenki [Paleolithic; Ukraine]
Kostenki refers to a series of more than 20 Paleolithic sites along the Don River in the Ukraine. In addition to dwellings made of mammoth bones, flint tools and bone implements, archaeologists have found a number of Venus figurines. Although a more primitive mammoth ivory figurine from Kostenki dates to 28,000 BCE, the one featured in the image above dates to 23,000-21,000 BCE. The figurine is 4 in. tall and made of limestone, with a head that bends toward the chest and is carved to show striations (possibly hair or a head covering) that completely obscure the face. The figure’s braceleted arms are pressed to its body, which possesses the large breasts and belly (possibly indicating pregnancy) common to Venus figurines. Unlike a typical Venus figurine, Venus of Kostenki appears to be wearing clothing or ornament draped around her neck and above her breasts, which then appears to tie in the back. Some scholars have identified this plait as one of the first depictions of woven plant-fiber cloth. The Venus of Kostenki is now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
c. 15,000-13,000 BCE: Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Lascaux Caves
[Paleolithic; Montignac, France]
During the Upper Paleolithic period between 17,000 and 15,000 years ago, humans painted almost 2000 figures in the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France. Most of the paintings depict large grazing animals such as deer and horses (see first image, above) using various mineral pigments, particularly black and red. There is one human figure (see third image, above) and a number of abstract or geometric designs. One of the black bulls or aurochs in the Great Hall of the Bulls is 17 ft. wide, the largest painted figure in cave art. (See Great Hall of the Bulls in second image, above.) Many theories have been proposed for the purpose of the paintings, including aiding in religious ceremonies, improving hunting success or documenting past hunts. Some scholars believe there are astronomical charts incorporated in the designs. The caves were discovered in 1940 by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat and opened to the public in 1948. Due to the damage caused by carbon dioxide from 1,200 visitors per day, the caves were closed to the public in 1963. Since 1998, the art has been threatened by various types of fungus, including black mold.
c. 13,000-11,000 BCE: Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Altamira Cave [Paleolithic; Spain]
In 1879, amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was exploring the recently discovered Altamira Cave, near Santillana del Mar in Cantabria in the north of Spain, accompanied by his 8-yr-old daughter Maria, when his daughter shouted, “Daddy, there are painted bulls on the ceiling!” Together, the de Sautuolas had discovered the first known prehistoric cave paintings. The sophistication of the artwork was such that the traditional archaeological establishment rejected the notion that these remarkable paintings were made by primitive humans and de Sautuola was accused of forgery. It wasn’t until after other cave paintings were discovered that, in 1902, the Altamira cave paintings were accepted as authentic. Scholars believe that the cave was inhabited during two periods: the Upper Solutrean, about 16,500 BCE, and the Lower Magdalenean, between 14,500 and 12,000 BCE, and that most of the painting occurred during the latter period. The cave is best known for its polychrome paintings of bison and other animals on a ceiling, using pigments made from charcoal, ochre and haematite (see images, above). By using the contours of the cave and using water to dilute the pigments into lighter and darker shades, the artists manage to create three-dimensional and chiaroscuro effects that were not rediscovered until the Renaaissance. While most of the painting dates from between 13,000 and 11,000 BCE, when a rock collapse closed the entrance of the cave, scientists recently dated a claviform (club-shaped) marking to 33,600 BCE, long before the other dates given for habitation and painting of the cave. After years of tourism, the carbon dioxide in the breath of visitors began to damage the paintings, and Spain closed the cave in 1977, only to reopen it in 1982 with much restricted access. Recently, the associated museum created a complete replica of the cave and its paintings.
c. 18,000-10,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Bison Licking Insect Bite (Bison with Turned Head)
[Upper Paleolithic; France]
At some point between 18,000 and 10,000 BCE, a member of the Upper Paleolithic Magdalenean culture made a spear thrower out of a reindeer antler. The artist used the natural contour of the antler to carve a bison with his head turned back so it appears that it is licking or biting an insect bite on its back. In 1912, three boys found a 4.1 in. fragment of the spear thrower at Abri de la Madeleine in the foothills of the Pyrenees, at the spot where the Volp River disappears underground, near Tursac in Dordogne, France. It is now in the Musée des Antiquités Nationales, St. Germain-en-Laye, France.
c. 15,000-10,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Bison, Le Tuc d’Audoubert [Paleolithic; France]
In the farthest reaches of Le Tuc d’Audoubert cave, near Ariège in the French Pyrénées, two clay sculptures of bison – a bull and a cow – lean against a rock. Each figure is 18 in. tall by 24 in. long and sculpted in profile. The clay was not fired and has cracked over the millenia. The artist had to bring the clay into the cave and used his or her hands and a sharp tool called a burin to mold the figures and etch details. The artist’s fingerprints are still visible in the surface of the clay. Some experts have ascribed spiritual significance to the figures, and the piece has also been called Altar of Bull and Cow Bison. At least one scholar has suggested that the artist intended to depict a bison mating ritual. In addition to the clay bison, the cave contains many wall paintings, including paintings of bison.
c. 6000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Seated Woman of Çatal Hüyük [Neolithic; Turkey]
The figurine known as the Seated Woman of Çatal Hüyük is made of baked clay and was sculpted in a large Neolithic settlement in southwestern Turkey. Archaeologist James Mellaart discovered the sculpture in 1961 while excavating Çatal Hüyük (also spelled Çatalhöyük), which was occupied from 7500-5700 BCE. Most scholars agree that the sculpture, which is 6.5 in. tall without the reconstructed head, depicts a fertile Earth Mother goddess sitting on a throne with arm rests in the shape of leopards or panthers, in the act of giving birth. The head and right arm rest were missing from the original, and have been replaced with restorations. The figure bears a striking resemblance to images of the Earth Mother goddess Cybele, a focus of worship in the 1st Millenium BCE. The figure is in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, in Ankara, Turkey.
c. 5000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Thinker of Cernavoda (Ganditorul)
[Neolithic; Hamangia Culture; Romania]
The Thinker of Cernavoda (also known as the Thinker of Hamangia and Ganditorul) is a sculpture of a sitting human figure resting his head on his hands in what appears to be a contemplative gesture. This and a companion figurine of a sitting woman (see image, above) were made by one or more artists of the late Neolithic Hamangia culture, which occupied much of what is now Romania and Bulgaria between 5250 and 4500 BCE. The Hamangian settlement at Cernavoda, where the figurines were found in 1956, contained a large necropolis, or cemetery. The Thinker is 4.5 in. tall and 2.9 in. across at the shoulders. It is made of terracotta, a ceramic made of clay, and is unglazed. Unlike many sculptures from the same period, the Thinker and the Sitting Woman contain no ornamentation or engravings; instead, their surfaces are smooth. They are also among the few prehistoric art objects that do not appear to relate to either fertility or hunting. Both terracottas are in the National Museum of Romania in Bucharest.
c. 2570-2550 BCE: Unknown Artist: Statue of Chephren (Khafre Enthroned)
[Old Kingdom; Ancient Egypt]
The fourth Egyptian Pharaoh of the Old Kingdom’s Fourth Dynasty, who built the second pyramid at Giza, is known by many names, including Khafra, Khafre, Khefren and Chephren. Little is known about him except that Egypt was peaceful, prosperous and united during his reign. Some believe the face on the Great Sphinx belongs to Khafre. The life-size diorite gneiss statue of Khafre (which measures 5.5 ft. tall, 3.1 ft. long and 1.9 ft. wide) was designed as a vessel for the pharaoh’s ka (soul) after death. The statue (see first image above), which is carved in the round (in contrast to relief), is not a portrait but a timeless ideal of an ageless, perfect, man-turned-god. Protecting Khafre’s head from behind is Horus the hawk-god (second image, above). Khafre wears the nemes headdress and the uraeus (symbol of the cobra-god) on his forehead. His throne is made of two stylized lions and engraved on it are the symbols of a united Egypt: lotus plants (for Upper Egypt) and papyrus plants (for Lower Egypt). The dark stone used to carve the statue came from quarries 400 miles away – proof of Khafre’s power, influence and ability to coordinate the work of hundreds. The statue is now in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.
c. 2600-2400 BCE: Unknown Artist: Ram in a Thicket [Sumerian; Iraq]
In 1928-1929, while excavating a grave in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the ancient capital of Sumer in modern-day Iraq, archaeologist Leonard Woolley discovered a pair of statuettes, each 16.5 in. tall, made of a variety of materials. Although the figures were damaged and their wooden cores had rotted, he was able to preserve them sufficiently for restoration. Although the animals depicted appear to be goats, the sculptures reminded Woolley of the story in the Book on Genesis in which Abraham, about to kill his son Isaac, sees a ram caught in a thicket, and he named each statuette Ram in a Thicket. Each goat is covered with gold leaf over a wooden core. Their ears are made of copper and their horns and the fleece on their shoulders is made of lapis lazuli. The fleece on their bodies is made of shell. Their genitals are gold and their bellies are silver. The tree and flowers are covered in gold leaf. The artist used bitumen to glue the parts to each other. Each goat stands on a small pedestal decorated by a mosaic made from shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli. Silver chains that originally attached the goats to the trees have completely decayed. Art historians believe that the two figures may have faced each other and that the tubes rising from their shoulders supported a bowl or other object. One of the figures is in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia (see first image, above). The other is in the British Museum in London (see second image above).
c. 2600-2400 BCE: Unknown Artist: Standard of Ur [Sumerian, Iraq]
When a member of Leonard Woolley’s archeological team found a badly fragmented and decayed wooden box covered with mosaics in the grave of Ur-Pabilsag, a Sumerian king, Woolley was able to preserve the crumbling artifact by placing wax on the soil after removing each piece of the box. The result of this painstaking process was a nearly complete impression of the mosaics, which then was used to reconstruct the artifact. Woolley identified the box as a standard, a type of flag, but later research is inconclusive on the question of the purpose of the object. One theory is that is was the sound box for a musical instrument. After reconstruction (which involved some guesswork), the box measures 19.5 in. long by 8.5 in. deep at the base. The width of the box narrows from bottom to top, creating a trapezoid (see second image, above). Both long sides contain three levels of mosaics made from shell, limestone and lapis lazuli, using bitumen as glue. One side contains the story of a war victory (see first image, above); the other is a banquet or feast (see second image, above). The depiction of chariot movement on the bottom row of the war mosaic is particularly inventive. The end panels show imaginary animals. In both large mosaics, the king is depicted in the top row; he is larger than anyone else and he breaks through the frame, demonstrating his power. Note that the chariots have solid wheels – spoked wheels had not yet arrived in Sumer – and the animals pulling the chariots are donkeys or onagers, since domesticated horses had not yet reached Mesopotamia. The Standard of Ur is now located at the British Museum in London.
2600-2400 BCE: Unknown Artists: Stonehenge [Neolithic; England]
Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument set on Salisbury Plain in the west of England that is composed of earthworks and numerous stones. The original circular earth bank and ditch, with an opening to the northeast, date to 3100 BCE, while erection of most of the stones probably occurred between 2600 BCE and 2400 BCE (see third image, above). Further rearrangements of the smaller bluestones continued until 1600 BCE. The purpose of Stonehenge is much debated among scholars. Some say it is an astronomical observatory due to its alignment with the summer solstice; others that it is a temple for sacred rites of healing or death. There is evidence of many prehistoric burials at or near the site and a long avenue that connects it with another prehistoric site. The standing stones at Stonehenge appear to be descended from an earlier tradition of standing timber structures, remnants of which have been found at Stonehenge and elsewhere. The builders switched from timber to stone in about 2600 BCE, beginning with bluestones measuring about 6.6 ft. tall, 3-5 ft. wide and 2.6 ft. thick. Later, the builders began using much larger sarsens, made of limestone, to create the famous sarsen circle. (See first and second images, above.) Given this history of working with wood, it is not surprising that the techniques used to link the stones come directly from carpentry. Mortise and tenon joints allow the horizontal lintel stones to fit snugly atop the standing stones. In addition, the lintels themselves were fitted to each other using tongue and groove joints. The stones were dressed to create either a smooth or dimpled surface. To maintain perspective, each standing stone widens toward the top and the lintels are shaped to curve slightly. The surfaces of the stones that face the inside of the circle are smoother than the outer surfaces. There are 30 standing stones and 30 lintels (many of them fallen) in the 108-ft diameter circle. Each standing stone is 13 ft. tall, almost 7 ft. wide, 3.5 ft. thick and weighs 25 tons. The lintels are 10 ft. long, 3.2 ft. wide and 2.6 ft. thick. Those who have studied the ruins do not believe that the circle of stones was ever completed, despite numerous imaginative paintings to that effect. Inside the stone circle were five trilithons (each consisting of two standing stones capped by a lintel) arranged in a horseshoe shape. (See second image, above.) These are larger than the stones in the circle, ranging from 20-24 ft. tall. At the very center lies a stone known as the Altar Stone, which dates to the time of the bluestones. At the northeastern entrance stood Portal Stones, only one of which remains, although it has fallen (see third image, above). Farther from the circle are four Station Stones and the Heelstone, which is located beyond the entrance. How the prehistoric people moved the heavy stones from locations that ranged from 10-125 miles away is the source of much speculation but no certainty.
c. 2400-2200 BCE: Unknown Artist: Head of Sargon, King of Akkad [Akkadian; Iraq]
Sargon of Akkad conquered the Sumerian city-states in the 23rd and 22nd Centuries BCE and formed a united empire, based in the city of Akkad, where he reigned from c. 2334-2279 BCE. The dynasty he founded ruled even longer. The Akkadian empire included Mesopotamia, parts of Iran, Asia Minor and Syria. In excavations of the ruins of the Assyrian city of Nineveh in present-day Iraq, archaeologists found a bronze head of an Akkadian king measuring 12 in. tall and dating to c. 2400-2200 BCE. Some scholars believe the head, which is wearing the traditional wig-helmet of Sumerian rulers, was attached to a full-body statue of Sargon. Others believe it is Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin. There are significant signs of intentional damage to the head, indicating a possible political motivation by subsequent conquerors to deface symbols of Akkadian power. The head is now in the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad.
c. 2350-2200 BCE: Unknown Artist: Victory Stele of Naram-Sin [Mesopotamia; Iraq/Iran]
The grandson of Sargon of Akkad, Naram-Sin led the mighty Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia at its height, c. 2254-2218 BCE. The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, a pink sandstone block standing 6.6 ft. tall and dated c. 2230 BCE, commemorates Naram-Sin’s defeat of the Lullibi, a tribe in the Zagros Mountains. Naram-Sin towers over his enemies and his own troops and wears the horned helmet of a deity (see second image above). The story is told in successive diagonal narrative lines, an innovation over the boxed stories then standard. The Elamites stole the stele in the 12th Century BCE, breaking off a portion in the process, and brought it to Susa, in what is now Iran, where it was discovered in 1898. The Victory Stele is now in the Louvre in Paris.
c. 2700-1900 BCE: Unknown Artist: Mohenjo-Daro Seals [Indus Valley; Pakistan]
A highly urbanized culture known variously as the Indus Valley, Harappa or Indus-Sarasvati civilization flourished in what is now India and Pakistan from 2600-1900 BCE. In 1922, Indian archaeologist Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay discovered the ruins of the city of Mohenjo-Daro, a major Indus Valley civilization urban center, in what is now Pakistan. Excavation of these ruins uncovered large numbers of seals containing carvings of pictographic scripts and bas relief carvings, usually of animals, occasionally humans or animal-human composites (see first image, above). There are at least 400 different signs on the seals, but scholars have so far been unable to decipher them. Most of the seals, which range in size from 0.75 to 1.75 in. square, are carved of a soft stone called steatite and then baked. Some seals have a loop on the reverse side, allowing users to carry the seals around their necks. Scholars believe that the seals were used to make impressions in wax to identify one’s possessions or were used in commercial transactions. The Pashupati Seal depicts a man or god who may be a precursor of the Hindu deity Shiva (see second image, above). The five seals shown in the images above are located at the National Museum in New Delhi, India.
c. 2100-1900 BCE: Unknown Artist: Shaft-Hole Axe-Head
[Bactrian; Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan]
Toward the end of the 3rd Millenium BCE, a Bronze Age culture known as the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex flourished in a region now occupied by parts of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The inhabitants of this region practiced agriculture, engaged in trade with civilized cultures in places such as the Indus Valley, Iran and Mesopotamia, and made art. Their artistic and technological achievements included architecture, metal tools, ceramics and jewelry. Archaeological investigation of the Bactrian-Margiana complex has unearthed a number of treasures, including a 5.9 in. long shaft-hole axe head made of silver and gold foil and dating to about 2000 BCE (see image above). The remarkably detailed sculpting, both three-dimensional and relief, shows a figure with a human body but the head and talons of a bird grabbing a wild boar with one hand-talon and a winged dragon with the other. The boar’s bristly back curves to form the axe blade. Because the scene is depicted on both sides of the axe head, the bird-hero appears to have two heads. The materials used (silver and gold instead of bronze) and the level of craftsmanship lead some scholars to believe that the object had a ceremonial purpose and was not meant for practical use. It is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
c. 2000-1600 BCE: Unknown Artists: Frescoes, Akrotiri, Thera [Minoan; Santorini, Greece]
Akrotiri was a Minoan city on the island of Thera (now the Greek island of Santorini) that arose during the late Neolithic and flourished during the Bronze Age. Although some evidence of the ruins was uncovered as early as the late 19th Century, it was not until the 1967 excavations of Spyros Marinatos that the world discovered the true extent of the five-acre settlement and the excellent state of its preservation. Numerous buildings have been excavated, and many of the buildings have paintings on their walls with both abstract designs and representations of humans, animals, plants and buildings (see first image, above showing lilies and swallows). Many of the paintings appear to depict religious rituals (such as a youth bringing fish as a sacrifice, see third image above), while some represent scenes from everyday life. These latter paintings have provided archaeologists with a wealth of information about how the residents of Akrotiri lived. One of the rooms contains a frieze of a sea voyage, including a detailed portrait of a Minoan town, perhaps Akrotiri (see second image, above), that runs along all four walls. To paint on the stone walls of Akrotiri’s buildings, the artists would first lay down a mud-straw mixture, then add a thin coat of lime plaster, and finally add one or more layers of fine plaster. Some of the paintings were made on wet plaster (fresco) and others on dry (secco). The many bright pigments were derived from minerals. Some of the geometric designs are so exact that scholars have speculated that the artists used a mechanical device. Some of the frescoes share characteristics in common with the art of Minoan Crete and Ancient Egypt (particularly the stances of the figures). In fact, the Egyptian papyrus and antelope pictured on two of the frescoes are not found on Thera or any nearby islands, Life in Akrotiri came to an abrupt halt at some time before 1600 BCE, when a series of earthquakes led the residents to evacuate, taking what they could carry. Shortly thereafter, Thera’s volcano erupted, covering the city with volcanic ash and preserving it for Professor Marinatos. Although some of the frescoes remain intact at the site, which is open to the public, many of them have been removed to be displayed in various museums, such as the Fisherman, shown in the third image above, which is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
c. 3000-1500 BCE: Unknown Artist: Flame-Style Vessels [Middle Jomon Period; Japan]
From about 12,000 BCE to 300 BCE, a hunter-gatherer culture known as the Jomon inhabited the islands of Japan. The Jomon people produced some of the world’s first pottery, much of it decorated with cord-marks from rope, which gives the Jomon their name (Jomon means ‘cord-markings’ in Japanese). By the time of the Middle Period (3000-1500 BCE), Jomon potters had begun crafting elaborate flame-style vessels, so-called because of the tongues-of-fire decorations around the rims. The first image above shows a flame-style vessel, dating to c. 2500, that measures 24 in. tall by 22 in. wide. It is housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The vessel in the second image above, dating to c. 3000-2000 BCE, is in the Umataka Jomon Museum in Nagaoka city, Niigata Prefecture, Japan.
