A Brief Look at the History of Art in the West, 300 BC – 1350 AD

Updated February 24. I added a few more things here.

I’m just getting into the history of art, and most people don’t know the slightest thing about it either, so let’s take a little jaunt into art history and you’re welcome to come along on my journey.

This will focus mostly on the history of art in the West. This post isn’t complete at all, but at least it gives you an overview of the subject. What it does in brief is gives a list of the finest art produced in the West from 300 BC until about 1400 or so, with a brief jaunt into the 1800’s.

I only link to one of these works of art, but if you are interested in some of the greatest works of art ever produced by men, just copy paste the names of the works below into Google images and you should be able to get a look at what I’m talking about. I’m too lazy to track down links to all of these works, sorry.

First of all, a previous post that suggested that there was little art in the Dark Ages was completely mistaken. What is true is that there was a decline in the great art and architecture produced by the Romans. Roman art came from the Greeks, and I think the Greeks were better sculptors.

Great Greek buildings and statues include The Treasury of the Siphnians and Battle Between the Greeks and Giants (Delphi), Achilles or Spear Bearer, the Parthenon and the Temple of the Olympian Zeus (Athens), Temple of the Athena Nike (Acropolis), Aphrodite of Knidos, Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos (out of this world), Warrior A, The Scraper, Venus de Milo, Gallic Chieftain Killing His Wife and Himself, Athena Attacking the Giants and Dying Gallic Trumpeter (Pergamon), Laocoon and His Sons, Nike of Samothrace and Hellenistic Ruler.

Statues such as the Venus de Milo are some of the finest statues, albeit classical statues, ever made. They are very realistic; one could even say that they are hyper-realistic. It is better to say that Greek art was idealized realism. That is, it is more real than real. If you look at Greek statues of humans, they are more perfect than humans actually are.

Anatomists have studied these statues and concluded that these statues are in fact more perfect than actual humans could be, down to the last detail. It’s an idealized and perfectionist vision of man and what he could be.

Greek art, and the Roman art that followed, is very secular. This sets it apart from the art that followed in 1000 years following the Fall of Rome, in which art become focused solely on religion. So in this way, the Greeks and Romans were extremely advanced for their time. In contrast to the wildly religious-obsessed art of the Middle Ages, Greek and Roman art nearly avoids religion, as if it was not important.

What was important, instead, was the secular, quotidian lives we live on Earth and all of the hopes, dreams, tragedies, comedies, joys, etc etc. of the human journey. In this crucial way, the Greeks and Romans were as modern as we were. If we could go back in time and air-drop cars and planes into their cities, I’m pretty sure they could go to town with them pretty fast. Quit thinking of these ancients as primitives. They were just like us!

Some Greek art such as Gallic Chieftain Killing His Wife and Himself and Dying Gallic Trumpeter, while secular, is also histrionic is a staged sense. These are the exaggerated emotions of our films and plays, the timeless saga of man, his travails, conflicts and emotions.

The point here is that the emotional content is wildly exaggerated in the way that it often is on stage in plays. Plays, like opera, since they lack the fancy sets of cinema, rely on exaggeration of emotion, to convey what they lack via fancy sets and multimillion dollar crews.

The Greeks made some great tile art too, like Alexander the Great Confronts Darius III at the Battle of Isos and Stag Hunt.

In a previous post I asked why the very early civilizations all built pyramids. The truth is not so surprising. A pyramid is the most basic and rational architectural structure to build. It’s a natural. If you empty salt onto a table, it ends up in a pyramid shape. A pile of about anything often ends up pyramidal. A pyramid is going to stay upright.

Building large things other than pyramids that are going to stay upright is a lot more difficult. This is why the Roman invention of the arch was so essential. In architecture, the arch is an essential ingredient to any advanced building.

If you see some of the reconstructed Roman structures in the context of the time, it’s as if they were built by aliens. That’s how far advanced they were beyond anything else of the time. I have seen interiors of large Roman structures that look like modern airport terminals (see the Central Hall of the Basilica Ulpia in Rome). Roman cities were laid out very rationally on perfect grids. They also made atriums, pillars, coliseums, on and on. Buildings had elaborate carvings made in them, often of men in combat.

