Back To CourseIntroduction to Humanities: Certificate Program
25 chapters | 215 lessons
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Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.
Hey! My name is Rocky. What? You've never seen a talking statue before? Well, get used to me. I'm going to take you on a little tour of sculpture in the ancient world. We'll look at sculptural trends and great works of sculpture in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome.
First, though, we need to define sculpture. It's really just three-dimensional art. Some of it is sculpture in the round, which is free-standing sculpture. Other sculptures are in relief, which means that they stand out from a base surface - kind of like a 3D picture.
Sculpture is probably the world's oldest form of art. People have been carving little figures in stone since the stone ages. In fact, the oldest-known sculpture is called Venus of Willendorf, and it's over 25,000 years old. Now that's one ancient sculpture!
Sculpture really started to take off in ancient Egypt. Remember all those Egyptian pyramids? They were tombs for the pharaohs, and they were filled with sculptures of all kinds. Relief sculptures decorated the tombs' walls, and Egyptian sculptors had a knack for showing figures partly in profile. Their bodies face front, their legs and arms are in profile, and their faces are in profile all except for their eyes, which look straight forward.
These relief sculptures were joined by life-sized sculptures of the pharaoh and his family that were carved out of limestone, alabaster, slate, or gold. They were accompanied by statues of nobles and gods, as well as hundreds of small clay statues of animals and of common people performing the actions of daily life, like kneading bread, taking care of cattle, sailing, or working as scribes. These life-like little images were meant to symbolically serve the dead in the afterlife.
Along with sculptures in the pyramids, Egyptians are famous for creating the fantastic Sphinx, a mythical blend of human and lion, which watches over the giant pyramids at Giza.
Okay, let's move on. We've got a lot of ground to cover. Our next stop is Mesopotamia, which was comprised of cultures like the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. These societies were not as stable as the Egyptian society, and they didn't have access to the massive stones that the Egyptians did. But they still created sculptures.
Early on, sculptures were probably used in funeral rites or religious worship, for they portrayed priests, gods, and worshipers. These funny little statues were cone-shaped and had little heads with big noses and eyes. Some Mesopotamian statues have been found that depict real and mythical animals in gold and bronze. Others are reliefs of battles, banquets, hunts, great adventures, and religious rites. Still others are fanciful depictions of rulers and priests, often with long beards, which symbolized power in that society. Carved out of diorite, a very hard stone, these statues probably served as representatives or deputies before the gods.
As interesting and creative as sculpture was in Egypt and Mesopotamia, this art form reached its height in Greece. Art historians usually divide Greek sculptural achievements into three periods: the Archaic (about 600-480 BCE), the Classical (about 480-323 BCE), and the Hellenistic (323-146 BCE). Let's take a quick look at each of these.
In the Archaic period, Greek sculpture was just developing, and sculptors were experimenting with the nude male figure called the Kouros and the lightly draped female figure called the Kore. These figures were still pretty stiff looking, kind of like Egyptian statues.
In the Classical period, however, Greek sculptors made some incredible progress in realism. Artists tried to capture the beauty of the human body through life-like figures with regular proportions and normal, nicely balanced poses. Their faces are expressive, and they often look like they had just taken a break from their movements and could come to life at any moment. All ages and classes could be and were depicted in sculpture, and artists attempted to make each statue as realistic as possible, even showing the hobbling of an old woman.
The Hellenistic period focused primarily on the ideal of youth, and sculptors tried to capture young people in all their strength and vigor.
Even though Greeks tended to focus on sculpting the human body in stone, especially marble, or bronze, they also created sculptural reliefs, architectural sculpture, portrait busts, grave memorials, and stone objects like perirrhanteria, which were basins supported by female statues.
We've still got one more era to cover: the Romans. Quite honestly, Romans weren't all that great in terms of creating sculpture. They mostly borrowed from the Greeks and their predecessors in Italy, the Etruscans. Roman sculpture started out to be quite realistic, but soon it became more abstract and focused on heroics, power, and victory.
Romans liked to create portrait busts of their leaders, like the famous Emperor Trajan, who actually looks pretty unpleasant. They also created detailed reliefs depicting successful military campaigns and elevating the grandeur and power of Roman rule. Free-standing sculptures also functioned as monuments of great rulers, like Marcus Aurelius and Augustus. These figures were rather out of proportion and larger-than-life, for they were created for flattery and display rather than artistic elegance.
We've covered a lot of ground, so let's take some time to review. Sculpture is three-dimensional art. Some of it is in the round, or free-standing. Other sculptures are in relief and stand out from a base surface. Sculpture is probably the world's oldest form of art, and the oldest known sculpture, Venus of Willendorf, is over 25,000 years old.
Many Egyptian sculptures have been found in pyramids, which were the tombs of the Pharaohs. Relief sculptures, which featured figures partly forward facing and partly in profile, decorated the tombs' walls. They were joined by life-sized sculptures of the pharaoh and his family, as well as statues of nobles, gods, animals, and common people performing the actions of daily life. The Egyptians are famous for creating the fantastic Sphinx, a mythical blend of human and lion.
The Mesopotamian cultures, the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, created small sculptures used in funeral and religious rites. They also made statues of real and mythical animals in gold and bronze; reliefs of battles, banquets, hunts, great adventures, and religious rites; and fanciful depictions of rulers and priests that stood as representatives or deputies before the gods.
The Greeks were master sculptors. In the Archaic period, the Greeks experimented with the nude male figure called the Kouros and the lightly draped female figure called the Kore. In the Classical period, the Greeks tried to capture the beauty of the human body in a realistic fashion. The Hellenistic period focused primarily on the ideal of youth.
Roman sculpture started out to be quite realistic, but soon it became more abstract and focused on heroics, power, and victory. The Romans created portrait busts of their rulers, detailed reliefs depicting successful military campaigns and elevating the grandeur and power of Roman rule, and free-standing sculptures as monuments of great leaders.
I hope you've enjoyed this little tour of sculpture in the ancient world. After all, as a statue myself, I am an expert. This is Rocky saying see you soon!
After watching this lesson, you should be able to describe different sculptural trends in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome.
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Back To CourseIntroduction to Humanities: Certificate Program
25 chapters | 215 lessons