c.1550–1500 BCE: Unknown Artist: Mask of Agamemnon [Mycenaen; Greece]
German-American businessman and self-taught archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann became famous in 1873 for finding the ruins of a city in Turkey that he claimed was Troy, the scene of the Trojan War and Homer’s Iliad. On his next expedition, he went to the ruins of Mycenae, where, according to Ancient Greek historian Pausanias, the remains of Agamemnon, the Greek leader against the Trojans, were buried. In 1876, Schliemann discovered two large graves at Mycenae containing the remains of a number of individuals, as well as weapons and other artifacts. Five of the bodies had gold funeral masks covering their faces. One of these masks, measuring about 12 in. high, was more elaborately carved than the others (see image above). The mask consists of a thick sheet of gold that was heated and then hammered against a piece of wood. The artist then used a sharp tool to carve the details. Holes in the ears probably held twine to attach the mask to the head. Schliemann decided that this more sophisticated mask, with the beard and handlebar mustache, was the face of Agamemnon himself. Unfortunately for Schliemann, the date of the graves is about 300 years prior to the probable date of the Trojan War. In recent years, some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the mask, based on Schliemann’s prior unethical behavior (for example, the ‘Troy’ he found was probably not the real Troy) and significant differences between the mask and other Mycenaen funeral masks and sculpture. Others have defended the mask as a genuine example of Mycenean art. The Mask of Agamemnon, as it is still called, is now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
c. 1390-1350 BCE: Unknown Artist: Nebamun Hunting Fowl in the Marshes
[New Kingdom; Ancient Egypt]
In 1821, Greek grave-robber Giovanni d’Athanasi located in Thebes, Egypt the tomb of a minor official (“a scribe who counts the grain in the granary of divine offerings”) named Nebamun, who lived in the late 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, about 1350 BCE. The walls of his tomb-chapel contained exquisitely painted scenes, meant to represent the happiness of the afterlife. Using a crowbar, d’Athanasi removed several of the scenes from the walls and sold them to a collector, who brought them to the British Museum. Because d’Athanasi was unhappy with his fee, he never told anyone where the grave was located and took the secret to his grave. One of the most remarkable scenes, painted a secco with paint on dry plaster, is known variously as Nebamun Hunting Fowl in the Marshes, Nebamun Hunting in the Marshes, Fowling in the Marshes, and Nebamun Hunting Birds. Measuring 2.7 ft. tall by 3.2 ft. wide, the painting shows Nebamun on a boat in the marshes, hunting birds. His wife and daughter are present. A cat with a gilded eye, who may represent the Sun-god, also hunts for birds. A caption in hieroglyphics states that Nebamun is enjoying himself and seeing beauty. A matching scene with Nebamun catching fish is known only from photos. The hunting scene is not meant to be realistic or historical – Nebamun’s wife is dressed for a party, and their daughter would not normally join a hunting expedition. Instead, the painting shows an idealized family outing in the afterlife. The panel is in the British Museum in London.
c. 1353-1334 BCE: Unknown Artist: Akhenaten and His Family (Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their Children) [New Kingdom; Ancient Egypt]
When Amenhotep IV became Egypt’s ruler during the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, he ushered in dramatic changes. First, he rejected the polytheistic religion that had governed Egyptian life for millennia and introduced a monotheistic religion centered on Aten, the sun god. In honor of this paradigm shift, the pharaoh changed his name to Akenhaten. A third change took place in art. Instead of the formal, idealized portraits and scenes of the past, artists of what became known as the Amarna period represented figures (including the royal family) more realistically and in less formal settings. The relief sculpture known as Akenhaten and His Family is an example of sunken relief, in which shapes are defined by carving a sunken line around the outline. The relief showing the figures of Akenhaten, his wife Nefertiti, and three of their children shows more realism in depicting bodies and shows the leader in a very informal environment while Aten shines his light on them. Certain older traditions remain: all the figures are presented in profile and the children are depicted as miniature adults. The relief is made of limestone and measures 12.2 in. high by 15.3 in. wide. It is in the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.
c. 1345 BCE: Thutmose (attrib.): Bust of Queen Nefertiti [New Kingdom; Ancient Egypt]
In 1912, while excavating the workshop of Egyptian sculptor Thutmose in Amarna, Egypt, German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt found a painted bust of Nefertiti, queen of Egypt and wife of Akhenaten, who ruled from 1352 to 1336 BCE. (There is some evidence that Nefertiti herself may have ruled Egypt, either with her husband or after his death.) The bust is composed of a limestone core with painted layers of stucco; it is 19 inches tall and weighs 44 pounds. There is no inlay in the left eye. The “Nefertiti cap crown” is recognizable in other portraits of the queen. The cobra symbol, or uraeus, on her forehead has been damaged. According to experts, the bust with its slender neck and very large head, does not possess many of the attributes of the new Amarna style that developed under Akhenaten, but hearkens back to more Classical forms. This bust may have been a sculptor’s modello that was kept in the studio to be used as the basis for other portraits of the queen. CT scans reveal that earlier versions of the bust show a much older queen, with wrinkles on her face and neck and a swelling on her nose, but that the final layers of stucco eliminated these flaws. After discovering the bust, Borchardt brought it back to Germany, where it has been ever since, despite requests from Egypt to repatriate it since the 1930s. There is considerable controversy over the removal of the bust from Egypt. There are allegations that when Germany and Egypt divided up the finds of Borchardt’s dig, the Germans downplayed or actively disguised the nature and value of the bust, showing Egyptian officials only a poorly-taken photograph and ensuring that it was thoroughly wrapped up when Egyptian authorities conducted an inspection. To complicate matters, at the time, Egypt was under the control of European powers. The Bust of Nefertiti is now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, where the queen has her own room.
1333-1323 BCE: Unknown Artist: Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun
[New Kingdom; Ancient Egypt]
Tutankhamun was an 18th Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh who ruled from 1332-1323 BCE, during the New Kingdom. He ascended to the throne at age 9 and died 10 years later at age 18. His tomb was discovered nearly intact by Howard Carter and George Herbert, Earl of Carnavon, in 1922. The tomb contained the pharaoh’s mummy, encased in three coffins fitted inside one another. Inside the innermost case, the explorers found the funerary, or death mask. Made of solid gold inlaid with colored glass and semiprecious stones (including obsidian, quartz, and lapis lazuli), the mask is 21 in. tall by 15.5 in. wide and includes representations of the goddesses Nekhbet (the vulture) and Wadjet (the cobra), the nemes (the striped head cloth of the pharaohs) and the traditional false beard. The mask was designed to ensure that the pharaoh’s soul, or ka, would recognize his body and return to allow his resurrection. The mask is at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.
c. 1150-1050 BCE: Unknown Artist: You Vessel in the Shape of a Feline (La Tigresse)
[Shang Dynasty, China]
During the Shang (c. 1600-1046 BCE) and Zhou (c. 1046-256 BCE) Dynasties, Chinese artists created many yous, a type of vessel with a knobbed lid and a swinging handle used to hold alcoholic beverages and possibly other liquids, possibly for offering sacrifices. Some yous were zoomorphic, including the late Shang Dynasty You Vessel in the Shape of a Feline, also known as La Tigresse (see image above), which is in the collection of the Cernuschi Museum of Asian Arts in Paris. The feline you is made of dark green bronze and measures 12.7 in. tall, 9.3 in. long and 9.2 in. wide. The open-mouthed feline stands on its two back paws and embraces a tiny human figure with its front paws. Against a background of square spirals, a common design feature of late Shang Dynasty carving, therre are a number of dragons. Standing on the you’s lid is a goat with large ears and horns, while the back of the handle contains depictions of unusual animals with pointed ears and curving bodies. While the you dates to the time of the Shang Dynasty, several anomalies have led archaeologists to conclude that it came from Hunan, which was not part of the Shang Kingdom farther north.
c. 1500-1000 BCE: Unknown Artists: Olmec Colossal Heads (17) [Olmec Culture; Mexico]
The Olmecs of Gulf Coast Mexico were the first civilization of Mesoamerica. Flourishing from 1500-400 BCE, the Olmecs were the precursors of the Maya and the Aztecs. The artistic legacy of the Olmecs includes 17 basalt boulders carved into colossal heads, most of which were made between 1500 and 1000 BCE. Each head has individualized facial features and a unique headdress. Most scholars believe they represent Olmec leaders. The heads range from 5 to 11 feet tall and from 6 to 50 tons. They were found at four locations, with 10 heads found at San Lorenzo lined up in two rows. The colossal heads shown in the images above are: (1) San Lorenzo head #1 in the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa; (2) San Lorenzo heads ## 3 and 4 in the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. The facial characteristics of some of the heads have led some to speculate that the Olmecs had roots in Africa, although there is little evidence to support this theory. Scholars have traced the source of the basalt boulders to the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas, nearly 100 miles away. How the Olmecs transported the massive stones through forests and swamps without wheeled vehicles is a mystery. All 17 heads are still in Mexico: Museo de Antropología de Xalapa in Xalapa (7); Parque-Museo La Venta in Villahermosa (3); Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (2); Santiago Tuxtla plaza (2) Museo Comunitario de San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán in Texistepec (1); Museo del Estado de Tabasco in Villahermosa (1); and Museo de Sitio Tres Zapotes in Tres Zapotes (1).
c. 900-700 BCE: Unknown Artist: Lioness Devouring a Boy
[Phoenician, Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud, Iraq]
While excavating the ruins of Nimrud, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire in the 9th and 8th Centuries BCE, in what is now Iraq, archaeologists found two nearly identical ivory carvings of a lioness attacking and eating a boy. One is in the British Museum (see image above); the other was in the Baghdad Museum until looters absconded with it in 2003. The carving, which measures 4 in. high by 4 in. wide, was found at the bottom of a well in the ruins of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, an Assyrian king who reigned from 883-859 BCE. The carving appears to be part of a piece of furniture, perhaps a throne, and is carved in the Phoenician style, indicating that it was made in a Phoenician city, in present day Lebanon, and came to Assyria as a gift or as the spoils of war. The carving is detailed – the boy appears to be African and has armlets and bracelets containing jewels. Above the boy and lion is an elaborate carving of lilies and papyrus plants. There are traces of significant decoration, much of it lost: much of the ivory was covered with gold leaf overlay muand inlaid with bits of red carnelian and blue lapis lazuli, including a bit of lapis on the lioness’s forehead. Where the lapis is gone, there are traces of the blue mortar used to attach it. The boy’s gold leaf skirt is still partially intact, as are the gold-trimmed curls of his hair. Some have interpreted the scene, particularly the lioness’s embrace of the boy and the position of the boy’s head, as having maternal or even erotic overtones. A further clue to interpretation is the lapis lazuli mark on the lioness’s forehead, which may refer to a Phoenician goddess who sometimes took the form of a lion.
c. 710-705 BCE: Unknown Artist: Human-Headed Winged Bulls (Lamassu)
[Neo-Assyrian Empire; Iraq]
A lamassu or shedu is a winged, human-headed bull god whose image was used to protect the entrances to the palaces of Assyrian kings during the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which flourished in northern Mesopotamia (parts of modern day Iraq, Syria and Turkey) from 911-605 BCE. Assyrian king Sargon II, who reigned from 722-705 BCE, decided to build a new capital city at Dur-Sharrukin (modern day Khorsabad). The main entranceways to Sargon II’s palace were protected by pairs of lamassu, carved in high relief out of blocks of gypsum alabaster, and ranging from 13.8 to 16 ft. tall. The intimidating lamassu were intended to frighten intruders and convey the king’s power as well as serve as architectural supports. While the lamassu at Sargon’s palace all follow the same basic pattern, there are some variations. Some of the lamassu look straight ahead, while some look to the side. Some have the hooves of bulls, while some have lions’ paws. In all cases, the bulls have five legs – this allows them to appear steady and firm when viewed from the front, but striding forward when seen from the side. There are at least four lamassu from Sargon II’s palace on display in museums: (1) a pair of forward-facing lamassu at the Louvre, measuring 13.8 ft. tall by 14.3 ft. long (first and third images above); (2) a sideways-facing lamassu at the Louvre (second image above); and (3) a sideways-facing lamassu at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago measuring 16 ft. tall by 16 ft. long (fourth image above). Sargon II’s plans for Dur-Sharrukin were never completed. The king was killed in battle in 705 BCE and his successor moved the capital to Nineveh, abandoning Dun-Sharrukin to the desert sands.
c. 645-635 BCE: Unknown Artists: Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions [Ninevah, Assyria; Iraq]
Ashurbanipal was the last powerful king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. He ruled from 668 until his death in about 627 BCE. The empire collapsed less than 20 years later. Since the mid-10th Century BCE, the Assyrians had controlled a huge portion of the Middle East, including all or part of 13 modern nations. Ashurbanipal is referred to in the Hebrew Book of Ezra as Asenappar, and some say he is the figure known elsewhere as Sardanapalus. His capital, Nineveh, located along the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq, was destroyed by Assyria’s enemies in 612 BCE. When British archaeologists excavated the ruins of Nineveh in 1853, they discovered an elaborate frieze from the North Palace, depicting the king hunting and killing lions (in one case in hand-to-paw combat, see first image above), as well as a banquet celebrating a military victory. Showing the king conquering lions not only documented his sporting activities, but also symbolized his power to protect his people from their enemies. The sculptor also shows true sympathy for the noble beasts as they struggle to fight back, even when pierced by multiple arrows (see second image above). The relief sculptures, which are known as Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions, the Lion Hunts of Ashurbanipal, or simply the Lion Hunt Frieze, are now in the British Museum in London.
c. 600-580 BCE: Unknown Artist: New York Kouros (Metropolitan Kouros)
[Archaic Period, Ancient Greece]
During the Archaic Period, beginning in the late 7th Century BCE, Greek sculpture took a giant leap forward with the creation of the first large, free-standing statues, the kouros (Greek for ‘male youth’). The earliest examples of these life-size (or larger) marble sculptures of nude boys or young men owed much to Egyptian art, including their striding stance, arms held straight at the sides and somewhat idealized bodies, some of which used the grid pattern of the Egyptians to maintain symmetry. On the other hand, uniquely Greek features also appeared: the figures were usually nude and more attention was paid to realism, such as the way the figure’s weight was balanced on its feet. These statues were found in temples and sanctuaries and may have been offerings to the gods in the likenesses of actual individuals. The kouros in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (image shown above) is 6.3 ft. tall and has long beaded hair. It dates to the Early Archaic Period, when the Egyptian influence on Greek sculpture was still strong.
c. 575 BCE: Unknown Artist: Ishtar Gate [Babylon; Iraq]
In about 575 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II, King of the Babylonian Empire and destroyer of the First Temple in Jerusalem, ordered the construction of a new gate in the north section of the city of Babylon, to be dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. The gate had two sections – the front gate smaller than the one behind it – and was constructed of glazed blue bricks, with bas reliefs of aurochs (young bulls) and dragons (see second image above) with giant cedar doors. The road leading into and out of the gate was lined by 50-ft.-tall walls made of glazed brick and decorated with lions and geometric designs. In an inscription plaque on the gate, Nebuchadnezzar II explained the purpose of the project: “Both gate entrances of Imgur-Ellil and Nemetti-Ellil following the filling of the street from Babylon had become increasingly lower. Therefore, I pulled down these gates and laid their foundations at the water table with asphalt and bricks and had them made of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars length-wise over them. I hung doors of cedar adorned with bronze at all the gate openings. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder.” Beginning in 1902, a German expedition led by Robert Koldewey began excavating the ruins of Babylon in Iraq and found the remains of the fabled Ishtar Gate and the processional way leading into the city. Over the next 12 years, the material was brought to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, where the smaller, frontal portion of the gate was reconstructed using the original bricks, with the project completed in 1930. The reconstructed Ishtar Gate measures 47 feet high and 100 feet wide; the reconstruction does not include the cedar doors. The larger, second gate remains in storage.