Roman paintings do exist, but due to the fact that they used wood and paints that decayed, little has remained. Most remaining Roman “paintings” were done with tiles. I have seen Roman paintings that achieve a look that was not achieved again until the 20th Century (see The Unswept Floor by Herakleitos). Pompeii has many of these.

As with just about everything else, Roman art and architecture was out of this world.

Some of the great statues, tilework, carved artwork on buildings, buildings and cities are Head of a Man, Aulus Metellus, Imperial Procession, Commodus As Hercules, Augustus of Primaporta, Gemma Augustea, the House of the Silver Wedding and the House of the Vetii (Pompeii), Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Battle Between the Romans and the Barbarians, Still Life (Herculaneum), the Colosseum, Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli and The Battle of Centaurs and Wild Beasts (at Hadrian’s Villa), Timgad in Algeria, the apartment blocks of Ostia, and the Arch of Titus, the Arch of Constantine and the Column of Trajan (all in Rome).

The Pantheon in Rome may be one of the greatest buildings ever made, though the competition is tight. The Dome of the Pantheon is out of this world.

It’s commonly said that Romans fell to barbarians, Germanic tribes. It’s true that they sacked the place, but it’s not true that the Dark Ages lacked art, as I noted above. What happened in the Dark Ages was a decline in the quality of art over that produced by the Romans and Greeks.

Furthermore, art became very restricted. Paintings, usually done with tiles, have a dark, depressing and Hellish theme, overridden with a harsh moralism. The world was a cruel and nasty place, and if you didn’t watch it and pray all the time, you were going to Hell.

Almost all paintings were of religious figures of one type or another. People often have a strange, otherworldly look. This is because as I noted in an earlier post on the Dark Ages, the Church had the only money at this time. If you wanted to get funded, you had to go to the Church and the Church would only fund Church-related stuff. Plus probably most art was being done in monasteries, as with most other productive activity beyond mere survival.

The people looked strange because the Church frowned on realistic looking people. That looked like real life, and the Church did not want to portray real life. They only wanted to portray the otherworldly realms of religion. In this attitude we can see the common religious attitude that the worldly life is permanently tainted with sin and must be avoided as much as possible.

Although this was a dark time for art and society, the focus on religion was reasonable. Truth was, life was so dark and dismal that the Church was where it was all going on. All art was about the Church because there was nothing else happening and life was really bad. All science, education, learning, reading, writing, wealth creation, art, architecture – it was all coming out of the Church. The money factor was crucial. Nowadays, if you want money, you go into business. Back then, you got into religion.

The reason that things fell apart so much in the Dark Ages was the collapse of urbanization. Country folks and back to the landers may not like city life too much, but when cities collapse, most everything tends to go to Hell. By contrast, the greatness of Greece and Rome was actually related to their high level of urbanization. City life seems necessary for advanced civilization to occur. With urbanization, some crucial factors probably jell together that start to mandate civilizational advances.

Characteristic of the time is large halos around everyone in the painting. It is accurate to say that art did not progress during the Dark Ages, that it actually went backwards.

Nevertheless, much fine material was produced.

Some of the excellent paintings, sculptures and buildings produced during the Dark Ages include the Church of Santa Sabina (Rome), the Church of Santa Costanza, the Mausoleum of the Galla Placidia, the Dome of the Baptistry of the Orthodox and the Church of San Vitale, the Transfiguration of Christ with Saint Apollinaris, First Bishop of Ravenna – a painting in the Church of Saint Apollinaire of Classe (all in Ravenna, Italy), the Hagia Sofia (Istanbul) – one of the finest buildings ever built, the first written Bibles such as the Rabbula Gospels from Syria, the Paris Psalter, the Ebbo Gospels and the great Crucifixion with Angels and Mourning Figures cover of the Lindau Gospels (all from France) and the Book of Kells from Scotland (Out of this world!), the Cathedral of Saint Mark (Venice), the Palace Chapel of Charlemagne (Aachen, Germany), ornaments from the Sutton Hoo burial ship (Suffolk, England), the Gummersmark brooch (Denmark), the Labro Saint Hammers (Gotland, Sweden) the burial ship from Oseberg (Oseberg, Norway), the Gero Crucifix from the Cologne Cathedral (Cologne, Germany) and the Church of Saint Cyriakus (Gernrode, Germany).

