Earliest Art to the Egyptians
Reproduction of a Bison of
the cave of Altamira.
• earliest drawings, paintings,
vessels, and sculptures were
made with whatever the artists
• such readily-available materials
includes mud, clay, twigs, straw,
minerals, and plants
Panel of the Lions, Chauvet Cave Painting, France
The overall scene depicts a hunt. On the right of the composition there is a rhinoceros and a mammoth. On the left,
there are four bison heads, and two more rhinos. Then there are seven bison, pursued by a pride of sixteen lions, mainly
depicted by their heads alone. Above all of this drama, at a different scale, there is a large feline figure shown standing
face to face with a lion cub. Almost all of the animals on this panel face left. This composition is unique in Palaeolithic
art. The image has been created with a black pigment such as carbon black from bone ash. Experts agree that the
images are meaningful, although what their exact meaning remains obscure
WATCH THIS: How Young is History
This video has some discussion of the cave paintings
and puts them in context to the history that we’ll be
looking at through the rest of this course.
Representation of humans
SUPPLEMENTAL: Map of Pech-Merle caves
Locations of paintings within the caves
Virtual tour of Lascaux cave - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hiFqqqjTxQ
Korean Neolithic pot, found in Busan
• Early vessels were made of easily found materials
such as earthenware, baked clay
• This example from 3,500 BCE would have been
made before the invention of a potter’s wheel
• It is handbuilt, likely made by wrapping and
• Patterns were incised with twigs or string
• Pots such as this from the late Neolithic era in
Korea are known as Jeulmun pottery, meaning
Female Figure from Willendorf. c. 23, 000 BCE,
limestone, height 4 3/8”, Naturhistorisches
The art that has come down to us from the Stone Age is fragmentary and isolated:ancient cave paintings and small
statues, circular stone monuments, and so on. Our examples are separated from one another by thousands of years and
thousands of miles. The question of why a work of art was made arises also with ancient sculptures, nearly as old as the
Chauvet cave paintings is a little female statuette that often serves as an emblem of art history’s beginnings. It is made
of stone, was formed about 25,000 years ago, and was found near Willendorf, a town in present-day Austria. Less than 5
inches tall, the rounded figure is small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of a hand. Its face is obscured by a minutely
detailed hairstyle that covers the entire head. Skinny arms bend at the elbows to rest on her breasts. Numerous
Paleolithic female statuettes have been found across a broad region. Some are carved of wood, ivory, and stone, or
modeled in clay, they were produced over a period of thousands of years and in a variety of styles. Scholars long
assumed that they were fertility figures, used in some symbolic way to encourage pregnancy and childbirth. Today’s
more cautious experts suggest that it is unlikely that a single explanation can account for all of them. The most we can
say is that they testify to a widely-shared belief system that evolved over time, and I would even caution that, that is a
Ziggurat - Sumerian
city structures uses
as a temple or
shrine raised on a
Nanna Ziggurat, Ur (present-day Maqaiyir, Iraq, c. 2100-2050 BCE.
The region known to the ancient world as Mesopotamia occupied a large area
roughly equivalent to the present-day nation of Iraq. Fertile soil watered by
the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers made Mesopotamia highly desirable, but a
lack of natural boundaries made it easy to invade and difficult to defend. The
first cities of Mesopotamia arose in the southernmost area, a region called
Sumer. By about 3400 BCE, some doze Sumerian city-states-cities that ruled
over their surrounding territories-had emerged. The Sumerians were the first
people to leave behind them not just artifacts but also words: the
wedge-shaped marks that they pressed into damp clay to keep track of
inventories and accounts developed over time into a writing system capable
of recording language. Called cuneiform, it served as the writing system of
Mesopotamia for the next three thousand years. Lacking Stone, the
Sumerians build their cities f sun-dried brick. The largest structure of a
Sumerian city was the ziggurat, a temple or shrine raised on a monumental
stepped base. The example here, partially restored but still missing its
temple, was dedicated to the moon god Nanna, the protective deity of the
Sumerian city of Ur. In the flat land of Sumer, ziggurats were visible for miles
around. They elevated the temple to a symbolic mountaintop, a meeting
place for Heaven and Earth, where priests and priestesses communicated
with the gods.
Nanna Ziggurat, Ur (present-day
Maqaiyir, Iraq, c. 2100-2050 BCE.
The Principles of Design - Scale and Proportion
Hierarchical scale - the
representation of more
important figures as larger than
less important figures, as when
a king is portrayed on a larger
scale than his attendants
*this slide is from a previous
lecture but is a reminder of the
Scene from the Standard of Ur,
detail. Mesopotamia, Early
Dynastic III, 2500 BCE, gold inlay,
lapis lazuli, The British Museum,
The Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BCE, inlaid shell, limestone, lapis lazuli, excavated Royal Cemetery 1928, South
Iraq, British Museum.
This object was found in one of the largest graves in the Royal Cemetery
at Ur, lying in the corner of a chamber above the right shoulder of a man.
Its original function is not yet understood. Leonard Woolley, the
excavator at Ur, imagined that it was carried on a pole as a standard,
hence its common name. When found, the original wooden frame for
the mosaic of shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli had decayed, and the
two main panels had been crushed together by the weight of the soil.