c. 515 BCE: Euphronios & Euxitheos: Euphronios Krater (Sarpedon Krater) [Ancient Greece; Etruscan Italy]
Ancient Greek artist Euphronios was famous for painting scenes on pottery, but only one of his works has survived intact – the Euphronios Krater (also known as the Sarpedon Krater. The terra cotta krater, a bowl used to mix wine with water, measures 18 in. high and 21.7 in. in diameter with a capacity of 12 gallons and was made by potter Euxitheos. One side of the krater depicts the death of Sarpedon in the Trojan War, with the god Hermes directing Sleep and Death to carry Sarpedon’s body to Greece for burial (see first image above). The other side shows 6th Century Athenian youths arming themselves for war (see second image above). Euphronios was considered a late Archaic painter and member of the Pioneer Group, known for its naturalistic style and anatomical accuracy. The krater was apparently looted from an Etruscan tomb near Cerveteri, Italy in 1971 and purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1972. In 2006, after it became clear that the item was stolen, the Met agreed to return the krater to Italy, where it was put on display in 2008 in the National Etruscan Museum in Rome.
c. 480 BCE: Kritios (attrib.): Kritios Boy [Early Classical Period, Greece]
The free-standing marble nude known as Kritios Boy (for its resemblance to the work of Greek sculptor Kritios) marks the end of the Archaic Period and the beginning of the Early Classical phase of Greek art. Unlike the kouros, with its stiff stance, idealized symmetry, direct gaze and impersonal smile, Kritios Boy, well below life size at 3.8 ft. tall, stands in a contrapposto pose (the first known to art history), with all his weight on one leg, the other free to bend, and all the anatomically accurate shifts of muscle and bone that accompany such a stance. The non-smiling figure does not meet the viewer’s eye, but seems lost in thought, perhaps about to move. The torso and legs were discovered in 1865 in a ceremonial dump on the Acropolis, after Athens was desecrated by the Persians, but the head, which appears to have been severed deliberately, was found 23 years later some distance away. The statue is now at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, not far from where it was found. Some art historians have connected the rise of lifelike sculpture celebrating the perfectability of the human form at about this time (c. 480 BCE) with political developments in which the city-state of Athens has developed democratic government and, in 490 BCE, united the other Greek polities to defeat the Persians.
c. 518-465 BCE: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Persepolis [Achaemenid Empire, Persia]
The Persian city known as Persepolis (in modern day Iran) was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire from about 515-330 BCE. Archaeologists believe that Cyrus the Great (reigned 559-530 BCE) selected the site of the city, but that Darius I (reigned 522-486 BCE) began construction of many of the city’s buildings, including the Apadana Palace, although some of these were completed during the reign of Darius’s son, Xerxes the Great (reigned 486-465 BCE). Gray limestone was the primary building material. In the center of the city is a large stone terrace with staircases leading to the top, on which several buildings were located. At the center of the terrace, on an elevated platform, stood the Apadana Palace, an immense audience hall, with 72 columns with sculpted capitals and two monumental staircases. Throughout the city, relief sculptures are carved into the limestone, particularly along the various staircases. The stairs to Apadana Palace depict a ceremonial procession of vassal states bringing culturally-appropriate gifts to the king. The relief sculptures shown above are: (1) Darius I receiving tribute, a relief from the Treasury Building, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Tehran; (2) relief on the Apadana stairs showing the earth (shown as a bull) fighting with the sun (shown as a lion) on Nowruz, the vernal equinox when, according to the Zoroastrian religion, the powers of the lion and bull are equal; (3) a Mede in traditional costume following a Persian in the ceremonial procession on the north stairs of Apadana Palace; (4) the Bactrian delegation, with their two-humped camel, in the ceremonial possession on the southern wall of the eastern stairs at Apadana Palace. Despite the efforts of Darius, Xerxes and his son Artaxerxes, the glory of Persepolis was short-lived. In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great invaded the city and looted it, after which he burned it down. A small community lingered on for a short time, but eventually the site was abandoned.
c. 480-470 BCE (12th-13th Century?): Unknown Artist: Capitoline Wolf (Capitoline She-Wolf) [Etruscan(?); Italy]
The bronze sculpture (measuring 2.5 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. long) of a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, has a long and controversial history. Until very recently, it was believed that the sculpture of the wolf was made by an unknown Etruscan artist in the 5th Century BCE to commemorate the founding of Rome. It has been in the Musei Capitolini in Rome since 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated it. The wolf’s Etruscan origin was supported by references to a bronze wolf sculpture in Classical literature, including Cicero’s De Divinatione, and by the analysis of Johann Winckelmann, an 18th Century German art historian. Winckelmann also recognized that the sculptures of Romulus and Remus were added in the late 15th Century, during the Renaissance, possibly by Antonio Pollaiolo. In the late 19th Century, some art historians questioned the early date, proposing a Carolingian or Medieval time frame, but their concerns were ignored. In 2006, however, Italian art experts Anna Maria Carruba and Adriano La Regina made a strong case, based on evidence that the bronze wolf was cast in one piece, that the wolf was Medieval in origin. Preliminary results of radiocarbon testing announced in 2008 indicated a 12th or 13th Century date for the sculpture. The date is of more than academic interest, as the Capitoline Wolf has been a symbol of Roman and Italian heritage for centuries. Mussolini sent replicas all over the world and the image adorns contemporary t-shirts and posters.
c. 460 BCE: Unknown Artist: Artemision Bronze (Zeus/Poseidon of Artemision)
Archaeologists have discovered very few Classical Greek sculptures because most of the statues from that period were made of bronze, which was later melted down for reuse. One of the few Greek bronze sculptures that survived was found at the site of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Cape Artemision in Greece in 1926. The 6.9 ft. tall bronze statue of a nude male is a depiction of either Zeus about to fling a lightning bolt or Poseidon about to pitch his trident (most scholars favor the Zeus interpretation based on the angle of the arms and the concern that a trident would obscure the god’s face). The figure’s eyes, eyebrows, lips and nipples would likely have been filled with various materials (bone, silver, copper, etc.) for a more dramatic appearance. The figure was carved in the Early Classical or Severe style that preceded the Classical style of the later 5th Century. Scholars praise the work for the sense of strength, balance and movement and the close attention to the anatomy of the nude male body. To emphasize the sense of imminent movement, the unknown sculptor has made the arms longer than they would be if anatomically correct, a choice that was only available to the artist when working with bronze – had this been a marble statue, the arms would have fallen off without supports. The figure’s head has become a Greek cultural symbol, featuring on a postage stamp and bank note. The statue is located in the National Archaelogical Museum in Athens.
c. 470-460 BCE: Unknown Artist: Ludovisi Throne [Ancient Greece]
The Ludovisi Throne is not a throne. It is a set of three relief sculptures, possibly made by Greek artists in Sicily about 470-460 BCE, on three sides of a block of white marble, which has been hollowed out in the rear. The central panel, which measures 2.9 ft. high by 4.6 ft. long, shows either Aphrodite rising from the sea, with two of the Fates providing a veil, or Persephone returning from Hades. The panel on the left shows a girl with her hair in a kerchief playing a double flute called an aulos. This relief, which measures 2.7 ft. high by 2.2 ft. long, is the oldest Greek sculpture of a nude woman and one of the only depictions of a woman crossing her legs. Scholars have noted that the position of the figure’s right leg is anatomically impossible. On the right panel, measuring 2.8 ft. high by 2.3 ft. long, a veiled woman takes incense from a box to offer it in an incense burner. The piece was part of the Ludovisi family collection for many years; it is now in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome. A number of facts have led some scholars to doubt the authenticity of the piece. The iconography is unlike most relief sculpture of the same era. On the other hand, an exact replica of the Throne fits perfectly into a gap in the foundation of an Ionic temple to Aphrodite near Locri, Italy, dating to about 480 BCE.
460-450 BCE: Myron: The Discus Thrower (Palombra Discobolus)
[Ancient Greece/Ancient Rome]
The Discobolus (also known as The Discus Thrower) was a bronze mid-5th Century BCE Greek sculpture by Myron. The original is lost and is known only by Roman copies, the most famous of which is the 5.1 ft. tall Palombara Discobolus, which dates from the 1st Century CE and was discovered in 1781 (see image above). Adolf Hitler bought it in 1938 and brought it to Munich. It was returned to Italy in 1948. The statue is known for its depiction of athletic energy and a well-proportioned body as well as rhythmos, a quality of harmony and balance. According to one critic, Myron creates a sense of balance and order by having the discus thrower’s arms and back create two completely congruous intersecting arcs. On some copies of the statue, the head has been improperly restored in a position facing down instead of looking back toward the discus.
c. 447-440 BCE: Phidias: Athena Parthenos (Statue of Athena; Athena the Virgin)
[Ancient Greece] marble copy
The Athena Parthenos is now-lost colossal statue of the goddess Athena made by Phidias for the Parthenon in Athens, where it remained until it was removed by the Romans in the 5th Century CE, never to be seen again. The statue, which stood 38 ft. tall, is considered the greatest achievement of Phidias, the most acclaimed sculptor of Ancient Greece. The statue showed Athena standing, wearing a helmet (which may or may not have depicted a Medusa) and resting her left hand on her upright shield. In her right hand she held a winged Nike – there is a dispute about whether there was a support for her hand. She wore a peplos garment, which was tied by two snakes. She may or may not have had a spear. The original statue had a wooden core, which was covered by bronze plates, which were covered by removable gold plates, while Athena’s face and arms were made of ivory. Of the many copies that have been made, one of the most faithful is considered to be the much smaller Varvakeion Athena (3.4 ft. tall), which dates to 200-250 CE and is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (see image above).
c. 443-438 BCE: Phidias (?): Parthenon Frieze [Ancient Greece]
The Parthenon Frieze is a low-relief marble sculpture that originally decorated the upper portion of the interior of the Parthenon, a temple on the Acropolis in Athens dedicated to Athena. According to Plutarch, Phidias oversaw the work, which consisted of 114 marble blocks, each 3.3 feet high and totaling almost 44 feet in length. There are two parallel lines of reliefs depicting 378 gods and humans, including all the Attic tribes, and 245 animal figures. Scholars disagree about whether the scene depicted in the frieze is contemporary, historical or allegorical. Large portions of the frieze were destroyed by Venetian bombing in 1687, when the Ottomans used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. In a controversial series of events, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, removed much of the frieze between 1801 and 1812; as a result, a large part of the Parthenon frieze is now in the British Museum as part of the Elgin Marbles. Although many have argued for the return of the frieze to Athens, where portions of it remain, most scholars have concluded that the UK acquired it legally.
c. 460-420 BCE: Unknown Artist: Riace Bronzes (Riace Warriors) [Ancient Greece; Riace, Italy]
In 1972, vacationing Roman chemist Stefano Mariottini was snorkeling off the coast of Calabria, near Riace, when he saw an arm sticking out of the sand at the bottom of the sea. When he touched it, he realized it was made of metal, and he called the police. Mariottini had stumbled upon two 5th Century BCE bronze statues made in Ancient Greece, in near perfect condition. There is no agreement about the identity of the sculptor, but there is no doubt that the statues are prime examples of the transition period between the archaic and early Classical styles of Greek sculpture. Statue A is a young warrior standing 6.7 ft. tall and was created about 460-450 BCE. Statue B, which was sculpted about 430-420 BCE, is a mature warrior standing 6.4 ft. tall. Both figures are nude, bearded males portrayed in a contrapposto pose with their weight on their back legs. Their eyes are made of calcite, the teeth of silver and lips and nipples of copper. They are missing their spears and shields, as well as helmets or other headgear. The sculptor has included so many realistic features that the idealized geometry and anatomical anomalies are not obvious. There is no consensus about who the warriors represent, but some have suggested they come from a group of statues representing the Seven Against Thebes at Argos or Athenian warriors in the Battle of Marathon monument at Delphi. How the sculptures arrived at Riace is also not clear. They may have been booty from the Roman occupation of Greece, or perhaps they were being brought to a Greek temple in Italy.
c. 450-400 BCE: Unknown Artist: Basse-Yutz Flagons [Celtic/La Tène; France]
While digging at a construction site in 1927 near the eastern France town of Basse-Yutz, workers stumbled upon the grave of a wealthy and important member of a Celtic tribe, dating to about 450-400 BCE. At that time, a thriving but illiterate rural Celtic culture occupied Northern Europe and the British Isles, with trading ties to Greece and the Etruscans of Italy. Among the artifacts found in the Basse-Yutz grave were two nearly identical copper-tin alloy flagons with lids and spouts for pouring beer, wine or mead, each measuring 15.7 in. high (see first image, above). The flagons contain elaborate decorations, including bits of Mediterranean coral and red glass. The original color scheme, with red coral and glass against a gleaming copper-colored background, would have been quite dramatic. The coral has since faded to white and the copper has acquired a green verdigris patina. The lid includes metalwork in the shape of dogs and a duck, which is placed so that when liquid is poured, it appears to be swimming (see second image, above). The basic flagon design comes from the Etruscans, as does the idea of a handle in the shape of a dog. The palmette designs beneath the spout, which became a Celtic trademark, originally came from Egypt by way of Greece. But the specific combination of elements is new and scholars regard these as among the best examples of Early Celtic (also called Early La Tène) art. By using these flagons at a feast or banquet, the owners would have demonstrated their wealth, good taste and appreciation for the both the high culture of southern Europe and the newly-developing artistry of the Celts. The flagons are now in the British Museum in London.
c. 357-350 BCE: Leochares, Bryaxis, Scopas of Paros, & Timotheus: Amazon Frieze, Mausoleum of Halicarnassus [Ancient Greece, Turkey]
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (in what is now western Turkey) was built to house the tombs of Persian satraps (or governors) Mausolus and his wife-sister Artemisia. According to Pliny the Elder, Artemisia brought in Greek architects to design the structure and four Greek sculptors – Leochares, Bryaxis, Scopas of Paros and Timotheus – to carve statues and relief sculptures. The Mausoleum was completed in about 350 BCE, and may have survived into the early Middle Ages, but a series of earthquakes beginning in the 13th Century completely destroyed it. In 1402, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem used the ruins as a quarry for building the Castle of St. Peter in Bodrum. The relief program included three friezes, which would have been painted: (1) the Centauromachy, in which the Lapiths battle with the Centaurs at the wedding feast of Pirithous; (2) the Amazonomachy, which shows the journey of Herakles and Theseus to Themiskyra, where they battle with the Amazons, a race of warrior women (see images above); and (3) chariot races. The Amazon frieze, which is the best preserved of the three, is regarded for its action sequences, with many flying draperies. The frieze is now located in the British Museum in London.
c. 350-330 BCE: Praxiteles (?): Hermes and the Infant Dionysus
[Late Classical; Ancient Greece]
According to Greek myth, Zeus impregnated a mortal woman named Semele. When he revealed his divinity to her, she died of shock, but Zeus saved the unborn child by sewing it inside his thigh. When the baby – the future god Dionysus – was born, Zeus gave him to Hermes to hide from his wife Hera with the mountain nymphs. Hermes played with Dionysus while transporting him, at one point teasing the infant by holding a bunch of grapes outside his reach. This story became a favorite of Classical Greek artists. In 1877, German archaeologist Ernst Curtius was excavating the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece, when he discovered a partial marble statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus (also known as Hermes of Praxiteles or Hermes of Olympia) in excellent condition, including a massive limestone and marble base. Over the years, additional pieces of the statue have been found but most of Hermes’s right arm is missing, as are Dionysus’s arms (except for his right hand). It is presumed that the missing pieces show Hermes holding the grapes from the story, and Dionysus reaching for them. The statue, made of high quality Parian marble, stands nearly 7 ft. tall (12 ft. with the base). The front of the head and torso are highly polished, although the back and other areas seem unfinished. There is also evidence that the statue was painted and that parts were covered in gold leaf. Based on the style and a comment by writer Pausanias in the 2nd Century CE, the work has been attributed to famous sculptor Praxiteles, although many scholars dispute that conclusion. If accurate, this would be the only known original Praxiteles work. There is little question, however, that the statue exhibits many elements of the Late Classical style for which Praxiteles was known. There is a naturalism, intimacy, almost sentimentality that are absent from earlier Classical art. Hermes stands in an unbalanced, exaggerated contrapposto that is almost an S-curve and the entire composition shows a sensuousness of form and playfulness of subject that was not previously associated with portraits of the gods. The piece is now at the Archaeological Museum at Olympia, Greece.