Note that fine art was even produced up in Scandinavia. These people were not primitive by any means. The problem up there is that most art was created out of wood. There was plenty of that, but it doesn’t make very good art, and most important, it doesn’t last. For really great art, it helps to have some big rocks, and I think there are a lot more trees than rocks in Scandinavia.

Greece looks like while God was creating the world, he took a break to throw rocks at Greece. The place is littered with stones. Hence all of the fine stone sculptures, buildings and cities of Greece.

Great art continues in the High Middle Ages, such as the Church of the Monastery of Christ in Chora (Constantinople) and the painting Anastasis on its apse, the Doors of Bishop Benward at the Abbey of the Church of Saint Michael (Hildesheim, Germany), Doubting Thomas in the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos (Castile, Spain), Christ in Majesty in the Church of San Clemente (Tahuil, Catalonia, Spain), the Borgund Stave Church (Sogn, Norway), the Durham Cathedral (Scotland), the Church of Saint Etienne (Caen, France), the Speyer Cathedral (Speyer, Germany), the Church of Saint Ambrogio (Milan, Italy), the Cathedral Complex (Pisa, Tuscany, Italy), the Church of San Clemente (Rome), printed works such as the Worcester Chronicle (Worcester, England) and the Winchester Psalter (Winchester, England), the woven Bayeux Tapestry (Bayeux, Normandy,  France) and the Portable altar of Saints Kilian and Liborius from the Helmarshausen abbey (Helmarshausen, Saxony, Germany).

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is also in the Pisa Complex. The tower is leaning not because it was top heavy, though it is, but because it was built on sand. It would have fallen over long ago without our efforts to shore it up. These efforts are vast and ongoing. We are tunneling under the building and shoring it up in various ways to keep it from falling. Right now things are so bad that it is so dangerous to be around the tower that visitors are forbidden from walking within toppling distance of the thing.

One reason that the art above is so great, even those famous Bibles, is that monks would spend 20 years, 40 years, or a lifetime making say one Bible, one treasure box, painting one church. Not only that, but a whole team might work for many years on an object or interior church design. These monasteries were like miniature factories. They weren’t producing a lot, but no one else was either. They were very inefficient, but there was no competition.

Gothic is in the High Middle Ages, and this is starting to head into the Renaissance, although everything is still about religion.

Gothic had some superb works, and now we are looking at some of the finest churches of all, including the Cathedral of Notre-Dame (Chartres, France), another of the greatest buildings ever built, the Amiens Cathedral (Amiens, France), an incredible building, another Cathedral of Notre-Dame (Paris), a competitor with the Notre-Dame in Chartres and possibly better, another Cathedral of Notre-Dame (Reims, France), possibly the best one of them all, the Saint-Chapelle (Paris), yet another awesome building, and the Salisbury Cathedral (Wiltshire, England) – too much!

Gothic architecture clearly produced some of the finest buildings that have ever been built. It’s characterized by tall, thin cathedrals with vast spires jabbing away at the sky.

The purpose of those spires was to point towards heaven. The idea of the tall buildings was to make them closer to Heaven, and also the various monasteries and bishops were in competition with each other to see who could build higher buildings. The tall, thin shape that gets more pointed towards the top is the best way to build a tall building for the same reason that a pyramid is a natural form.

A building that gets more pointed near the top is less likely to topple over than a top-heavy building that has as much weight at the top as at the bottom. One of those Gothic cathedrals actually had a building that did not get more pointed as it rose and that part of the building toppled over.

How did they build those cathedrals? They used scaffolds. Often families of men, fathers, sons, grandfathers, multiple generations, would work on the buildings.  They usually worked for free or room and board. The Church told them, “Hey, if you guys work on this church your whole life, you will go straight to Heaven.” Yeah right.

One purpose of the cathedrals was conversion. Life was pretty dismal in those days, and the life of a serf was bad. So you took a humble person and should him this wild cathedral, so beyond anything else he had ever seen that it may as well have been built by aliens, and you pretty much had a convert on your hands, so awe-struck was he.

These cathedrals show us just how much money the Church had at this time. For all intents and purposes, the Church had all the money and no one else had a dime. It’s a truism that while the Roman Empire did formally fall, really it just morphed into the Roman Catholic Church.

The fundamentalist crowd wonders why we care so much about separation of church and state. We care because back in those days, the Church was the state. English kings pondered for lifetimes ways to get the Church out of the business of running the damn country. No wonder Henry VIII threw the Church out and set up the Anglican Church. It was the only way to get free of this octopus and its tentacles.

