The Greek Classical Artistic Tradition Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Greek Classical Era on Christian Art

The fifth century B.C.E. initiated a new philosophy in Greek art. While before this era, Greek representations of the human form tended to be static and relatively stylized (much like Egyptian art), the Classical era exhibited a notable break with previous artistic images. Representations of the human form became much more realistic. Knowledge of anatomy combined with an ideology that celebrated and idealized the human form (while still keeping it recognizably human) characterized the style of this era, as can be seen in one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Tomb of Mausolus (Asia Minor, 359-351 B.C.E.). One famous relief on the Tomb depicts Greek warriors and Amazon women in combat. Both the soldiers and the women are intricately detailed in terms of the folds of their clothing and musculature. Both sides are also perfectly proportioned and while all look recognizably human, the male and female warriors represent the pinnacle of athletic perfection. Their faces are, however, more emotional than some examples of earlier Classical art. The women and men who are facing defeat show despair, not simply calm passivity. Classicalism was notable for its "idealized realism," even in dress, "in which body forms were often more regular than in life, and heads, except for monsters like centaurs, seem passionless, calm" (Boardman).

Thus there is a marked difference between the Early and Late Classical styles. "The Early Classical, sometimes called the Severe Style," as in the case of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia depict figures that "are mainly lifelike" but are more stylized (Boardman). The later the art, the more "deliberate attempts at depiction of emotion in faces and of different ages in rendering of bodies" which became even more notable during the Hellenistic period of sculpture that followed the Classical era (Boardman).

Classical Roman art was heavily influenced by Classical Greek art and many of the surviving images of ancient Greek works are in fact Roman replicas. However, in the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) the "Imperial Procession" portion of the frieze (13-9 B.C.E.) shows the beginning of a distinct new style. Although the images of the triumphant Imperial family are similar to that of the monumental works of the Greek past, there also is more subtlety and humanizing of the figures. "Some figures are speaking to each other, one figure (possibly Augustus' sister) holds a finger to her lips and calls for silence whilst elsewhere some children look decidedly bored with one small child pulling the toga of an adult in order to be picked up" (Cartwright). Thus there is "animation and individuality of the figures" as well as a sense of humor even though the images presented are characterized by idealized classical perfection (Cartwright).

Once again, the influence of the emotionalism and idiosyncrasies of the Hellenistic period are blended with classicism. "Interestingly, although Augustus is present in the scene, the emperor is actually not so easy to pick out, which is in great contrast to later Imperial sculpture where the emperor of the time is very much the focal point of the monument." (Cartwright). This greater realism may have been reflective of the chosen ideology Augustus wished to project: while he was the first emperor to be deified and held absolute power, he also wished to stress the extent to which he embodied classically humble Roman values and his status as a family man.

The rise of the Christian faith in the Roman Empire did not initially bring about a notable change in the ways in which artistic representations were depicted. This can be seen in the depiction of the Archangel Michael on an ivory plaque from Constantinople in the early sixth century. The plaque depicts Michael similar in style to a Classical winged victory, incorporating pagan symbolism into Christian iconography. "The archangel's flowing drapery, which reveals the body's shape, the delicately incised wings, and the facial type and coiffure are other indications that the artist who carved the ivory was working within the traditions of classical art" (Kleiner 92). Victory was traditionally depicted as a woman, not a man, holding a palm branch; Michael is obviously male and holds a royal scepter with the image of a crucifix and a staff. "The Christian artist adopted a pagan motif and imbued it...
...The reasons for this may be simply due to the fact that pagan images and symbolism were familiar to the artist and to the likely viewers. There could also be a more conscious desire to shift viewers' associations from pagan to Christian images. Artists naturally wanted to "draw from a set of rich artistic paradigms when they set out to depict their stories and beliefs in decorative contexts. This often led to the assimilation of well-established pagan artistic styles and images into early Christian art" (Yeomans). "As emerging underdogs in a nation with a long and well-established artistic tradition, those same artisans and craftsman who were now creating art in a Christian context naturally turned to images and styles that were familiar to them" (Yeomans). In contrast to how Christ is portrayed in iconography today, he was often shown to resemble a beardless Apollo in early Christian art, or Orpheus (the famous lyre player that went into the world of the dead to bring back his beloved Eurydice) (Yeomans).

However, there were also signs in this work of a shift in the way the human form was viewed. In contrast to Classical images, there is a disproportionate contrast between the angel's size and that of the background: the angel dwarfs the architecture, suggesting his greater significance in reference to the mundane and material world. "The Byzantine rejected the goal of most classical artists: to render the three-dimensional world in convincing and consistent fashion and to people that world with fully modeled figures rooted firmly on the ground" (Kleiner 92). The "spatial ambiguities" suggest a shift to the grotesque in Gothic architecture, which strove to distance art from the material world by highlighting ugliness rather than beauty (Kleiner 92).

This shift in tone could be seen even more dramatically in the development of what came to be known as the Romanesque style, or a fusion of traditional classical and Roman design. "It was during this period that the Christian church donned the role of the militant leader. It was the duty of the church to fight the dark powers on earth until the end of the world as described in Revelations. The art, architecture, and furnishings of the church all reflected this viewpoint -- most characteristically, the sculptures" ("Art of the Crusades Era"). The notion of Christian empire coalesced in a fusion of pagan and Byzantine style and a shift away from a desire to represent individual images of humanity which had characterized art from antiquity. "The portrait was virtually non-existent throughout both the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Artists would work from a conventional figure and add insignias of office such as a scepter or a crown for a king, sometimes writing the names beneath the drawing" ("Art of the Crusades Era").

There was a focus on symbolism and patterns and artists remained largely anonymous. "Artists widely used the conventional figure or symbol. They would work from patterns" ("Art of the Crusades Era"). The focus was on stylization and replication versus uniqueness. In illuminated manuscripts there was a lack of "imitation of natural form in these manuscripts" and instead a focus on symbols which "allowed the artists to depict the stories without illustrating actual scenes from them" ("Art of the Crusades Era"). The focus on symbolism and the grotesque can be seen in the form of the prophet trumeau figure in the Saint-Pierre Moissac of this period. The prophet, identified as Jerimiah, is distorted and elongated. "His position below the apparition of Christ" shows an anachronistic but commonplace fusing of Old and New Testament themes that frequently began to be exhibited during this period (Kleiner 318). More and more works of art focused upon drawing connections between Hebrew and Christian scriptures, versus pagan images during this era. Although this is not specifically an illumination, the influence of illumination in works of art can be clearly seen. "The flowing lines of drapery folds ultimately derive from manuscript illumination and here play gracefully around the elegant figure" (Kleiner 318). But although the figure is described as elegant, it is a dramatic departure from any attempts to render figures in a remotely realistic fashion. Further contributing to the surreal quality of the image are six interlaced framing lions which are depicted in an equally elongated manner (Kleiner 318). The lion, of course, was historically associated with Christ and the illustrator was eager to make this symbolic association in the mind of the observer; their shape also suggests an illumination of the sides of the prophet's image much like a manuscript illumination, further underlining the similarities between word and image during this period.

The Romanesque marked a departure from the Classical style and the…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

"Art of the Crusades Era." University of Michigan. 8 Dec 1997. Web 28 Dec 2015.

Boardman, John. "The Classical period (5th - 4th century BC)." Classical Art Research Centre.

Oxford University. 26 Oct 2012. Web 28 Dec 2015.

Cartwright, Mark. "Ara Pacis Augustae." The Ancient History Encyclopedia. Web 28 Dec 2015.

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