350-330 BCE: Praxiteles: Aphrodite of Knidos (Aphrodite of Cnidus; Venus Pudica)
[Ancient Greece] marble copy
The lost statue known as Aphrodite of Knidos (or Cnidus), or Venus Pudica was considered the crowning achievement of Late Classical Greek sculptor Praxiteles. Made for a temple in the Greek city of Knidos, the marble statue was believed to be the first life-size nude female sculpture. The goddess Aphrodite has just laid her drapery aside and modestly holds her hand over her genitals as she prepares for a ritual bath that will restore her purity. The figure stands in a contrapposto pose, and the statue is designed to be viewed from all sides. Famous even in the 4th Century, the statue’s home of Knidos became a tourist destination. According to legend, a young man found the goddess of love so arousing that he broke into the temple at night and tried to copulate with her. Unfortunately, the original was destroyed in a fire about 475 CE, but not before many copies were made by Roman sculptors. Based on descriptions of the original, scholars believe that the copy most faithful to the original is the statue known as the Colonna Venus, located in the Museo Pio-Clementino (see image above). Visitors may now observe the statue in full, although during the 19th and early 20th centuries, in an excess of modesty, the Vatican covered Aphrodite’s legs.with ton draperies.
c. 340-330 BCE: Unknown Artist: The Marathon Boy (Ephebe of Marathon)
[Late Classical; Ancient Greece]
The Greek bronze sculpture known as Marathon Boy or Ephebe of Marathon was found in the Bay of Marathon in the Aegean Sea in 1925 and is now located at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. A boy, perhaps a victorious athlete or the god Hermes, stands and looks at something in his left hand, while his right hand either holds another object or leans against a column. The pose is an exaggerated contrapposto or S-curve that is reminiscent of Praxiteles and his school. The inset eyes of the 4.3 ft. tall statue add to the boy’s expressiveness.
c. 350-320 BCE: Leochares: Apollo Belvedere (Apollo of the Belvedere; Pythian Apollo) [Ancient Greece] marble copy, 120-140 CE
The original Greek bronze attributed to Leochares is lost, but a Roman marble copy of Apollo Belvedere from 120-140 CE may be seen in the Vatican’s Museo Pio-Clementino. Standing 7.3 ft. tall, the statue shows the god Apollo just after shooting an arrow (the bow is missing), possibly killing the Python, the serpent of Delphi. Scholars have praised the unusual contrapposto pose, in which Apollo is depicted both facing front and in profile, and the way in which the hanging cloak sets off the god’s physique. A missing right arm and left hand were replaced during the Renaissance by a pupil of Michelangelo’s. Strangely, the critical reputation of the piece, which was discovered in 1489, reached a peak in the 18th Century, and has been declining ever since. Nevertheless, the figure had a significant influence on other artists, including Albrecht Dürer, Antonio Canova and Jean-Francois Millet.
c. 370-310 BCE: Lysippos: The Farnese Hercules (The Farnese Herakles)
marble copy by Glykon (c. 218 CE) [Ancient Greece]
The Farnese Hercules is a marble sculpture made in the early 3rd Century CE by Glykon of Athens for the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. It is an enlarged copy of a 4th Century BCE bronze original by Lysippos, which is now lost. The sculpture shows a weary 10.3-ft.-high Hercules resting on his club, over which is draped the skin of the Nemean lion (referencing his first labor); behind his back he holds the immortality-giving apples of the Hesperides (referencing his eleventh labor, see second image). The statue was rediscovered in 1546 (in various pieces) and was soon thereafter purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who placed it in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. It remained there until 1787, when it was moved to its current home in Naples at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Many marble and bronze copies have been made, both full-sized and miniature, including some from ancient times.
c. 250 BCE: Unknown Artist: Lion Capital of Ashoka
Ashoka the Great ruled (and expanded) the Mauryan Empire, which, at its peak, encompassed almost all of what is now India and Pakistan, as well as parts of current-day Iran and Afghanistan. During Ashoka’s 36-yr. reign (268-232 BCE), he erected a series of stone pillars at important Buddhist sites. The pillars average 40-50 ft. tall and weigh up to 50 tons each. Many of the pillars contain inscribed edicts and capitals in the form of carved animals. Many of the pillars and capitals were destroyed by Muslim iconoclasts. Nineteen pillars and six animal capitals remain, including the Lion Capital of Ashoka from Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh (see image above). The Lion Capital consists of four lions standing back to back on a base with an elephant, a bull, a horse, a lion and 24-spoked chariot wheels in bas relief, atop a bell-shaped lotus. There is evidence that a Wheel of Dharma was originally placed atop the carved lions. Some scholars believe the Lion Capital shows the spread of Dharma or the Maurya Empire in all four directions. Others say it symbolizes the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The Lion Capital is the national emblem of India, and the base on which the lions are standing is depicted on the Indian flag. Including the base, the Capital stands 7 ft. tall. It is located at the Archaeological Museum in Sarnath, India.
c. 230-220 BCE: Unknown Artist: Dying Gaul (The Dying Galatian)
[Ancient Greece] marble copy
First misidentified as a Dying Gladiator, the statue now known as Dying Gaul or Dying Galatian is believed to be a 1st or 2nd Century CE Roman copy, in marble, of a Greek bronze original from 230-220 BCE. The statue commemorates the victory of Attalos I, in defense of Greeks living in Pergamon (on what is now the Turkish coast) against Celtic migrants from Gaul who settled in nearby Galatia. Measuring 3 ft. tall by 6.1 ft. long by 2.9 ft. deep, the statue shows a mortally wounded Gaul (a puncture wound is visible in his lower right chest) lying on his shield, with a sword, belt and trumpet beside him. (See first image above – photo courtesy of Jean Pol Gradmont). He is nude except for a metal neck ring, or torc. While the sculpture reminds the viewer that the Greeks were victorious, it also shows respect and compassion for the fallen adversary, who hovers between life and death. The Dying Gaul has undergone a number of revisions since its discovery at the Villa Ludovisi outside Rome in the early 1600s: the left leg has been reassembled from several pieces, for example, and the Gaul’s original long hair had broken off, leading 17th Century artists to ‘rework’ it. (See second image above. For more on the restorations, go here.) The emotional depth of the piece made it a favorite of artists and art lovers. Artists engraved and copied it, thus giving many more a chance to see it. Lord Byron commented on it in Child Harold’s Pilgrimage and Thomas Jefferson included it on a list of potential acquisitions for a planned Monticello art museum. Despite Jefferson’s dream, the Dying Gaul remains in Rome, at the Capitoline Museums.
246-208 BCE: Unknown Artists: Terracotta Army [Qin Dynasty; Xi’an, China]
The Terracotta Army consists of approximately 8,000 unique, life-size sculpted soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, 150 cavalry horses, and various pieces of armor, weapons, and non-military figures and implements (see first image above). They are part of an immense burial complex for the Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and were intended to protect the emperor in the afterlife. The archaeological treasure was discovered in 1974 by a group of farmers digging a well. Each terracotta warrior has a unique face (see second image above). Position and uniform are consistent with the rank and special skills of each soldier. The figures were constructed in separate pieces in workshops by government laborers and local craftsmen, then assembled and painted (very little of the paint remains), then arranged in the tomb according to rank and duty. Although most of the figures are made of terracotta, items such as a 1/2 life-size team of horses and chariot are made of bronze, silver and gold (see third image above).
c. 200-190 BCE: Unknown Artist: Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike of Samothrace) [Hellenist Greece]
Created in Greece during the Hellenistic period, the severely damaged depiction of the goddess Nike, or Victory, standing 8 ft. tall, was discovered in 1863 on the island of Samothrace, now a part of Greece but then belonging to the Ottoman Empire. The head and arms have never been found, but portions of the right hand were located and are on display in a separate case in the Louvre in Paris. Only the left wing is original; the right wing is a symmetrically identical version of the left, made of plaster. Scholars praise the statue for its combination of motion and stillness, and the realistic rendering of the drapery. According to one theory, the sculpture was meant to honor a sea battle and represents the goddess as she descends from the sky, hand cupped to her mouth, ready to deliver a victory shout to the fleet.
c. 180 BCE: Unknown Artists: Pergamon Altar Frieze [Ancient Greece]
The Pergamon Altar Frieze is carved in high relief around the base of the Pergamon altar, a massive structure constructed in the ancient city of Pergamon in Asia Minor (now Turkey) during the reign of King Eumenes II in the 2nd Century BCE. The altar and its friezes are among the most significant works of Hellenistic art. The largest frieze (made of Proconnesian marble and measuring 7.5 ft. tall by 370.7 ft. long) depicts the Gigantomachy, a battle between the Giants and the gods of Olympus. The first image above shows Hecate fighting Klytios, on the left, and Artemis fighting Otos, on the right. The second image shows Athena in battle. Another, smaller frieze on the inner court walls shows scenes from the life of Telephus, legendary founder of Pergamon. The altar and friezes were excavated by Carl Humann between 1878 and 1886. By arrangement with the Turkish government, he brought them to Germany, where the various fragments were restored and put on display in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
c. 200-100 BCE: Unknown Artist: The Three Graces [Hellenistic; Ancient Greece] marble copy
The Three Graces (Charites in Greek, Gratiae in Latin) – Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Abundance) – are minor goddesses who served as the handmaidens of Aphrodite. The Three Graces was a Greek sculpture created in the 2nd Century BCE depicting the Graces as nude girls, posed so that the two on the ends face one way while the one in the center, draping her arms over her companions, faces the other direction. Drapery-covered water jars frame the trio and provide support. Art experts have noted the flatness of the composition and speculate that the model for the Greek sculptor may have been a fresco or bas relief. The Greek original has been lost and is only known by Roman marble copies made in the 2nd Century CE, the most faithful of which are missing the figures’ heads and many of their arms and stand about 4 ft. tall. Despite the serious damage, the arrangement and setting of this piece set the standard for future depictions of the Graces in art through the centuries. There are 16 full-size Roman copies of the Three Graces, two of which can be found in the Piccolomini Library, which is attached to the Cathedral of Siena, Italy, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
130-100 BCE: Alexandros of Antioch: Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Milos)
[Hellenistic; Ancient Greece]
The Venus de Milo is a Greek marble sculpture of Aphrodite (Roman name Venus) made by Alexandros of Antioch in the 2nd Century BCE during the Hellenist period. It stands 6.7 ft. tall. The statue was found by a Greek peasant, Yorgos Kentrotas, and a French naval officer, Olivier Voutier, in the ruins of the ancient city of Milos on the Aegean island known variously as Milos, Melos or Milo, then part of the Ottoman Empire. At the time it was discovered, the statue was in several pieces, which included part of the left arm and the left hand holding an apple, as well as a plinth with an inscription by Alexandros. By the time the French bought the statue from the Turks and brought it to the Louvre in Paris, the arms had disappeared. Then, soon afterwards, the plinth with Alexandros’ inscription also vanished, presumably because the Hellenistic time frame was considered less prestigious than an older Greek provenance. Scholars have been searching for the missing pieces ever since.
c. 350-50 BCE: Unknown Artist: Battersea Shield [Celtic; England]
The Battersea Shield is not a shield, for two reasons. First, this bronze sheet is only a facing that would have been attached to a wooden shield. Second, even with the wooden shield behind it, this small, elaborately decorated but extremely thin bronze facing (with no visible battle damage) was almost certainly not meant to go into battle. (See first image, above.) Instead, art historians believe the Battersea Shield was designed for display and also perhaps as a votive offering. This last purpose may explain why the 2.5 ft. tall by 1.1 ft. wide Celtic artifact was dredged from the River Thames in London in 1857, since a common Celtic method of making an offering was to throw the object into the river. The shield is decorated in classic Celtic La Tène style, with many circles and spirals. The decorative elements are confined to three roundels with highly worked bronze, repoussé decoration, engraving, and enamel. Within the roundels are 27 small round compartments in raised bronze with red cloisonné enamel and opaque red glass. (See second image, above.) While the shield appears to be a single piece, it is actually composed a several different parts, with hidden rivets holding it all together. The Battersea Shield is now located in the British Museum in London.
c. 60-40 BCE: Unknown Artist: Frescoes, Villa of the Mysteries [Pompeii, Ancient Rome]
The Villa of the Mysteries is a Roman villa located near the ruins of Pompeii in southern Italy. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE covered it with many feet of volcanic ash and tufa, preserving it for future generations. When the villa was excavated in 1909, a remarkable series of frescoes was discovered in one of the rooms, the triclinium. The frescoes are nearly 10 feet tall and run around the four walls of the room for a total of 56 feet. The meaning of the frescoes is subject to debate: some scholars believe they depict the initiation of a young woman into a Dionysian cult; others say it shows marriage rituals.
c. 42-19 BCE: Agesander, Athenodoros & Polydorus: Laocoön and His Sons (Laocoön) [Ancient Greece/Ancient Rome]
According to Pliny the Elder, he observed a marble statue of Laocoön and His Sons in the home of the future emperor Titus between 70 and 79 CE that was made by Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydoros, three sculptors from the Greek island of Rhodes. In 1506, a marble statue that seemed to match the one described by Pliny was discovered in a Roman vineyard beneath the remains of the Baths of Titus. The group, which measures 6.8 ft. tall, 5.3 ft. wide and 3.7 ft. deep, shows Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents, as related in several Greek myths and the Aeneid, in punishment by pro-Greek gods for uncovering the secret of the Trojan Horse (see two views of the group in first and second images, above). The style is considered Hellenistic “Pergamene baroque” and a figure in the Pergamon Altar Frieze bears a striking similarity to the figure of Laocoön here. The sculpture had an enormous influence on the Renaissance artists who saw it, particularly in the way it depicted the suffering of the characters. Scholars disagree about the date of the piece. Some believe it is a marble copy dating to 14-37 CE of a bronze original from c. 150-140 BCE. Others believe it is an original work created some time between 50 BCE and 68 CE. Based on an unscientific survey of websites, the majority view is that it is an original sculpture made between 42 and 19 BCE. Laocoön and His Sons was purchased by the Vatican and is now at the Museo Pio-Clementino in Rome. Various restorations have been proposed over the centuries, but most changes have not been permanent. The right arms of the figures, which were missing, were replaced by replicas for certain periods. In 1540, for example, the Vatican gave Laocoon a new right arm that extended upward. In 1906, Ludwig Pollak discovered part of a marble arm in a Roman builder’s yard near the spot where the original statue was found. He gave it to the Vatican. In 1957, the Vatican’s experts finally decided that the arm, which was bent, belonged to Laocoön, so it replaced the extended arm that had been added in 1540 (see third image above showing previous pose with extended arm).
13-9 BCE: Unknown Artist: Ara Pacis Augustae Friezes [Ancient Rome]
The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace, was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 CE to commemorate the return of Emperor Augustus from military victories in Hispania and Gaul. The altar is dedicated to the goddess Peace, and sends a message that Augustus has brought a Golden Age of peace, prosperity and abundance, with a subsidiary message that the Emperor is pious and supports the state religion. The altar is surrounded by a precinct, with two long side walls and two partial front and back walls with large open entrances. Two tiers of relief sculpture friezes adorn each side of the outer precinct walls. The lower portion of the friezes on all four sides consists of spiraling vegetation in coherent patterns, along with frogs, lizards, birds and other wildlife, to show harmony in nature (see third image, above). The upper panels on the front and back (east and west) walls consist of allegorical or mythological scenes of peace and abundance, including a panel on the east wall interpreted as a goddess (possibly Peace, Italia, Tellus, or Venus) with twins amid a scene of fertility and prosperity (see first image, above). The upper friezes on the north and south walls consist of a procession of figures, possibly representing the event dedicating the altar itself. The figures in the procession are not idealized but are individual portraits of Augustus and his family, members of the Senate and members of the priestly colleges (see second image, above). There are non-Romans depicted, and also children, which was unusual in Roman art. The Ara Pacis Augustae was built in a section of Rome located on the flood plain of the Tiber River. Over the centuries, it was gradually buried under more than 12 feet of silt. The altar was rediscovered in the early 20th Century; its resurrection was used by Mussolini as a symbol of Italy’s resurgence under Fascism. A major reconstruction was undertaken to piece together the existing fragments, and sculptors were brought in to carve new reliefs where there were gaps, creating much controversy. In 2006, a new Ara Pacis Museum building was designed to protect and house the altar.
c. 150-1 BCE: Unknown Artists: Gundestrup Cauldron [Iron Age; Celtic/Thracian(?); Denmark]
The Gundestrup Cauldron is a silver Iron Age bowl 27 in. in diameter and 16.5 in. tall that was discovered in a peat bog near the town of Gundstrup, Denmark in 1891. The cauldron was in pieces when it was found; one piece of the outer layer of panels was missing and archaeologists had to decide how to assemble the remaining seven exterior panels, five interior panels and one base panel (see first image, above). The exterior panels show alternating male and female busts, along with other figures, usually animals (see second image, above). The interior panels show an assortment of scenes filled with symbols, including a man with a broken wheel, a cadre of soldiers and the killing of three bulls. One of the interior panels shows a antlered man or god holding a snake in his hand (see third image, above). The base of the cauldron depicts a large bull, two dogs and a woman holding a sword. The cauldron is made primarily of silver from France and Germany, but there are also significant amounts of gold for gilding, English tin for soldering, and Mediterranean glass for the figures’ eyes. The cauldron was constructed over a long period of time; at least three different silversmiths worked on it, using materials of differing quality. The cauldron was repaired numerous times with inferior materials prior to its discovery. Experts in the history of silverworking have declared unequivocally that the techniques used on the cauldron were not known in the Celtic world at the time the object was made, but are consistent with the sophisticated silversmithing skills of the Thracians, who lived in an area that occupied parts of present-day Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. On the other hand, the designs on the cauldron are consistent with Celtic mythology and depict Celtic helmets and a Celtic war trumpet, or carnyx. One theory is that Celts who lived near Thracians commissioned a cauldron with Celtic imagery from Thracian silversmiths, although it is not clear how the cauldron traveled to Denmark. Other archaeologists believe that the cauldron’s imagery represents a type of international mix of characters and symbols. The Gundestrup Cauldron is in the collection of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
c. 11-1 BCE: Unknown Artist: Frescoes, Villa of Agrippa Postumus [Ancient Rome; Italy]
The wealthy citizens of Ancient Rome built villas along the coast of the Bay of Naples, some of which were preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. Among the most magnificent was the villa of Agrippa, the friend and son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, in the town of Boscotrecase. In 11 BCE, Agrippa died and left the villa (also known as the Imperial Villa and the Villa of Augusta) to his infant son Agrippa Postumus, although the household was run by Julia, Agrippa’s widow. Around this time, Julia had the villa extensively renovated, which included painting numerous frescoes on the walls of the bedrooms, or cubicula. The frescoes, which were likely painted by Roman artists, are among the finest examples of the Third Style, which flourished during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) and emphasized decorative whimsy and elegant weightlessness over realism and the illusion of depth and substance. The villa was discovered in 1903 during construction of a railway line and excavations occurred until 1906 when the villa was again buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The frescoes were removed and placed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Archaeological Museum in Naples. Shown in the first image above is detail from the central panel from the north wall of Cubiculum 16, known as the ‘red room.’ The second image shows a fresco of a ceremony occurring outside a tower.
113 CE: Apollodorus of Damascus (?): Trajan’s Column [Ancient Rome]
Trajan’s Column (shown full length and in detail, above) was built to celebrate Roman Emperor Trajan’s victories over the Dacians in 101-102 CE and 105-106 CE. The column itself, which consists of 20 marble drums, each 11 feet in diameter, is 98 feet tall; with the pedestal included, it rises 125 feet from the ground. A bas relief showing the events of the Dacian Wars spirals around the column for a total of 625 feet of sculpture, with nearly 2,500 figures depicted, including 59 representations of Trajan himself with his troops. There is a spiral staircase inside the column that leads to an observation deck. In antiquity, a statue of Trajan topped the column, but it disappeared during the Medieval period. Pope Sixtus V put a bronze statue of St. Peter atop the column in 1587.