In the Late Middle Ages, great works continue, including the Exeter Cathedral (Exeter, Devon, England), a mind-boggling structure, the Ely Cathedral (Ely, Cambridgeshire, England), the dome of which makes you wonder how they even built it, the Cathedral of Palma (Mallorca, Spain), up there with the greatest and the Church of the Holy Cross (Schwabisch Gmund, Germany), the Virgin and Saint George, the altarpiece of the Church of San Francisco, Villafranco del Panades (Barcelona), the Shrine of the Three Kings (Germany), the Florence Cathedral (Florence), an incredible building, the Siena Cathedral (Siena, Italy), another awesome structure, the Life of John the Baptist on the doors of the Baptistry of San Giovanni (Florence), Giotto di Bondone’s Last Judgment on the west wall and Life of Christ and the Virgin on the north and south walls of the Arena Chapel and Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maesta Altarpiece for the Siena Cathedral.

Around 1340, one of the first works including landscapes and regular people with no religious significance was done, Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government in the City and Allegory of Good Government in the Country, two frescoes in the Sala della Pace in the Pallazo Pubbico in Siena. The moving away from religion and focus on our real world shows how the Late Middle Ages were leading into the Renaissance.

The periods of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance seem to blend together. The Renaissance ran from around 1350-1600. The Late Middle Ages are thought to be from 1300-1450, so there is definitely overlap. The truth is that the Late Middle Ages shade into and lead into the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, we get the first non-religious art since the fall of Rome.

I don’t have much to say about the art of China and Japan except that it is good. It’s difficult to compare this art with the art produced in Europe. They all had their own styles  and it’s hard to say if any one of them is better than the other, but I don’t think that Japanese art is any better than what was being done in Europe at the time.

Islamic art is actually very good, especially the tilework on the interior of mosques up on the domes. This is excellent art, and as good as what was being done in Europe. The only thing you can say about Islamic art is that their ridiculous religion bans them from drawing humans.

I have seen some early Jewish art, but I wasn’t much impressed by it. Jews are very smart and many modern artists are Jews, so Jews can clearly make great art. The problem here is that like in Islam, Jews were forbidden to make graven images, and the forbidding of idol worship means you can’t draw people, and that tends to really limit your artwork. The fact that Islam has the same prohibition means to me that Islam has borrowed from Judaism.

The art of Central America is interesting, and some of it is not bad. I don’t think it’s superior to European art, but I’m not sure if it’s inferior either. Some of the gold ornamentation is really great.

I really hate to bag on Blacks here, but I should say something about African art. I was not very impressed with it. The best building was the Great Friday Mosque in Djenne, Mali, built in the 1200’s. It’s made of mud and wood. It’s ok, but compared to what was being built in Europe and the Arab World at the time, it’s not much at all. Afrocentrists like to go on about the Great Zimbabwe built around 1300. Yes, it’s a long wall made of stones with some conical structures here and there. If this is Africa’s greatest architecture, I don’t know what to say. It’s not much.

However, I was very impressed by statue heads and masks out of Benin from 1400-1650 and continuing on to 1900. Some of that is excellent. It is usually made of brass. However, I am told that they were already coming under the influence of Europeans, especially Portuguese, and this spurred this nice art. I don’t care what influenced them. There is some cool art coming out of Benin around the time of European Renaissance.

I’m not so impressed with the earlier stuff out of Yoruba or the very early stuff out of Nok in Nigeria. However, we must acknowledge that Nok was one the flashpoints for early African civilization and more was accomplished here sooner than anywhere else in Africa.

At any rate, today Africans produce some superb art, especially African masks. Travelers to Africa with some cash often pick them up and it’s a great investment. I’d love to have one on my wall.

In the 1800’s, all art and music was in the classical traditions. If you wanted to be an artist of a musician, you had to go to school and study the classics. That was really the only way to paint or make music. Hence, art and music had stagnated. The classical art and music had been taken to the limits and the best had already been done. Michelangelo and Beethoven were not going to be surpassed. There was nothing to innovate anymore.

One of the first impressionist was Édouard Manet. His first impressionist painting, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) (1863) was a strange painting of a two clothed men eating a meal with a naked woman in a park. It caused a scandal because the people pictured were real people, not religious, historical, mythological, political or monarchic figures (the five permitted types).

