The primary aim of art history is to determine the original context of artwork because this helps them achieve fuller understanding of the art. Art historians believe that history composed of persistent events affect why artistic events happen. Unique set of circumstances are believed to influence the creation of a singular artwork in a specific place. It also follows that art objects and buildings also serve as important historical documents that can reflect cultural values and practices that other historical documents cannot (Kleiner, xx). Hence, this also means that art historians believe that art is a product of its specific historical context. This paper analyzes this belief in the case of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, Ancient Greek’s Geometrical Period, Late Antiquity’s Dura-Europos. It also shows how these historical periods and their respective cultures utilized the specific conventions of representations.
Egypt’s Old Kingdom
Until the 18th century, the Egyptians regarded the nation’s undeciphered writing and exotic monuments as treasures of mystic arts. The Old Kingdom is the first of the three great periods of Egyptian history. The pharaohs that reigned during the Old Kingdom were known for great wealth. They sponsored the establishment of grandiose architectural projects. One of these was the Great Pyramids of Gizeh. These three pyramids were built for about 75 years as the tombs of the Fourth Dynasty pharos: Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. These pyramids have important artistic and contextual relevance because they represent the height of architectural evolution that began with mastaba. Nevertheless, these pyramids do not simply represent refinement of the classic pyramids. Rather, the new tomb shape reflects the influence of Heliopolis which took the shape of ben-ben or sun. The sun’s rays were the ramps that were believed to uplift the pharaohs to the heavens after their death and rebirth (Kleiner, 45).
The stepped pyramids were also conceived as giant stairway. Ancient Egyptians believed that Djoser’s pyramids were the birthplace of pharaohs after they were reborn just like how the sun is reborn every day. On the other hand, the Pyramids of Gizeh were oriented to the cardinal points of the compass, but they face the rising sun; hence, underscoring their connection with the sun (Kleiner, 46). In sum, the Pyramids of Gizeh reflect not only the advanced architectural and engineering skills of the ancient Egyptians, but these also reflect their extensive adoration of their pharaohs even in their death. These also reflect their beliefs about rebirth and afterlife.
Ancient Greek Arts
Ancient Greek art has significant place in the history of art up to the modern times. The cultural values of the Greeks like the adoration of humanity as the “measure of all things” are still considered with high relevance to the Western civilization. This humanistic worldview of the Greeks has led to the conceptualization of democracy or the rule by the demos or the people. The humanistic concept has also made important contributions to the fields of art, literature, and science. To this day, many ancient Greek ideas that originated more than 2,500 years ago remain to be deeply ingrained in the Western civilization (Kleiner, 85). In the 18th century, human figure returned as primary theme of art, which was rare in the Bronze Age Greece. For example, the Dipylon Krater is one of the earliest Greek figure paintings. It is a huge krater that marked the grave of a man that was buried on 740 BCE in the Dipylon cemetery. This three-foot vase represents the superb skills of the potter and also the wealth and position of the deceased in the community. Most Greek painters decorated vases with abstract motifs. Art historians labeled this formative period of Ancient Greek art as Geometric (Kleiner, 88).
Aside from geometric figures, there are also human figures that are used for story-telling. On the krater, the artist reserved the widest part for two bands of human figures and chariots. As a grave marker, the scenes painted on the krater depict the scene of mourning for a man placed in a grand chariot procession. All of the human figures, animals and furniture are painted as two-dimensional shapes. This highly stylized and conventional manner of representation, the Dipylon Krater mark what art historians consider as an important turning point in the history of Greek art. Through this artwork, human figure was reintroduced and the art of storytelling was also revived (Kleiner, 88).
Late Antiquity’s Dura-Europos
The art of the Late Antiquity are basically Roman in style and technique. Yet, they differ in subject and function in terms of religious art and architecture. This period acts as the foundation of the art and architecture of the Middle Ages. The Dura-Europos town is home to many cult buildings and shrines of the polytheistic religions of the Mediterranean and Near East. There were also places of worship for monotheistic creeds of Judaism and Christianity (Kleiner, 209-210). The synagogue at Dura-Europos is remarkable because they existed in Roman garrison town and also characterized by extensive cycle of mural paintings. What is surprising in these synagogues was that they seemed to defy the Bible’s Second Commandment which prohibits graven images. Even if Jews of the Roman Empire did not worship idols, biblical stories were depicted in the murals even if there were no illustrated Bibles during this time. The representations in the murals were devoid of action even if the theme was basically narrative. The painters of the synagogue reflect stylized gestures and the human figures did not have expressions. The painting of Samuel anointing David best represented the style of Late Antiquity (Kleiner, 211).
A specific work of art is a product of its specific historical context. The specific arts that were described in this paper reflect the religious beliefs, honoring of the death, and emphasis on story-telling. Some of them were considered as the beginning of a new style of art evolution while some are considered as the height artistic styles that emerged in the preceding periods. Just like history, artistic representations also reflect evolution in terms of people’s beliefs and skills.