190-192 CE: Unknown Artist: Commodus as Hercules [Ancient Rome]
Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius and famously portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator, became co-emperor of Rome with his father in 177 CE until his father’s death in 180 CE, when he became sole Roman Emperor. By all accounts, Commodus was a cruel and inept ruler who overindulged in drink and sex, squandered public funds, lost territory, and pointlessly tortured or killed many of his citizens. Commodus was obsessed with Hercules, and believed he was the reincarnation of the Greek hero. For amusement, he would dress as Hercules and fight gladiators in the Colisseum, but only after his adversaries had their swords blunted. After a number of failed assassination attempts, a group managed to overthrow Commodus in 192 CE by having one of his wrestling companions strangle him in his bath at the age of 31. The new Emperor then sought to purge Rome of any sign of Commodus and his reign. One item that escaped the purge is a marble bust of Commodus as Hercules (also known as Portrait of Commodus as Hercules, and Bust of Commodus as Hercules), standing 4.4 ft. tall, which was hidden in an underground room beneath the Horti Lamiani (Lamian Gardens) complex in Rome and was discovered in 1874. The portrait shows what appears to be a hungover emperor with the traditional Herculean attributes: the skin of the Nemean lion, worn as a veil, its paws tied on his chest, the golden Hesperidean apples, and his trusty club. Beneath the bust is a complicated series of symbols: a globe with the signs of the zodiac (possible reference to important points in Commodus’s life), two cornucopiae (showing that Commodus has brought abundance), two marine Tritons (evidence that Commodus had become a god), and an Amazon shield and two Amazon warriors (only one remains) (Amazonius was one of the many names Commodus gave himself, or possibly a reference to one of Hercules’ labors – defeating the Amazons). The sculpture was designed as propaganda to create an image of the Emperor in the public’s eye. The bust is now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, part of the Museo Capitolini in Rome.
c. 500 BCE-200 CE: Seated Figures [Nok Culture, Nigeria]
The Nok culture thrived in parts of what is now Nigeria between 500 BCE and 200 CE. Among the finest Nok artistic creations were many terracotta sculptures of seated Nok figures. The sculptures were made of baked clay and covered with a layer of slip for smoothness. They were hollow and coil built. Most of the faces have triangular pierced eyes with overlapping eyelids, but every head is unique. Many of the figures have elaborately detailed hairstyles and jewelry. A number of the figures depict seated dignitaries or leaders, which are identified by the stools raising them above the ground and their downward gaze. Some examples are shown above: (1) Seated Dignitary, measuring 36.25 in. high, 11 in. wide, 14 in. deep, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota; (2) Seated Figure, measuring 14.75 in. tall, located in the Louvre/Musée du Quai Branly in Paris; (3) Seated Dignitary, measuring 2.1 ft. tall, located in the Barakat Gallery, Beverly Hills, California; (4) Seated Figure, measuring 23.4 in. tall, 12 in. wide, 11 in. deep, located in the Muzeion in Dallas, Texas.
c. 25-220 CE: Unknown Artist: Flying Horse (Galloping Horse; Flying Horse of Gansu)
[East Han Dynasty, Gansu Province, China]
An ancient Chinese legend tells of a heavenly steed that can run so fast it can fly, overtaking even the birds. A bronze sculpture of a horse found in a general’s tomb in China’s Gansu Province in 1969 and dating to the East Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) may depict this legend in three dimensions. Measuring 13.6 in. tall by 16.1 in. long, the statue shows a horse galloping through the air, angled slightly upward, letting out a joyful neigh, while one hoof treads on a swallow flying through the air. The swallow, who appears quite startled at this intruder into his airspace, also provides the base upon which the 17.6 pound statue is perfectly balanced. Scholars have noted that the horse’s legs accurately reflect their positions in a gallop. The statue is known by many names including Flying Horse, Flying Horse of Ganzu, Galloping Horse and the unwieldy but highly descriptive Bronze Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow. The Flying Horse is now located in the Gansu Provincial Museum in Lanzhou City, China.
c. 100 BCE-250 CE: Unknown Artists: Relief Sculptures, Great Stupa of Amaravati
[Buddhist Era, India]
Legend has it that the Buddha himself preached at the future site of the Amaravati Stupa in Andhra Pradesh, India in 500 BCE, but historical records only begin in the 2nd Century BCE, when Dharanikota, near Amaravati, became the capital city of Satavahana Empire, which reigned over a large portion of central India from 230 BCE to 220 CE. Work reportedly began on the stupa (a hemispherical building used to house relics and as a focus of meditation) during the reign of Mauryan King Ashoka the Great in the 3rd Century BCE, but the building was not complete until c. 200 CE. When complete, the Great Stupa was estimated to be 88.6 ft. tall and 160 ft. in diameter. The structure of the Stupa was adorned with both freestanding statues of the Buddha and relief sculptures carved into limestone slabs that depict stories from the life of the Buddha and the Jakata stories. The Amaravati sculptural style is considered unique, in part because trade with Ancient Rome gives some of the work a Greco-Roman influence. Art historians identify four separate phases of sculpture at the site: (I) 200-100 BCE; (II) 100 CE; (III) 150 CE and (IV) 200-250 CE. In the first image, above, a relief from c. 200-250 CE that was located on the drum of the stupa shows a traditional Buddhist stupa, with lions at the gateway, dharmachaka (spoked wheel) capitals on the pillars and various figures worshipping. The second image, from c. 100-150 CE, shows a relief from a pillar in the railing that surrounded the stupa, depicting the story of Queen Maya’s dream. Both reliefs are now at the British Museum in London. When Hinduism became the dominant religion in central India, the Great Stupa suffered neglect, so that when British explorers visited it in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Some of the stone had been reused in local buildings; others had been burned for lime. Many of the sculptures found their way into museums in India (especially the Government Museum in Chennai) and elsewhere, particularly the British Museum, which has about 120 Amaravati pieces in its collection.
250-260: Unknown Artist: Ludovisi Sarcophagus [Ancient Rome]
Also known as the Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus, the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus and the Via Tiburtina Sarcophagus, the Ludovisi Sarcophagus is a 5-ft. tall Roman burial container made of Proconnesian marble. The scene of Romans battling the Goths is sculpted in very high relief, with overlapping figures and many elements completely free of the background surface. The sarcophagus was discovered in 1621 and takes its name from its first modern owner, Ludovico Ludovisi. Carved at a time when the Roman Empire was in crisis, the design and details are considered unclassical or anti-classical, with highly expressive facial expressions and postures, especially among the defeated barbarians. The Ludovisi Sarcophagus is now located in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome.
c. 315 CE: Unknown Artist: Arch of Constantine [Ancient Rome]
The Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch built in 315 CE to commemorate the victory of Emperor Constantine over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. Located between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill in Rome, the marble and brick arch is 68.9 ft. tall, 84.9 ft. wide and 24.3 ft. deep. There are three archways: the center archway is 37.7 ft. high and 21.3 ft. wide; each of the two lateral archways is 24.3 ft. tall and 11.1 ft. wide. Each face of the arch is divided by four Corinthian columns made of Numidian yellow marble. The original carving on the arch, particularly the historical frieze along the tops of the lateral archways, shows a decline in artistic skill and technique since the 1st Century CE. Either to associate Constantine with good emperors of the past, or in recognition of their own inadequacy, the artists incorporated portions of other emperors’ reliefs and statues into the arch, in some cases reworking the faces of the other emperors (Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius) to resemble Constantine. (See right image above, with older roundels of Emperor Hadrian and more recent frieze below.) A bronze inscription has been lost, but the remaining spaces for the letters allow one to read the Latin statement. The inscription’s statement that Constantine was “inspired by the divine” has been interpreted by some as a politic way of referencing the emperor’s unexpected conversion to Christianity at Milvian Bridge in 312 CE.
c. 300-400 CE: Unknown Artist: Obelisk of Axum (Axum Stele) [Kingdom of Axum; Ethiopia]
The Kingdom of Axum was born in the 2nd Century BCE in present-day Ethiopia and thrived into the 10th Century CE, becaming one of the first African communities to adopt Christianity. Obelisks or stelae are found throughout the Axum territories and are believed to have been markers for underground burial chambers. Most stelae are small, but those for kings and nobles were immense and were decorated with carvings of false doors and windows and other architectural features. After the adoption of Christianity in the 4th Century CE, the Kingdom outlawed the practice of making stelae. The Axum Obelisk (also known as the Axum Stele) is made of granite, stands 79 ft. tall and weighs 176 tons (see first image, above). In addition to two false doors at the base and numerous false windows, it has a semicircular crown that was once enclosed by metal frames. The history of the stele is complex. At some point in its history, it collapsed and broke into five pieces. In 1935, when Italy conquered Ethiopia, the Italians brought the stele back to Italy as war booty and erected it in Rome. There it remained until 2005, when, after many political discussions and practical difficulties, Italy began returning the stele to Ethiopia. It was finally restored and erected at its original location in 2008. There are several other very large stela at the same site. One, known as the Great Stele, measuring 108 ft. tall, apparently collapsed as it was being erected, and still lies broken on the ground. The largest stele that has never broken is King Ezana’s Stela, at 70 ft. tall (see second image, above).
c. 465-485 CE: Unknown Artist: Buddha Preaching the Law (Preaching Buddha)
[Gupta Period, Sarnath, India]
According to Buddhist tradition, after Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, he went to the Deer Park in Sarnath, India and preached his first sermon to his first five disciples, thereby setting in motion the Wheel of the Dharma, or Dharmachakra. There are many artistic representations of the Buddha preaching the first sermon, but a sandstone Preaching Buddha in the Archaeological Museum in Sarnath is one of the most highly regarded. Dating from 465-485 CE, during the Gupta Empire, the sculpture measures 5.1 ft. tall, 2.8 ft. wide and 10.6 in. deep. The Buddha sits in front of a large Wheel of Dharma with his hands in the traditional preaching position. The carvings on either side of the Buddha include deer, thus establishing the location as the Deer Park. Below the Buddha’s crossed legs are his five disciples, along with a woman and child. Commentators have noted that this representation of the Buddha combines his compassion and spirituality with his inner bliss.
200 BCE to 500 CE: Unknown Artists: Nazca Lines [Nazca Desert; Peru]
The Monkey and Spider shown above are two of the ancient geoglyphs found over a 190 sq. mi. area in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru. The monkey is 310 ft. by 190 ft.; the spider is 150 ft. long. In addition to 70 depictions of animals and plants, the artists drew 300 geometric figures and over 800 straight lines. The designs were made by removing the reddish iron oxide coated pebbles from the ground, uncovering the lighter lime-filled clay beneath, which combines with mist to form a hard layer that resists erosion. Although some of the shapes can be made out from nearby hills, the full effect of the figures can only be obtained from the air. The purpose of the lines is unclear: some of the lines may mark the rising and setting of the sun and other heavenly bodies; others may have been designed to communicate with gods living in the sky, to designate paths to places of worship or to plead with the gods for water. Erich von Daniken’s theory that the lines were formed by alien astronauts has been thoroughly debunked.
c. 500 CE: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Vishnu Temple (Dashavatara Temple; Gupta Temple) [Gupta Period; Deogarh, India]
One of the first stone temples of Hinduism, the Vishnu Temple was built about 500 CE, during the Gupta Empire. Statues and relief sculptures all feature the god Vishnu or stories related to his life. The first image above shows the relief sculptures on the southern temple wall, in which Vishnu reclines on the many-headed serpent Shesha (Ananta). At Vishnu’s feet are his consort Lakshmi and her attendants. Below them are Madhu and Kaitabha, two demons, whose attack is about to be thwarted by Vishnu’s four personified weapons. The second image shows reliefs from over the temple doorway, in which Vishnu is sitting on the serpent’s coils with its many hoods overhead, with Lakshmi at Vishnu’s feet and flanked by two of his incarnations. The third image above shows the elephant god Ganesh. The fourth image shows the northern temple wall, which shows the story of Vishnu saving Gajendra the elephant from a crocodile.
c. 527-548 CE: Unknown Artist: Mosaics, Basilica of San Vitale [Byzantine; Ravenna, Italy]
The Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy is one of the few Byzantine churches that has survived to the present essentially unchanged. Built from 527-548 CE, while Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths, St. Vitale contains some of the finest mosaics outside Istanbul. The artistic style is in the Hellenistic-Roman tradition, which includes bright colors, some perspective and vivid depictions of plants, birds and landscapes. The program of mosaics includes numerous Bible stories and figures, angels, plants, birds and other animals. The presbytery vault (see left image above) contains a mosaic of Jesus, robed in purple, sitting on a blue globe and handing the crown of martyrdom to St. Vitale. On a side wall of the apse is a mosaic of Roman Emperor Justinian I and a retinue carrying the traditional gifts for a religious procession (see right image above). To the right of Justinian are clergy, including Bishop Maximian, to whom the Basilica was dedicated. To the left are administration officials and soldiers. The message seems to be that the Emperor is head of church and state. The halo around Justinian’s head and the number of his retinue (12 – same as the Apostles of Christ) indicate an even closer connection between the Emperor and the deity. A nearby mosaic shows Empress Theodora, looking like a goddess, and her retinue.
c. 525-550 CE: Unknown Artist: The Barberini Ivory [Late Antiquity; Turkey]
The Barberini Ivory, which is in the Louvre in Paris, measures 13 in. tall by 11 in. wide and is made of elephant ivory and precious stones, most of which are lost. There is no evidence that it was painted. Some believe it was one of two panels in an imperial diptych made in Constantinople in the second quarter of the 6th Century. The ivory, which was carved in the style known as Late Theodosian, consists of five rectangular panels fitted together in a larger panel using tongue and groove joints (see first image, above). The central panel shows a victorious Byzantine emperor, probably Justinian but possibly Anastasius I or Zeno, riding a horse and carrying a spear (see second image, above). To the emperor’s left is a conquered barbarian, being held back by the spear; below him is an allegorical figure holding his foot in submission; on his upper right is an angel crowning him with a (now missing) palm. The top panel shows Jesus flanked by two angels, while the bottom panel depicts barbarians (from the West, on the left, and the East, on the right) bringing tribute, including ivory tusks, a tiger and an elephant. The left panel shows a soldier with a victory statuette. The right panel is lost. The Barberini Ivory, which is named after a Cardinal who received it as a gift, probably celebrates a Byzantine military victory over the Persians (in 506 or 532) or the Carthaginians (in 534). The presence of Christ’s image shows a shift in Christian iconography, in which previously portrayed Jesus with a symbol such as the cross.
c. 550-599 CE: Unknown Artist: Rossano Gospels (Codex Purpureus Rossanensis) [Byzantine; Syria/Italy (?)]
The Rossano Gospels are considered to be the earliest known illuminated manuscripts of Christian New Testament writings. Written in Greek, the existing pages (188 out of an estimated 400, part of which could be a missing second volume) contain the Gospel of Matthew, most of the Gospel of Mark and a portion of a letter regarding the concordance of the gospels. The pages of parchment, measuring 11.8 in. high by 9.8 in. wide, are dyed purple, hence the Latin name Codex Purpureus Rossanensis. The text is written in two columns of 20 lines each; the first three lines of each gospel are written in gold ink, with the remainder in silver. The 15 illuminated pages have been placed at the beginning of the manuscript instead of integrated with the text, as in later manuscripts. Twelve of the illuminated pages depict episodes from the life of Christ (including Christ before Pilate, shown in the first image above), often with the evangelists pictured on the bottom half of the page. One of the illuminated pages shows the four evangelists in a circle of concordance. Another is a portrait of Mark the Evangelist, with an angel (shown in the second image above). The portrait of St. Mark is believed to be the first known evangelist portrait, although at least one scholar believes it is a later insertion. The exact date of the Gospels is disputed, with a majority of scholars dating it to the 6th Century CE. Some experts believe it must have been written in Italy after the Byzantine Empire reconquered the Italian peninsula from the Ostrogoths in 553 CE. Some believe it was produced in Syria or Palestine and brought to Italy later, perhaps by someone escaping the waves of art-destroying iconoclasm that swept the Byzantine church from 726-787 and 814-842. The Rossano Gospels are now located in the Diocesan Museum of the Archepiscopal Palace in Rossano, Italy.
c. 550-600 CE: Unknown Artist: Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels [Byzantine, Egypt]
Nestled at the base of Mt. Sinai in the Egyptian desert lies St. Catherine’s Monastery, home to many rare religious icons and illustrated manuscripts, including the 6th Century icon Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels. These works of art exist because St. Catherine’s isolation allowed it to escape persecution and repeated waves of iconoclasm over the centuries. Like all icons, Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels, also known as Virgin and Child with Angels and Sts. George and Theodore; and Virgin and Child Enthroned, was not intended to be a work of art but a focus of worship. The icon, which measures 2.2 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide, was made in the last half of the 6th Century using encaustic, in which the artist added colored pigments to heated beeswax, which he then poured onto prepared wood and manipulated with a special brush. Two soldier saints (George and Theodore), feet planted firmly on the ground and staring blankly forward, flank the Virgin Mary, who holds the baby Jesus on her lap. Behind them, two other angels, with near transparent haloes, stare in awe at the hand of God reaching down from heaven, sending a shaft of holy light onto Mary and her son, who look off to the right, failing to meet our gaze. According to one scholar, the viewer is drawn first to the soldiers, the most ordinary, then to the central Virgin and Jesus, and up to the second set of angels, who direct the gaze to the hand of God, thus showing the believer the path to salvation.
c. 650 CE: Unknown Artist: Descent of the Ganges (Arjuna’s Penance)
[Pallava Dynasty; Mahabalipuram, India]
At Mahabalipuram in India, an enormous bas relief (96 ft. wide by 43 ft. high) is carved on two boulders of pink granite separated by a fissure. The carving includes over 100 figures, many of them life size, representing humans, animals, Hindu gods and other mythological figures. The reliefs were made during the reign of Narasimhavarman I of the Pallava Dynasty, who ruled from 630-668 CE. Many scholars believe the sculptures depict the story of the descent of the holy river Ganges at the order of Shiva, with Bhagiratha leading the way. In the second image, above, an emaciated Bhagiratha is shown doing penance outside his hermitage. As evidence for the Descent of the Ganges interpretation, the remains of a cistern have been found atop the fissure that was used to create a waterfall effect. The third image above shows a serpent deity carved into the fissure. Others believe the carvings tell the story of Arjuna, one of the major protagonists of the Mahabharata, performing a penance in order to obtain a weapon called the Pashupatastra from Lord Shiva. Some have even posited that both legends are included on the boulders.
c. 650-699 CE: Yan Liben: The Thirteen Emperors Scroll [Tang Dynasty; China]
In 7th Century China, painters and other artists were held in low regard socially. Yan Liben was an aristocrat and a government official specializing in architectural matters who served in the administrations of two Tang Dynasty emperors (Taizong and his son Gaozong). To Yan’s shame, however, it was his hobby of painting that made him famous at court. His most acclaimed painting, The Thirteen Emperors Scroll, covers 700 years of Chinese history through portraits of pre-Tang emperors beginning with the Emperor Zhao Di, from the Western Han Dynasty, who reigned from c. 86-74 BCE, to Emperor Yang Di, of the Sui Dynasty, who reigned from 605-617 CE. The sequence is chronological from right to left except for the 7th, 8th and 9th emperors. Each emperor is presented in a separate scene with his entourage (but with no background, which was felt to be distracting) in dignified poses that emphasize their imperial status. The scroll is made of silk and measures 1.7 ft. tall by 17.4 ft. long; it is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston but is not currently on display. The images shown above are: (1) Liu Bei, Emperor Zhaolie Di, Shu Han Dynasty (reigned 221-223 CE); (2) (left) Chen Bozong, Emperor Fei Di, Chen Dynasty (reigned 566-568 CE); (right) Cao Pi, Emperor Wen Di, Wei Dynasty (reigned 221-226 CE); (3) Yang Jian, Emperor Wen Di, Sui Dynasty (reigned 581-604 CE); (4) Chen Shubao, Emperor Xuan Di, Chen Dynasty (reigned 569-582 CE).
