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Figural Art in West & Central Asia

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever stood before a towering golden Buddha? Or seen the delicate images in an illustrated manuscript from ancient Istanbul? Both portray human figures but in very different ways. In this lesson, we'll explore more about the figural art of West and Central Asia.

Figural Art: An Ancient Tradition

Peoples in West and Central Asia have been making art for thousands of years, and the human figure is among the subjects they've portrayed. But rules for how and under what conditions have changed with social and religious upheavals. We'll look at examples that illustrate these differences.

First, let's review geography. For this lesson, West Asia includes the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant (countries such as Syria, Jordan and present-day Israel that border the Mediterranean), Anatolia (the area around present-day Turkey), and Greater Iran, known as Persia in the ancient world. Central Asia includes most of Inner Asia and the areas within the Himalayas. It's a broad region of diverse cultures but what connects these distinct places is their location along the fabled Silk Route that connected the western world with China and India.

Religion and Art

Figural images are common in the ancient art of West and Central Asia. In successive ancient powers, regional art included figures and conveyed glorious acts of war and bravery. The Assyrian kingdom, in present-day Iraq, rose to power in the 25th century BC and collapsed around 612 BC. Assyrian art was was known for detailed views of kings and warriors. Many were of massive size and mounted on palaces. The figures were usually in profile (from the side) and portrayed as frozen larger-than-life reflections of power. Hair and faces are the same on each figure. You would never mistake them for renderings of real people.

Assyrian Relief carving
Assyrian relief carving

Much the same was true of the Sasanian Empire in Persia, where massive reliefs adorned official buildings and were carved into mountains. Hunting and wars were common scenes. There's more movement, and more figures, but they are still in profile and formulaic--none of them look like individual people with real personalities.

Sasanian Persian Hunting Scene
Persian Hunting Scene

Then, the development of two religions fundamentally changed how the human figure was portrayed. In Central Asia, the rise of Buddhism around the 6th century BC saw the figure incorporated into the heart of religious images. Artists portrayed deities such as Buddha and other religious figures. Human forms were included in paintings, sculptures, and mandalas (religious symbols), and venerated in shrines built around statuary, some covered in gold.

The other religion, Islam, developed in the 7th century AD. In regard to human figures, this religion took a different path and never used the human form in any religious art. Decorations in mosques included intricate geometric designs, nature-inspired foliage designs, script and religious writing, but never figures. The same was (and still is) true for their religious manuscripts.

But figures were found in the secular, or nonreligious art of the Islamic world. Figures were used to portray kings and cultural heroes and illustrated stories like the Persian Shahnama (Book of Kings). Figural illustrations also found their way into early medical, educational and scientific texts like those in the Sehinsahname (1581) from what is modern-day Turkey.

Buddhist Figural Art

Buddhism used many figures in its art. Giant gold-covered statues modeled in highly finished three-dimensional form were found and could be venerated in temples throughout Central Asia. Sculptors carved figures out of stone or molded them from clay. The human figure is more fully realized, with more curves and rounded forms. But most of the Buddha figures are very idealized. They aren't real people nor are they recognizable as such. They were meant to portray Gods and religious figures, who inhabited separate spheres from everyday people.

Seated Buddha, Afghanistan
Seated Buddha from Afghanistan

Gold Buddha statue in temple in Mongolia
Golden Buddha statue

Illustrated religious works, including beautifully painted scrolls, or thankga, were kept rolled until needed for teaching and religious ceremonies. These images were painted on cotton or, less commonly silk, and included intricate details and decoration that covered the whole surface. But the central religious deity was always the most important figure in the composition.

Buddhist thankga with religious figure
Thankga with religious figure

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