It was not really possible to paint a real person. All art had to be of one of the five types of persons above. The idea of painting a real person was ridiculous.

Manet’s painting caused a scandal not because the woman was nude. It was ok to paint nudes if they were of the five types of persons allowed. The idea that someone would paint a nude of a real life person was outrageous.

It was made even worse because people knew the names of those who were painted – the men were his brother, Eugene Manet, and his girlfriend’s brother and future brother in law, Ferdinand Leenhoff and the woman was Victorine Meurent, Manet’s favorite model and later an artist in her own right.

Further, the subject matter was seen as shocking, nearly pornographic. What were the clothed men doing eating with the naked woman? It was as if they were both going to have sex with her at the same time in a menage a trois .

What Manet did with that painting was like saying, “Screw you,” to the Art Establishment of the time. It was like punk rock, an act of artistic defiance. It was anti-art, anti-classical art, and anti-Art Establishment.

Manet many and his supporters got banned from a major art exhibition in 1863, the Salon de Paris. The jury of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which dominated the French art scene at the time, voted to exclude his painting from the Salon, and those of many other Impressionists were also banned.

This research takes a lot of time, and I do not get paid anything for it. If you think this website is valuable to you, please consider a a contribution to support more of this valuable research.

5 Comments

Filed under Africa, Antiquity, Art, Art History, Asia, Catholicism, China, Christianity, Dark Ages, Europe, European, History, Japan, Middle Ages, Regional, Religion, Roman Empire

5 responses to “A Brief Look at the History of Art in the West, 300 BC – 1350 AD

  1. whodareswings

    There’s a big difference between putting a bone through your nose and dreaming about going to the moon and actually landing on it in a space craft.
    Likewise, there’s a big difference between the invention of perspective and a Benin mask. It’s partly a matter of taste, of course, but just like the space program, I think the world’s finest examples of painting and sculpting and have been produced by white males. The cri de coeur of all racially aware retro-avant gardists should be “The Five V’s” -Van Gogh, Van Dyke, Vermeer, Von Dutch and Von Braun!”

  2. whodareswings

    I would like to recommend a good book for anyone interested in the very sorry state of contemporary art entitled THE CULTURAL COLD WAR: The CIA and The World of Arts and Letters by Francis Stoner Saunders. It’s the story of how American and British Marxists, Jewish intellectuals and fellow travelers on the “progressive” Left hijacked modern art and poetry in the name of a kultur kampf (culture war) against Stalinism and imposed a godless tyranny of experimental (abstract expressionist) painting and confessional open verse “beatnik” poetry on the Western world that is still very much in place today. Nobody even understands art or cultural criticism anymore, least of all artists. It’s a French farce like Bernard Henri Levy.

  3. pahdri

    “Afrocentrists like to go on about the Great Zimbabwe built around 1300. Yes, it’s a long wall made of stones with some conical structures here and there. If this is Africa’s greatest architecture, I don’t know what to say. It’s not much.”

    Egypt and the pyramids are on the continent of Africa. When I went there, I noticed that the Nile flowed from the center of Africa towards the Mediterranean Sea. The art work in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Queens is phenomenal. It shows lots of dark black African people in the paintings, and some of them are royalty.

    peace,
    Pahdri

    • I do not think much of the Afrocentrist theory of Egypt either. I believe that on the old blog I linked to an article by a pro-Black Black Egyptologist who nevertheless said that Egypt was not Black. Anthropologists say that the ancient Egyptians were exactly the same as the modern day Egyptians. 91% Caucasian (White), 9% African (Black).

      It’s true that Blacks conquered the Kingdom just as it was falling apart and presided over its inevitable demise over the next 300 years or so.

  4. Tim Weir

    Interesting. I’m just back from Ravenna – all the really good stuff there is in mosaic, almost all of it produced by Byzantine or heavily Byzantine-influenced craftsmen, from the time when Ravenna was the centre of Byzantine influence in Italy. IMO the best is the Neonian Baptistry. The piece that you mention in Classe is a mosaic.
    You may be aware that the mihrab of the Great Mosque in Cordoba, possibly the most beautiful object in the world, was also produced by Byzantine craftsman, loaned to the ruler of Al-Andalus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s