691 CE: Unknown Artist: Mosaics, Dome of the Rock [Islamic; Jerusalem]
The Dome of the Rock is an Islamic religious building that sits atop one of the most sacred and most disputed sites on earth. According to Jewish and Christian tradition, it was here, on the highest spot in old Jerusalem, that Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, and where King Solomon built the second Temple, the hub of Judaism for centuries (the same Temple from which Jesus chased out the moneylenders), until the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE. To Muslims, the site meant all the foregoing and more, for according to Islamic tradition, it was from this spot that an angel led the prophet Mohammed up into heaven, where he met Jesus and Moses and saw God. As part of their wave of conquests in the early 7th Century, Muslim armies captured this spot and all of Jerusalem in 637 CE. Fifty years later, Umayyad Caliph Abd-al-Malik ordered a shrine to be built around the holy rock at the top of the hill; historians estimate that construction of the magnificent golden-domed structure, which was based on a Byzantine model, took place between 688 and 692 CE. The decoration of the Dome on the Rock, as the shrine came to be known, consisted of multicolored mosaics made of glazed ceramic tiles. According to tradition (based in part on Islamic teachings), the designs do not include animals or human figures. Instead, the mosaics include numerous plant designs as well as inanimate objects such as vessels, crowns and jewels. Experts have noted the influence of both Byzantine mosaic technique and vegetal motifs and also Persian/Sasanian iconography, such as winged crowns. The mosaics are noted for their variety and the artist’s willingness to have the designs run counter to the underlying structure of the architecture. According to two scholars, Dome of the Rock mosaics demonstrate both the “non-realistic use of realistic shapes” and the “anti-naturalistic combination of naturalistic forms.” R. Ettinghausen & O. Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250 28-34 (Yale Univ. Press 1994), quoted at http://thehope.tripod.com/domerock.htm. In 1099, Christian Crusaders captured Jerusalem and converted the Dome on the Rock into a church. Then, in 1187, Saladin won back Jerusalem for Islam. In the 16th Century, when Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent engaged in a series of renovations to the Dome on the Rock, including adding to or restoring much of the tilework. Much of the tilework on the outside of the building was replaced with Ottoman-style tiles from Iznik (see third image above, showing Ottoman-era exterior mosaics). As for the interior, there is little evidence to indicate which mosaics are original 9th Century tiles and which were added or replaced in the 16th Century. Scholars who have studied the mosaics believe that, in the interior at least, the restoration did not significantly change the designs or patterns, but mostly replaced broken or missing tiles (see first and second images above, showing interior mosaics). The next major renovations occurred in 1955-1964, sponsored by Jordan. In 1967, to complicate matters, Israel captured the hilltop and for a short time flew the flag of Israel over the Dome of the Rock. The shrine is now cared for by the Islamic community.
c. 700-715 CE: Eadfrith of Lindisfarne: Lindisfarne Gospels [Hiberno-Saxon; England]
The illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels was produced in a monastery on Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland in the UK. Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 until his death in 721, is presumed to be the artist. The book, which measures 14.4 inches high and 10.8 inches wide, was originally encased in a leather binding covered with jewels and precious metals made by Billfrith the Anchorite, but this treasure was looted by the Vikings sometime after their first raid in 793. The original Latin text is written using insular majuscule script and the art is considered an early and prime example of the insular or Hiberno-Saxon art of the British Isles in the post-Roman period. In the 10th Century, Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street, inserted a word-for-word Old English translation between the lines of the Latin text and a short history of the book, noting that it was made in honor of 7th Century St. Cuthbert, an earlier Bishop of Lindisfarne. The style of the illuminations incorporates Christian and pre-Christian imagery, including Celtic, Germanic and Irish artistic traditions. Each Gospel is introduced by a portrait of the evangelist – the portrait page of St. Matthew is shown in the second image above. St. Matthew’s cross-carpet page (folio 26v), with its cross surrounded by swirling knots and spirals, is shown in the first image above. The Lindisfarne Gospels is now located in the British Library in London.
705-715 CE: Unknown Artist: Mosaics, Great Mosque of Damascus (Umayyad Mosque)
The Great Mosque of Damascus, or Umayyad Mosque, was built between 705-715 CE on the site of a Christian cathedral. After being conquered by Alexander the Great and then the Romans, Damascus became a Christian city during the Byzantine era, until Muslim Arabs under Khalid ibn al-Walid captured the city in 634-635 CE. When the Umayyad Caliphate began in 661, the Umayyads made Damascus the capital of the Islamic world. The sixth Umayyad caliph, al-Walid I (who reigned from 705-715) decided to build a mosque in Damascus that would accommodate the full congregation for Friday prayers. He enlisted builders and artists from the entire region. The interior and exterior of the mosque were decorated with elaborate mosaics. In addition to the geometric designs familiar from the Dome of the Rock, which had been built just a few years earlier, al-Walid’s mosaics depicted fanciful landscapes and architecture: trees, flowers, rivers, castles, houses, gardens and fountains. In keeping with Islamic tradition, no mosaics depicted men, women or animals of any kind. Not long after the completion of the Great Mosque, the Umayyad Caliphate came to an end, and their successors in the Abbasid Caliphate ignored the mosque. It was not until the 11th Century, under the Seljuk Turks, that the neglected mosque received much-needed renovations. Two centuries later, the Mamluks conducted extensive renovations, with a particular focus on restoring the mosaics. Unfortunately, the mosque was damaged by serious fires in 1339, 1400 and, most recently, 1893. While some of the original 715 CE mosaics still exist, many of the designs are restorations of varying quality. (First image: interior mosaics; second image: exterior mosaics.)
c. 100-800 CE: Unknown Artists: Portrait Vessels [Moche; Peru]
The Moche culture that flourished in present-day Peru between 100-800 CE produced ceramic vessels carved into individualized and naturalistic three-dimensional representations of human faces, known as Moche Portrait Vessels. Close to 1000 vessels have been discovered, representing nine basic mold types. The vast majority of the portraits are of adult men; they occasionally portray physical defects such as harelips, missing eyes, or in one case, an apparent paralysis. These are the earliest realistic depictions of human faces in the Americas. Although most of the vessels portray the head of the subject, some include the entire body. Many of the portrait vessels contain stirrup spouts, a feature of ceramic vessels in a number of Pre-Columbian cultures. The handle, which resembles a stirrup, forms part of the spout for the vessel. Most of the vessels are 6-12 in. tall. The smallest vessel is just over two inches tall while the largest is just under 18 inches high. The typical portrait vessel is painted with red on a pale cream background, but some are painted with white over a red and black background. The purpose of these elaborately decorated vessels is a subject of debate. While some experts believe they were designed to be placed in tombs, there is evidence that they were used in everyday life to hold liquids. The four portrait vessels shown above are:
(1) Portrait of a Ruler wearing headgear with two birds, Museo Nacional Antropologia in Lima, Peru;
(2) Portrait Vessel measuring 8.3 in. tall, 6.5 in. wide and 5.5 in. deep, c. 50-800 CE, at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland;
(3) Portrait Vessel, showing earflares, c. 100-500 CE, Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts; and
(4) Portrait Vessel of a Ruler, c. 100 BCE-500 CE, Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.
c. 100-800 CE: Unknown Artists: Ear Ornaments [Moche Culture; Peru]
The Moche civilization thrived in the Andean mountains of present-day Peru from 100-800 CE. Wearing ear ornaments known as earflares or earplugs was a way for the rich and powerful to distinguish themselves. Wealthy or high ranking individuals could afford elaborately decorated ornaments made of gold and decorated with mosaics using precious stones. A long tube, often of wood, would be inserted into the ear to anchor the ornaments, which could be quite large. The ear ornament in the first image, showing a warrior or god and two attendants, is made of gold and turquoise and dates to c. 300 CE. It measures 4.75 in. in diameter and is located in the Bruning Archaeological Museum in Lambayeque, Peru. The pair of ear ornaments in the second image, showing a geometrical pattern of iquanas, is made of gold with turquoise and malachite shells and is in the Museo Larco in Lima, Peru. Each earring is 3 in. across and the pair is dated from 100-800 CE. The third image, of a pair of gold and turquoise earrings with the image of a deer, is also in the Larco Museum and is also dated from 100-800 CE.
c. 800 CE: Unknown Artist: The Book of Kells [Celtic Christian; Insular Art; England/Ireland]
The Book of Kells is an illustrated manuscript containing the four Christian Gospels and other writings. The book, which measures 13 in. high by 10 in. wide, was created in one or more of the English and Irish monasteries founded by St. Colomba, probably Iona, in England, and then Kells, in Ireland, where it remained until the mid-17th Century, when it was moved to Dublin and eventually to the library of Trinity College. The artist’s finest achievements are the initial pages, in which the first letter of the Gospel is elaborated into a world of figures and designs (such as with the beginning of the Gospel of John, shown in the first image above), and the 10 surviving full-page illuminations, such as Christ Enthroned (see second image, above). The Book of Kells is considered the most extravagant and complex example of Insular Art. All 680 pages are viewable online HERE.
c. 800-820 CE: Unknown Artist: The Aachen Gospels [Carolingian, Germany]
The Aachen Gospels is an illuminated manuscript in the Carolingian style from 800-820 CE. Scholars believe it was made by a member of the Ada School, which produced at least nine other illuminated manuscripts, including the late 8th Century Vienna Coronation Gospels. The gospels are part of the treasury of the Aachen Cathedral in Aachen, Germany and are sometimes known as the Treasury Gospels. The book, which measures 11.9 in. tall by 9.2 in. wide, consists of 280 parchment leaves, which contain the texts of the four Gospels as well as supplementary material. The writing is Carolingian minuscule and there is significant architectural decoration, with some Classical elements. From an artistic point of view, the Aachen Gospels are known primarily for a full-page miniature – the only one in the book – of the four Evangelists. The portrayal is considered unusual for placing the four saints in a single landscape with hills, a horizon, trees and a pink sky. In a Classical reference, they are wearing togas as each engages in a different activity (Matthew writing; Mark dipping his pen in ink; Luke reading; and John thinking). The artist has organized the landscape so that each evangelist has his own space and appears to be working alone, but the overall composition creates the sense that the four gospel writers are engaged in a single project, serving a single purpose.
c. 815-825 CE: Unknown Artist: Animal Head Post, Oseberg Viking Ship Burial
[Viking Age; Norway]
In 1904, archaeologists discovered an intact Viking burial ship under a mound of earth in Oseberg, Norway. The ship, which dates to the early 9th Century, contained two women’s bodies and a significant amount of grave objects. Among the objects were five wooden posts carved into the heads of animals. They have slots for handles indicating they were carried. They may have had some magical or religious significance. The post shown in the first and second images, above, shows the 5 in. tall head of a roaring animal (perhaps a lion) with protruding eyes, while the intricate carving shows tightly interwoven animals in an interlacing serpentine pattern. The post is in the Viking Ship Museum, at the University of Oslo, Bygdoy, Norway.
c. 800-825 CE: Unknown Artists: Relief Sculptures, Temple of Borobudur
[Buddhist; Sailendra Dynasty; Java, Indonesia]
Borobudur is a Mahayana Buddhist temple built in the 9th Century CE during the Sailendra Dynasty on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia. It was abandoned some time after the 11th Century and rediscovered in 1814 during the British occupation of Java. In addition to the magnificent architecture and statuary, the temple walls contain 2,672 panels of bas relief carvings, covering a total of 27,000 square feet. There are 1,460 narrative and 1,212 decorative panels. The narrative panels tell the story of Sudhana and Manohara, from the Avatamsaka Sutra, as well as the life of the Buddha (see first image, above), including his past lives. The panels also depict various aspects of daily life in Java. The second image above, for example, shows an 8th Century wooden double outrigger sailing ship used in trade.
c. 816-835 CE: Unknown Artist: Ebbo Gospels [Carolingian; France]
The Ebbo Gospels is an illuminated manuscript that was produced at the Benedictine abbey at Hautvillers, France in th 9th Century. The book, which measures 10 in. tall by 8 in. Wide, draws its name from a poem to Ebbo, the Archbishop of Rheims, that is printed in the manuscript. The book contains a number of illuminated pages, including portraits of the Evangelists. The unknown artist has drawn the figures in an energetic style (sometimes called the shivering style) in agitated poses, which generates a level of emotion new to Carolingian art. As a result of these innovations, the Ebbo Gospels became very influential. The figure of St. Matthew, in particular, is considered a masterpiece (see first image, above). He writes with one hand while the other holds an ink horn, and tiny angel hovers in the upper right corner. The pinks and greens of the portrait are new colors for Carolingian art. See also the portrait of St. Mark in the second image, above. The figures and landscapes have been influenced by the Late Classical style, which may have come to France from Greek artists fleeing Byzantine iconoclasm, but the frenzied energy and emotion are new. Scholars have remarked that many of the images in the Ebbo Gospels appear to be based on illustrations in the Utrecht Psalter, another 9th Century manuscript. The Ebbo Gospels are now in the Bibliothèque Municipale at Épernay, France.
300-869 CE: Unknown Artists: Relief Sculptures and Murals, Tikal [Maya; Guatemala]
Tikal was a major Mayan city in what is now northern Guatemala. The Mayans built dozens of limestone structures, including enormous temples and pyramids, over a period from 4th Century BCE to 900 CE, although the city reached its peak between 200 and 900 CE. Throughout the temples and other structures, the Mayans carved relief sculptures, with or without hieroglyphics, on limestone walls, lintels made of sapodilla wood, and standing stones called stelae. They also painted colorful murals on some of the walls. The images shown above are: (1) a large stucco mask of a god installed on a platform of Temple 33, flanking a stairway; and (2) a wooden lintel from Temple IV showing Tikal ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil seated on a litter, in celebration of a military victory.
c. 875-925 CE: Unknown Artist: High Cross of Muiredach (Muiredach’s High Cross)
[Celtic Christian; Ireland]
The High Cross of Muiredach is one of three tall Celtic crosses located at ruins of the Monasterboice monastery, in County Louth, Ireland. Made of several blocks of sandstone, the cross is 19 ft. high (including the base). The base is an attenuated pyramid measuring 2.2 ft. tall by 4.7 ft wide at the bottom and 3.6 ft. wide at the top. The 6 ft. tall shaft is 2.1 ft. wide and 1.7 ft. deep at the bottom and tapers somewhat at the top. The top stone, or capstone, is shaped like a house with a sloping roof. All four sides of the cross are divided into panels with carvings, usually with Biblical themes, but also some geometric and abstract patterns. The central panel on the west face depicts The Crucifixion (see first image above), while the central panel on the east face of the cross shows The Last Judgment (see second image above). The carvings include 124 figures, who generally wear contemporary clothing and hairstyles. The ring surrounding the head of the cross contains 17 different geometric or abstract patterns. The cross gets its name from a Gaelic inscription at the bottom of the west face that reads, “A prayer for Muiredach who had this cross made.”
1000-1001: Ibn al-Bawwab (Ali ibn Hilal): Illustrated Qur’an [Buyid Dynasty, Persia; Iraq]
The Persian illuminator and calligrapher known as Ibn al-Bawwab (‘son of the doorkeeper’) was born Ali ibn Hilal in the late 10th Century during the Buyid Dynasty, probably in Baghdad. Despite his humble beginnings, Ibn al-Bawwab studied law and memorized the Qur’an. His interest in calligraphy was inspired by the work of early 10th Century calligrapher Ibn Muqla, who had originated the al-khatt al-mansub (“well-proportioned script”) style. Ibn al-Bawwab went on to perfect the style. He also contributed to the development of a number of early cursive scripts. Ibn al-Bawwab was said to have made 64 copies of the Qur-an during his lifetime (he died in 1022), but only one has survived intact. It is kept in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland, and dates to 1000-1001. The images of the Qur’an in the Chester Beatty Library shown above are: (1) illuminated frontispiece pages and (2) calligraphy, as well as some illuminated medallions in the margin of Chapter 28.
c. 1000-1020: Fan Kuan: Travellers among Mountains and Streams (Travelers By Streams and Mountains) [Song Dynasty; China]
Chinese landscape painter Fan Kuan, who lived during the Song Dynasty, is best known for Travellers Among Mountains and Streams (also known as Travelers by Streams and Mountains) (see first image above), a hanging scroll made using ink and color on silk and measuring 6.75 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide. Little is known about Fan, who spent much of his life as a recluse in the mountains of Shanxi. His love for the mountains, and his Neo-Confucian belief that nature is the source of absolute truth, is evident in this work. The scale of the painting gives the viewer a sense of the immensity of nature, which dwarfs the human elements, including men leading a pack of mules out of a wood, and a temple in the forest on the cliff (see detail of painting in second image, above). Yet Fan also manages to capture the way that all these parts fit together to form a harmonious whole. Scholars have noted a paradox in the style of the Travellers Among Mountains and Streams: on the one hand, it is a seminal work that established an ideal in monumental landscape painting to which others aspired; on the other hand, Fan Kuan’s composition, which relies on a central massive element, and his mechanical brush strokes used for the foliage are archaic techniques that look backward instead of breaking new ground. The scroll is now in the National Palace Museum, in Taipei, Taiwan.
c. 1072: Guo Xi: Early Spring [Northern Song Dynasty; China]
Guo Xi was a master 11th Century Chinese painter and highly-educated court professional. He wrote an influential treatise on painting entitled ‘The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams’ and developed a new system of brushstrokes that was adopted by many succeeding painters. His masterpiece, Early Spring (1072), is a monumental landscape, the most common type of painting in the Northern Song dynasty (see first image, above). Guo used ink and color on a silk hanging scroll measuring 5.2 ft. tall by 3.5 ft. wide; he signed and dated the work, which was very unusual. Although at first, the painting appears to contain only trees, water, clouds, rocks and various land formations, on closer inspection, the landscape reveals not only a temple and several other buildings, but also various human figures (see detail in second image above). Early Spring is an example of Guo’s innovative technique known as floating perspective (or as Guo called it, “the angle of totality”), which allows the artist to present multiple visual viewpoints simultaneously. In 1759, Emperor Qianlong added a poem to the upper right portion of the painting, with verses describing the scene below.
c. 1075: Unknown Artist: Bayeux Tapestry [Norman Romanesque; UK]
Not a true tapestry, but an embroidered cloth 224 ft. long and 1.6 ft. tall, the Bayeaux Tapestry contains an illustrated narrative telling the story of the Norman Conquest of England and events leading up to it. The tapestry consists of nine linen panels with fifty scenes, each with a caption in Latin, embroidered with colored woolen yarns on a linen cloth. The final portion has been lost. Although legend attributes the tapestry to French artists, scholars now believe that skilled Anglo-Saxon seamsters made the work in England in the 1070s. It was probably commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo, Earl of Kent and founder of the Bayeaux Cathedral in Normandy, where the tapestry was first mentioned in a 1476 inventory. In addition to historical scenes involving William, Duke of Normandy, Harold, Earl of Wessex (later King) and King Edward the Confessor, the tapestry includes the first depiction of a harrow, a newly-invented farm implement, and the first image of Halley’s Comet, which appeared in March/April 1066. The images above show: (1) King Edward meeting with his brother-in-law Harold in 1064 at Westminster Palace; and (2) Harold crossing the Channel to Normandy. A Victorian replica of the tapestry, with explanatory narrative, may be viewed online HERE. The original Bayeux Tapestry is on display at the Centre Guillaume le Conquerant in Bayeux, France.
c. 1100-1130: Unknown Artist: Our Lady of Vladimir
[Byzantine; Comnenian Period; Constantinople]
The Virgin of Vladimir is a religious icon that was probably painted in Constantinople about 1130. It has been in Russia since 1131 and is venerated by the Russian Orthodox Church as the protectress of Russia. The icon is of the Eleusa type, in which the infant Jesus nestles tenderly against his mother’s cheek. It was sent to the town of Vladimir by Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky and the Assumption Church was built to house it. The icon came to Moscow in 1480. Over the years, the icon, painted with tempera on wood and measuring 40.9 in. tall by 27.2 in. wide has suffered serious damage, including fires in 1195 and 1238. Much of the painting of the clothing is from restorations in the 13th, 15th and 16th centuries. The icon has been copied many times over the centuries and is one of the few that survive from the early 12th Century. Many legends have grown up around the icon, which is also known as Virgin of Vladimir, Theotokos of Vladimir, Vladimir Mother of God, and Our Lady of Vyshhorod. It is now in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Shown above: (1) the original icon; (2) a possible copy; and (3) detail of a possible copy.
c. 1135: Master Hugo: The Bury Bible [Romanesque; Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England]
Master Hugo was a 12th Century lay English artist, possibly the first professional artist in English history, who spent most of his career at the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk County, England. He illuminated the first (and possibly the second) volume of the Bury Bible in about 1135, in the Romanesque style. Only the first volume of the Bible, containing the Old Testament through the Book of Job, survives. The Bury Bible , measuring 20 in. tall by 14 in. wide, had a powerful influence on English art. Scholars see the color patterns, Byzantine draperies and the haunted eyes and expressive gestures of some of the figures as evidence of a new style drawing from the art of southern Italy, Cyprus, Byzantium and possibly Palestine. The first image above contains two scenes of the life of Moses. The second image is the frontispiece for the Bible with the opening initial. The Bury Bible is in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, England. The entire Bible may be viewed HERE.
1120-1140: Fujiwara no Takayoshi (attrib.): The Tale of Genji Scroll (Genji Monogatari Emaki) [Heian Period; Japan]
The Tale of Genji Scroll (also known as Genji Monogatari Emaki) is a 12th Century illustrated version of The Tale of Genji, which was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in 1021. It is the oldest surviving story scroll and the oldest surviving non-Buddhist scroll in Japan. Although the scroll has traditionally been attributed to Court painter Fujiwara no Takayoshi, scholars now believe that the work is not his, although artists connected with Takayoshi are believed to have been involved. Scholars estimate that the original scroll was 450 ft. long, with 20 rolls, over 100 paintings and more than 300 sheets of calligraphy. Only about 15% of the original work survives: 19 paintings, 65 sheets of text and 9 pages of fragments are divided between the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya and the Gotoh Museum in Tokyo. The style of the scroll derives from the Classical Japanese tradition known as Yamato-e and not from the Chinese-influenced styles that we’re becoming popular at the time. The artists used the technique of tsukuri-e (“manufactured painting), which involves four steps: (1) select scenes from the story with visual effects; (2) draw the scene in black and white; (3) add color to the drawing and add colored details; and (4) re-draw the black outlines from the original design. The artists of the Tale of Genji Scroll frequently used two pictorial techniques: (1) fukinki yatai, or ‘blown-away roof’, which gives the viewer a bird’s eye view of the scene, from an upper diagonal perspective, with roofs and ceilings invisible; and (2) hikime kagibana or ‘slit eyes and hook nose’, a method of drawing human faces so they look almost exactly alike, and are seen in full or partial (30% angle) profile, never in full frontal view. Despite the strictures of hikime kagibana, the artist(s) manage to express a great deal of emotion by altering the size and shape of the characters’ feature and the tilt of their heads or by using inanimate objects symbolically. Shown above are four images from the Tale of Genji Scroll: (1) (2) Chapter 39, Evening Mist (Gotoh Museum); (2) Chapter 45, Mistletoe (Tokugawa Art Museum); and (3) Chapter 36, Oak Tree (Tokugawa Art Museum).
1181: Nicholas of Verdun: Verdun Altar (Klosterneuburg Altarpiece)
French goldsmith and enamelllist Nicholas of Verdun was a master of Romanesque art and the major exponent of Mosan Art, a regional subgenre of Romanesque from the Meuse valley in what is now Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Later in his career, Nicholas began to incorporate aspects of Classical art into his work, aiding the transition from Romanesque to Gothic style. Nicholas of Verdun is perhaps best known for the Verdun Altar, in the Chapel of St. Leopold, in the Klosterneuburg Monastery in Austria. The altar consists of 45 (some say 51) decorative copper panels with Biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments, which Nicholas made in 1181 using the champlevé enamel technique. There is some confusion about when the panels were arranged and assembled into a winged three-part altarpiece seen in the first image above. While some believe that Nicholas of Verdun organized the Biblical scenes into a triptych, other authorities claim this did not occur until 1331. If this is true, it is not clear how the panels were displayed in the intervening two centuries. The panels shown above are: (2) Jonah and the Whale and Samson and the Lion; (3) Spies Return from the Valley of Eskkola and (4) the Pentecost.
c. 1153-1186: Unknown Artist: Reclining Buddha, Gal Vihara
[Kingdom of Polonnaruwa; Sri Lanka]
During the 12th Century, King Parakramabahu I built the Gal Vihara temple at Polonnaruwa, in north-central Sri Lanka. The temple features four Buddhas carved deeply into a single granite rock face: two seated, one standing and one reclining. These sculptures are considered some of the finest examples of ancient Sinhalese art. The Reclining Buddha is the largest of the four figures, measuring 46.3 ft. long (see first image above). It shows the Buddha in the lion posture as he attains parinirvana, or final nirvana, at the moment of death. He lies on his right side with his right arm supporting his head on a pillow and his left arm resting on his body (see detail in second image, with standing Buddha). Lotus flowers are carved on his right palm and the soles of his feet. The Buddha’s left foot is withdrawn slightly to indicate that he is not merely resting.
c. 950-1200: Unknown Artist: Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance (Shiva as Lord of the Dance, Nataraja) [Chola Dynasty, India]
Images of the Hindu god Shiva dancing are found in India as early as 5th Century CE, but it was during the Chola Dynasty (c. 860-1279) that the classical iconography developed. Ancient Sanskrit writings tell the story of Shiva dancing as Nataraja in Chidambaram, the golden hall in the center of the universe, for the other gods. In his dance, Shiva shows with movements his power to create and destroy. In his lower right hand he holds the damaru, a drum whose vibrations created the world; in his upper right hand, he makes the abhaya gesture, which protects, preserves and removes fear; his upper left hand holds the fire of destruction, or agni, his right foot tramples apasmara purusha, the personification of illusion; he lifts his left leg and points to it with the gaja hasta gesture, to show it is a refuge for troubled souls. Surrounding the dancing Shiva is a flaming halo. The Shiva Nataraja iconography was propagated through many bronze statues produced in the state of Tamil Nadu during the Chola Dynasty and are often referred to as Chola Bronzes. Many such icons are located in temples and museums throughout the world. Most were made small enough to carry. The largest Chola bronze, dating from 1100-1200, is located at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and measures 5 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. wide (see first image above). More typical is Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Chola bronze statue from the 11th Century, measuring 26.9 in. tall by 22.2 in. wide (see second image above). One variation to the basic design is a non-circular halo that tapers at the base, as in the Shiva Nataraja in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a Chola Dynasty bronze dating from 950-1000 CE and measuring 30 in. tall by 22.5 in. wide (see third image, above).
c. 1190-1200: Jōkei: Guardians, Kofuku-ji Temple (Nio)
[Kei School; Kamakura Period; Nara, Japan]
The entrance to Buddhist temples is traditionally protected by two Buddha guardians, or Nio, who are among the few beings in the pacifist Buddhist tradition that can use physical force. The two Nio are Ungyo, who is always shown with his mouth closed (see first and third images above) and Agyo, shown with an open mouth (see second and fourth images above). The Nio are usually depicted in demonstrative postures with angry, intimidating expressions and gestures. The Nio at the entrance to the Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara, Japan were sculpted by Jokei, a member of the Kei school, during the Kamamura Period. Jokei was a student of Kokei and Unkei, and followed their belief in realism. The musculature of the two Nio, especially the Agyo, is very carefully carved. Both figures are carved of wood and, are painted in bright colors; each one stands about 5 ft. tall.
c. 1190-1200: Ma Yuan: Bare Willows and Distant Mountains (Bare Willows and Distant Hills) [Song Dynasty; China]
Chinese artist Ma Yuan was born into a family of painters and like his father and grandfather before him, he became a painter at court of the emperor. Ma Yuan served Southern Song Dynasty Emperors Guangzong (reigned 1189-1194) and Ningzong (reigned 1194-1224). Emperor Ningzong admired Ma’s work so much that he wrote several poems inspired by the artist’s paintings. Although Ma was adept at a number of types of painting, he excelled in landscapes. With another painter he founded the Ma-Xia school. One of the principles of Ma-Xia was one-corner composition, in which the major elements of the painting are collected on one side or in one corner, while the remainder of the picture were left mostly empty. This philosophy earned Ma Yuan the sobriquet ‘One-corner Ma.’ A popular fashion in Song Dynasty art was the painting of fans. Ma Yuan painted Bare Willows and Distant Mountains on a silk fan measuring 9.4 in. by 9.5 in. using ink and color, which was then mounted on an album leaf (see first image above). A verse couplet is written on the right side of the fan. The painting on the fan is a landscape, with the mountains and willow tree balancing each other. In the lower right corner, a traveler approaches some huts (see deta in second image, above). In keeping with Ma-Xia principles, the landscape is idealized and rendered poetic, eliminating all unnecessary elements. Bare Willow and Distant Mountains is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, although it is not currently on display.
c. 1185-1206: Kosho: Kuya Preaching (The Sage Kuya, Saint Kuya) [Kamakura Period; Japan]
Kuya-Shonin was a 10th Century Japanese itinerant Buddhist priest who founded the Rokuharamitsuji temple in Kyoto in 951 CE. Kuya pioneered a new way of practicing Buddhism that would become known as Jodo, or New Land. According to this philosophy, one could achieve rebirth in the New Land through faith and by reciting the name of Amida, the celestial Buddha, using a six-syllable phrase called the nembutsu: “Namu Amida Butsu.” Two hundred years after Kuya’s death, one of the great sculptors of the Kamakura Period, Kosho, created his portrait in wood. Standing 3.8 ft. tall, Kuya Preaching was originally painted and had inset crystal eyes. He is sculpted in a realistic style – even his veins are visible. Dressed as a pilgrim, he wears wrinkled peasant’s clothing and straw sandals and carries an antler-topped staff and a gong with a stick to strike it (see first and second images above). Most importantly, however, Kosho depicts Kuya in the act of reciting the nembutsu, as symbolized by the six tiny Amidas emerging from his mouth (see third image, above). The statue is kept in the Rokuharamitsuji temple in Kyoto that Kuya-Shonin himself founded over a thousand years ago.
c. 1185-1215: Unknown Artist: Head of Jayavarman VII [Bayon; Khmer; Cambodia]
Jayavarman VII was king of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia from 1181 to 1218. One of the first Buddhist kings in Cambodia, Jayavarman VII adopted the Mahayana form of Buddhism as the state religion. A sandstone bust of the king (see image above) from the late 12th or early 13th Century was carved in the Bayon style, which adopted a more naturalistic approach than in the idealized portraits of previous eras. The king is shown here in middle age, with some fleshiness in his face, humbly meditating with downcast eyes and what has been called the Angkor smile. The sculpture measures 16.5 in tall by 9.8 in. wide by 12.2 in. deep and is now in the Musée Guimet in Paris.
c. 1145-1220: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Chartres Cathedral
[French Gothic; Chartres, France]
Chartres Cathedral (also known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Chartres) is a Roman Catholic cathedral located in Chartres, France. Begun in the Romanesque style in 1145, the cathedral was reconstructed in the French Gothic style after an 1194 fire, with most of the work completed between 1194 and 1220. Religious sculptures and carvings decorating the west, north and south entrances (also called portals or porches) each address separate theological subjects. The carvings in the west, known as the Royal Portals (which may have survived from the pre-1194 structure), focus on the nature of Jesus. The north entrance celebrates the Old Testament and Christ’s immediate ancestors, while the south entrance relates the history of the Catholic Church since Christ’s death. During the French Revolution, anti-clerical protesters destroyed some of the sculptures on the north porch, before being stopped by local townspeople; a plan by Revolutionaries to dynamite the cathedral was derailed by an architect who noted the resulting rubble would block the streets for months. The images of Chartres’ relief sculptures shown above are: (1) the central tympanum of the Royal Portal, on the west façade, showing Christ in majesty at the Second Coming/Last Judgment; (2) the tympanum of the central portal of the north transept, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin (Glorification of Mary) and other scenes; (2) door jamb statues showing the Visitation; and (4) fanciful sculptures from beneath jamb statues.
c. 1200-1235: Unknown Artist: Stained Glass, Chartres Cathedral
[French Gothic; Chartres, France]
There are 176 windows in Chartres Cathedral, and every one of them is filled with stained glass. This decision by the designers of the church has resulted in a darker than usual interior (in other churches, some windows are filled with clear glass, which improves lighting inside but detracts from the effect of the stained glass), but has produced the most spectacular collection of stained glass ever seen. For much of the cathedral’s history, the multicolored light filtering through these stained glass windows was the primary light source for the interior. Despite weather, wars and revolutions, 152 of the original 176 windows are still intact. Construction of Chartres Cathedral took place in 1145, but a fire in 1194 destroyed much of the older building and required an almost complete reconstruction during the early 13th Century. The majority of the stained glass windows visible today were made and installed between 1200 and 1235, but four lancet windows contain stained glass from c. 1145-1160, including three windows underneath the rose window in the west facade: the Passion window to the south, the Infancy of Christ window in the center and the Tree of Jesse window to the north. The fourth pre-1194 window is known as The Blue Virgin, in the south ambulatory. The subjects depicted in these windows include stories from the Old and New Testament, the lives of the saints as well as typological cycles, signs of the zodiac, labors of the months and other symbols. In addition to the many tall, thin lancet windows, there are three large circular rose windows in the cathedral. The images shown above are: (1) The north transept rose window (34.4 ft. in diameter), which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the center (the oculus) sit the Virgin and Child, who are surrounded by 12 small oval windows, four of them depicting doves symbolizing the four gifts of the spirit, and the rest showing angels with candles. (2) Detail from the Good Samaritan window, a typological lancet window, in which God warns Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. (3) A portion of a lancet window (29.6 ft. high by 7.3 ft. wide) containing scenes of the life of Charlemagne, who reputedly brought a relic to the cathedral. (4) Detail from a clerestory window depicting the burial of St. Mary by Zosimus, with help from a lion.
1220-1240: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Amiens Cathedral [High Gothic; France]
Amiens Cathedral in Amiens, France, also known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens, is a 13th Century French Gothic structure that is home to an enormous array of relief sculptures. The three portals in the western façade of the cathedral were designed and carved between 1220 and 1240 in a simplified version of the Antique Revival style. The central portal presents the Last Judgment (see first and second images, above). The north portal celebrates locally-important saints, particularly St. Firmin (see third image above), while the south portal focuses on the Virgin Mary. The tympanum shows Mary’s death, assumption into heaven and coronation (see fourth image above). Other sculpture on the west façade includes a large number of quatrefoils in groups that highlight certain topics, such as the Prophets (see image five, showing Obadiah feeding the prophets hiding from Jezebel). Higher up on the western façade are larger than life size sculptures of 22 kings beneath the rose window (see sixth image above). Researchers have discovered that the west façade was once painted in multiple colors. Through sophisticated technology, it is possible to project the colors onto the cathedral to approximate what it would have looked like with the painting in place. The south transept portal also has impressive relief sculptures from 1240-1260 with scenes from the life of St. Honoré.
1255-1260: Nicola Pisano: Pulpit, Pisa Baptistry [Byzantine/Proto-Renaissance; Italy]
The marble pulpit in the Pisa Baptistry by Italian sculptor Nicola Pisano is considered one of the precursors of the Renaissance, particularly in its incorporation of Classical Greco-Roman elements into the Gothic style. The heavily carved pulpit stands 15.25 ft. high on seven marble columns, three of which rest on lions (see first image above). The octagonal base of the center column shows lions vanquishing prey. The columns are topped with Corinthian capitals, which in turn form the bases for deep relief sculptures of personified virtues, prophets and evangelists. Fortitude (second image, above) is represented by a nude Hercules, a Classical figure in a posture that might be described as proto-contrapposto. Between the columns are Gothic trefoil arches. The uppermost register consists of a hexagonal series of relief panels, separated by small columns, that represent episodes from the life of Jesus (see third image above, showing the Annunciation and Nativity and fourth image, showing The Adoration of the Magi). These scenes recall the crowded carvings on Roman sarcophagi, which Nicola had studied.
c. 1280-1290: Cimabue: Santa Trinita Maestà (Madonna Enthroned; Madonna and Child Enthroned with Eight Angels, Santa Trinita Madonna) [Byzantine/Proto-Renaissance; Italy]
Born as Cenni Di Pepi in Florence in about 1240, Cimabue was a key figure in the transition from Byzantine artistic styles to those of the Renaissance. The altarpiece Cimabue painted for the main altar of the Santa Trinita Church, which is known as Santa Trinita Maestà, Madonna Enthroned, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Eight Angels, and Santa Trinita Madonna, shows the Virgin Mary on a throne with the infant Jesus on her lap, surrounded by eight angels. Although the work is considered part of the Byzantine tradition, Cimabue takes steps toward a more naturalistic approach, such as softer expressions on the faces of the figures, that would blossom in the work of his pupil Giotto di Bondone. In the Santa Trinita Maestà, which was painted with tempera on wood panel measuring 12.7 ft. tall by 7.3 ft. wide, Cimabue retained many characteristics of Byzantine art, including figures that lack volume and solidity, a composition that lacks depth and consistent perspective, an abundance of gold, stylized faces and elongated noses and fingers. Unlike Giotto, Cimabue relies on line instead of modeling to define shapes. Cimabue is moving beyond the Byzantine tradition in creating a sense of depth through the architecture. The space beneath the throne from which the four prophets peer at us seems to have real dimensions. The Madonna’s right foot, resting on (and extending beyond) the throne’s step possesses a hint of three dimensionality. The Santa Trinita Madonna is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
c. 1211-1305: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Reims Cathedral
[French Gothic; Reims, France]
The place where France crowned its kings, Reims Cathedral (also known as Notre-Dame de Reims) was built in the French Gothic style primarily between 1211-1275, although some work continued into the early 14th Century. The exterior and interior of the cathedral are covered with hundreds of relief sculptures of religious figures and subjects, with some of the statues almost completely detached from the substrate. As one scholar observed, the sculpture of Reims Cathedral is not mere ornamentation but is integral to the architectural composition. Because the construction extended over such a long period, and because sculptors from different schools and cities were employed, the sculptures present a wide variety of styles. Shown above are: (1) the Coronation of the Virgin, in the central portal of the west façade; (4) a portion of the gallery of French kings, with Clovis being baptized in the center, was carved in the early 14th Century in the upper level of the façade, above the rose window; (2) two jamb statues from the west façade‘s central portal shows the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary and one of Reims’ famous smiling angels, carved in the style of the Remois Workshop, from c. 1245-1250; (3) a depiction of the damned (including clergy) entering Hell’s cauldron, from the Last Judgment in the south portal of the west façade. German artillery shelled the cathedral in September 1914, causing significant damage, but after years of restoration work, the cathedral’s doors opened again in 1938. In 2011, the people of Reims celebrated the cathedral’s 800th birthday.
c. 1305: Giotto (Giotto di Bondone): Frescoes, Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel)
[Proto-Renaissance; Padua, Italy]
Italian banker Enrico Scrovegni, like most 14th Century Christians who loaned money in return for interest, was concerned about his salvation. The Bible contained a proscription against usury, and for many centuries the only people willing to lend money were non-Christians. By the early 14th Century, Christians had begun to enter the banking business, but with anxiety. Years earlier, Dante had assigned Enrico Scrovegni’s banker father Reginaldo Scrovegni to the Seventh Circle of Hell in his Inferno. When Enrico Scrovegni built a new family palace in Padua, he made sure that a private family chapel was attached. Because the chapel was built on the site of a former Roman arena, it is sometime referred to as the Arena Chapel. Scrovegni commissioned Proto-Renaissance Italian artist Giotto di Bondone (known as Giotto) to paint frescoes on the chapel walls, which were completed by the dedication of the chapel on March 25, 1305. Giotto painted a series of 37 frescoes – most of them 6.5 feet square – on the chapel walls. Most of the frescoes depict scenes from the life of Christ and the life of Mary, while Giotto painted a larger fresco of the Last Judgment for the wall above the entrance, and various other images throughout the room (see first image, above). The fresco technique requires the artist to mix pigments with wet plaster and work quickly on a section of wall before the plaster dries, and the borders of the sections are visible on each fresco. The Scrovegni Chapel frescoes mark the beginning of the new, humanistic style that would blossom in the Renaissance. Giotto is breaking away from the flat, stylized representations of Medieval and Gothic art by infusing the scenes with more emotional intensity, drawing figures with greater solidity, and constructing more naturalistic environments for the characters. In the Kiss of Judas (second image above), part of the Life of Christ cycle, Giotto presents not the kiss but the tense face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and Judas, while soldiers rush in and the apostles fight back in a frenzy of action. Giotto marshals every detail – lighting, expressions, gestures, even the folds of their clothes – to heighten the drama. In the Lamentation of Christ, another panel from the Life of Christ cycle (third image above), note the way the line of the rock wall leads the viewer’s eye to Christ’s face; the emotional expressions on the faces of the mourners, including the angels; and the inclusion of figures with their backs turned to us – a realistic detail that anchors the composition. On the west wall of the chapel, Giotto painted an immense Last Judgment fresco representing Jesus sitting in judgment over the souls of the saved and the damned and measuring 32.8 ft. tall by 27.6 ft. wide (see fourth image above). Although the chapel was privately-owned, the Scrovegnis allowed it to be used as a public worship space on certain occasions, such as the Feast of the Annunciation. It is clear that Scrovegni hoped that the chapel and its religious art would help him overcome the sin of usury and achieve salvation. To emphasize the point, Giotto painted a likeness of Enrico Scrovegni in The Last Judgment fresco, showing him offering a model of the chapel to the Virgin Mary.
1308-1311: Duccio (Duccio di Buoninsegna): Maestà Altarpiece
[Byzantine/Proto-Renaissance; Siena, Italy]
Duccio di Buoninsegna painted the Maestà Altarpiece for the city of Siena. The original piece, made with tempera and gold on wood panels measuring 15.4 ft. high by 16.4 ft. wide, contained paintings on the front and rear that indicated a step away from Gothic and Byzantine styles and toward a more realistic representation of people and things. The front consisted of the large Madonna and Child with saints and angels at center (see first and second images above), with a predella containing scenes from Christ’s childhood and additional portraits and scenes above. The rear contained 43 small scenes showing the Life of Christ and Life of the Virgin (see third and fourth images above). Unfortunately, in 1711, the altarpiece was dismantled and sawed into pieces, which were distributed to various locations. In 1956, an attempt was made to bring all the extant pieces back together in Siena’s Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, but it was only partially successful. Portions of the altarpiece may be found in museums around the world.
1333-1335: Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi: St. Ansanus Altarpiece (The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus) [International Gothic; Italy]
Known by various names (e.g. St. Ansanus Altarpiece; The Annunciation; The Annunciation with Two Saints; The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus), this Gothic altarpiece from the early 14th Century was painted by Simone Martini and his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi using tempera, gold leaf and lapis lazuli on wood panel for the St. Ansanus side altar in the Siena Cathedral. Measuring 8.6 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide, the Annunciation scene in the central panel is praised for its realism and symbolic detail, from the dove amidst a mandorla of angels, to Angel Gabriel’s cloak, still whirling from his flight, and the olive branch he carries, and Mary’s arabesque gown, startled expression and reading book. The St. Ansanus Altarpiece is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
c. 1337-1340: Ambrogio Lorenzetti: The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government (Good and Bad Government) [International Gothic/Proto-Renaissance; Siena, Italy]
In the early 14th Century, the City of Siena commissioned Ambrogio Lorenzetti to decorate the walls of the room where the leaders of the city-state met (known variously as the Sala della Pace, or Room of Peace, the Sala dei Nove, the Salon of Nine, or the Council Room), which was located in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s city hall, with allegorical frescoes on the topic of good and bad government. Lorenzetti painted three frescoes: (1) the Allegory of Good Government, on the north wall (see first image above); (2) the Effects of Good Government on the City and the Country (sometimes called Peace), on the west wall (see second image – City – and third image – Countryside, above); and (3) the Allegory of Bad Government its Effects on the City and the Country (sometimes called War), on the east wall (see fourth image above). Each fresco is 25.3 ft. tall, and combined, the three frescoes are 47.2 ft. long. The paintings, which are unusual in their secular subject matter, are considered masterworks of the early Renaissance. Lorenzetti, who was strongly influenced by Simone Martini, combines Byzantine and Classical forms in an original way, with more naturalism than his mentor. Scholars believe he studied the art of classical antiquity. The frescoes include experiments with perspective (for example, Lorenzetti makes an effort to reduce the size of figures that are intended to be farther away from the viewer) and to portray physiognomy realistically. Lorenzetti’s depictions of places and figures combine idealization and realism. For example, scholars have noted that the depiction of Siena in the Effects of Good Government on the City is accurate in parts, and fanciful in others. Some experts believe the frescoes contain a second narrative involving the children of the gods for whom the planets are named; this theme may explain the dancers in the center of the City, who may be interpreted as the children of Venus. With regard to perspective, experts have pointed out that the perspective of the Allegory of Good Government appears to be a mistake, unless one assumes that the scene is being perceived from the point of view of the figure of Justice. For the Bad Government fresco, Lorenzetti unsettles viewers by requiring them to read the narrative from right to left. This fresco, which was originally on an exterior wall, has suffered considerable moisture damage.
1348-1350: Huang Gongwang: Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (Song/Yuan Dynasty; China)
Song Dynasty painter Huang Gongwang (1269-1354) was one of the Four Yuan Masters, a group of Chinese painters who espoused literati painting, which focused on individual expression and learning rather than immediate visual appeal. As one of the older Yuan masters, Huang was also strongly influenced by the artists of the Five Dynasties period. Huang’s greatest surviving masterpiece is Dwelling in the Funchun Mountains, a landscape scroll originally measuring 1 ft. high by 22.7 ft. long, made with monochrome ink using the wash painting technique. The painting was highly regarded by later generations, but it was nearly destroyed in 1650 when its then-owner, Wu Hongyu, tried to burn it on his deathbed. A family member intervened, but not before the painting was separated into two pieces, one, the first part of the painting, is 1.7 ft. long and is referred to as The Remaining Mountain (see first image, above). It is now in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in Hangzhou. The larger portion of the scroll is 20.9 ft. long and is known as The Master Wuyong Scroll. (The second image above shows the entire Master Wuyong scroll. The third image shows a portion of the scroll, and the fourth image shows detail of a portion of the scroll.) It is located in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The two pieces were briefly reunited in 2011 in Taipei. The scroll depicts an idealized view of the Fuchun Mountains where Huang lived, with river scenery, marshes, mountains and hills, as well as human elements such as houses. In rendering the landscape elements, Huang has reduced the buildings, plants and geographical formations to their most basic forms. Huang first laid out the composition using light ink, then finished by successively applying darker and drier brushwork. During this phase, he sometimes altered shapes, strengthened lines and added texture strokes or groups of trees. He also applied brush dots as abstract accents. Huang Gongwang completed Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains at the age of 82.
1372: Ni Zan: The Rongxi Studio [Yuan/Early Ming Dynasty; China]
Along with Huang Gongwang, Ni Zan was one of the Four Great Masters of the Yuan and a proponent of literati painting. He painted The Rongxi Studio, a paper handscroll measuring 3.1 ft. tall by 1.4 ft. wide, in 1372 at the age of 71 (see first image, above). The name of the piece comes from the name of the residence of Zhong-ren, a physician who received the painting as a gift from Ni Zan’s friend Bo-xuan in 1374 and asked Ni Zan to inscribe it. Like all of Ni Zan’s later landscapes, The Rongxi Studio, in which a sparse landscape is viewed from above, with trees in the foreground, defies many traditional concepts of Chinese landscape painting. The monochrome landscape is nearly barren, with little human presence but a lonely hut (see second image, above). Large areas of the paper are untouched. Yet, in the literati tradition, the landscape conveys personal emotions – perhaps loneliness, or a sense of peace and quiet. Experts have noted Ni Zan’s dry, refined brushwork and his careful build up of tonal variations in the trees. They have observed that Ni appears to have used an upright brush more than a slanted one, and that in modeling rocks, he used broken hemp-fiber strokes more often than washes. The Rongxi Studio is in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.
1377-1382: Jean Bondol (Hennequin of Bruges), Nicolas Bataille, & Robert Poinçon: Apocalypse Tapestry [French Gothic; Angers, France]
When Louis I, Duke of Anjou, saw an illustrated manuscript given to his brother, Charles V of France, he decided to commission something bigger and better: a huge tapestry containing an illustrated version of the Book of Revelation (also known as the Book of the Apocalpyse), the final book of the Bible, which is attributed to St. John the Evangelist. The book tells the story of the end of the world, in which demons, devils and dragons wreak havoc on the population until Jesus Christ returns to vanquish the evildoers and bring the Last Judgment to mankind. Various versions of the story had been circulating throughout Medieval Europe and were very popular among the Christian populace during those times of war, plague and famine. Louis asked Flemish artist Hennequin de Bruges (also known as Jean Bondol) to design and sketch the scenes and he hired Parisians Nicolas Bataille and Robert Poinçon to weave the massive tapestry using wool, silk, silver and gold. The entire process took only seven years and was completed in 1382. The finished product was 436 feet long in six 78-foot sections and 20 feet high. The Apocalypse Tapestry originally contained 90 separate scenes. In the first image above, an angel blows a trumpet, opening one of the seals of the Apocalypse and causing a shipwreck. The artists included political commentary in the piece: in the second image above, the many-headed lion (the Beast of the Sea) receives the fleur-de-lis (symbol of France) from the many-headed dragon (the False Prophet), a reference to England’s domination of France during the 100 Years’ War. The depiction of Death as a skeleton-headed corpse (see third image above) was an innovation in French religious iconography. The Duke and his family displayed the tapestry for about a century. In 1480, they donated it to Angers Cathedral, where it remained until the French Revolution. Anti-clerical protesters looted the tapestry, cut it up and used the pieces for flooring, to protect orange trees from frost and to fill holes in walls. In 1848, clerics began collecting the surviving fragments, which were returned to the cathedral in 1870. The reconstructed Apocalypse Tapestry is now 328 feet long; of the original 90 scenes, 71 have been found. The front has faded, but it is entirely reversible and the back side still has vibrant color. The tapesty is on display in the Musée de la Tapisserie in the Château d’Angers in Angers, France.
c. 1395-1399: Unknown Artist: The Wilton Diptych [International Gothic; UK]
Painted in the International Gothic style using egg tempera and gold leaf on panels of Baltic oak wood, the Wilton Diptych (named for Wilton House, where it was kept for many years) contains four separate paintings: two on the interior and two on the exterior. Each painting is 20.9 in. tall and 14.6 in. wide; the interior, more complex, scenes are better preserved than the simpler figures on the outer panels. Many factors lead to the conclusion that this diptych was painted for English king Richard II, who reigned from 1377 to 1399. The interior left panel shows King Richard, in a vermilion and gold cloak with his emblems of the white stag and rosemary, kneeling in prayer (see first image above). Standing next to him are two English kings who became saints (Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor) and John the Baptist, Richard’s patron saint. (The presence of the three kings on the left worshiping Christ may allude to the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, which was Richard’s birthday.) Following Richard’s gaze, we look to the right panel, where Mary holds Jesus, and 11 angels surround them in a flowery meadow (see first image). Jesus blesses Richard, and an angel draws his attention to the pennant with the English flag and a tiny globe with a castle on an island in a silver seal. Interestingly, all the angels wear Richard’s white stag emblem, as if they are part of his entourage. The unusual number of the angels – 11 – may refer to Richard’s age when he ascended to the throne. The extensive use of expensive pigments such as lapis lazuli for the blue pigment of the garments in the right panel and vermilion on the left for Richard’s robe shows that no expense was spared to make this small object with both religious and political overtones. The outer panels show a white stag with a crown around its neck and a chain on one side, and coats of arms of Richard and other English kings, on the other (see second image above). The existence of the Wilton Diptych, which is now in the National Gallery in London, is considered remarkable considering that few religious images survived a campaign of iconoclasm by the Puritans in the 17th Century.
To see Art History 101, Part II (1400-1599), go here.