The bitumen acting as glue had disintegrated and the end panels were
broken. As a result, the present restoration is only a best guess as to how
it originally appeared. The main panels are known as "War" and "Peace."
"War" shows one of the earliest representations of a Sumerian army.
Chariots, each pulled by four donkeys, trample enemies; infantry with
cloaks carry spears; enemy soldiers are killed with axes, others are
paraded naked and presented to the king who holds a spear. The
"Peace" panel depicts animals, fish and other goods brought in
procession to a banquet. Seated figures, wearing woolen fleeces or
fringed skirts, drink to the accompaniment of a musician playing a lyre.
The Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BCE, inlaid shell, limestone, lapis lazuli,
excavated Royal Cemetery 1928, South Iraq, British Museum. *The
“Peace” side - seated attendants, the king, animals and goods in
procession, wine goblets, and musicians
The Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BCE, inlaid shell,
limestone, lapis lazuli, excavated Royal
Cemetery 1928, South Iraq, British Museum.
Standard of Ur, 26th century B.C., “War” panel, 2600
B.C., shell, limestone, lapis lazuli, bitumen.
• This stone panel is one
example of the cultural
style of the Ancient Near
• A composite view
represents portions of the
body shown in profile and
other parts of the body in
*The “War” side - the largest figure in hierarchical scale, chariots, soldiers with weapons and helmets, bodies
underneath the horses. This stone panel is one example of the cultural style of the Ancient Near East.A composite view
represents portions of the body shown in profile and other parts of the body in frontal view.
Sargon II and dignitary, 722-705 B.C.E, limestone.
• A composite view represents portions of the body
shown in profile and other parts of the body in
By 2300 BCE the Sumerian city-states had been conquered by
their neighbors to the north, the Akkadians. Under their ruler
Sargon I, the Akkadians established the region’s first empire.
Though it crumbled quickly, the empire seems to have
extended all the way from the shores of the Mediterranean
to the Persian Gulf. Mesopotamia’s history was marked by
almost continual warfare and conquest, and a major goal of
architecture was the erection of mighty citadels to ensure the
safety of temples and palaces. Such a citadel was built by the
Assyrians at Nimrud in the 9th century BCE. The palace gates
were fronted by monumental stone slabs carved into
enormous human-headed winged beasts, a bull and a lion.
The lion wears a horned cap indicating divine status. Its body
has five legs, so that from the front it appears motionless but
from the side it is understood to be walking. I also included an
image of a similar statue being taken into I believe the British
Museum in London on the next slide.
Human-headed winged lion. Assyrian, from
Nimrud. 883-859 BCE. Limestone, height 10’ 2
½”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Human-headed winged lion. Assyrian, from Nimrud.
883-859 BCE. Limestone, height 10’ 2 ½”, The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York.
Lion Hunt, from the palace complex of Assurnasirpal II, Kalhu (present-day Nimrud, Iraq)
c. 850 BCE, alabaster, height 39”, The British Museum, London.
What kind of relief sculpture is this? What kind of view is it?
The walls of the palace were lined with alabaster reliefs depicting Assyrian triumphs and royal power. A popular
subject is the lion hunt, in which the king is depicted slaying the most powerful of beasts. The ceremonial hunt was
probably carried out as it is pictured here, with armed guards releasing captive animals into an enclosure for the king
to kill from his chariot. Slaying lions was viewed as a fitting demonstration of kingly power. The lions’ anatomy is
beautifully observed, and the many overlapping figures show the sculptor’s confidence in suggesting
three-dimensional space. WATCH THIS: https://youtu.be/J5iEY4hapMQ *warning that the images of the hunt can be
Lion Hunt, from the palace complex of Ashurbansipal II, Kalhu (present-day Nimrud, Iraq) c. 850 BCE, alabaster, height
39”, The British Museum, London.
Ishtar Gate (restored), from Babylon, c. 575 BCE, glazed
brick, height 48’ 9”, Staatliche Museum zu Berlin.
The Babylonians who we haven’t discussed yet, came
back in to power in Mesopotamia, late in the 7th
century BCE they formed a kingdom now called
Neo-Babylonian. These “new” Babylonians should be
considered some of the greatest architects, they
developed a true arch before the Romans did and
were masters of decorative design for architecture.
The city of Babylon was constructed as a square,
bisected by the Euphrates River, with streets and
broad avenues crossing at right angles. Because stone
is scarce in this region, the architects made liberal use
of glazed ceramic bricks. The main road was the
Processional Way, at one end of which stood the
Ishtar Gate, built around 575 BCE and now restored
in a German museum. The gate consists of thousands
of glazed mud bricks, with two massive towers
flanking a central arch.
WATCH THIS: It’s an ad but gives a very cool view of
the research on the Ishtar Gate
Developing at the same time as
Mesopotamia, but far less tumultuous
was Egypt. The Greek philosopher Plato,
wrote that Egyptian art did not change
for ten thousand years, although that is
an exaggeration, there were many
features that remained stable over long
periods of time. The sphinx, the symbol
of this most important characteristic of
Egyptian art, is the essence of stability,
order, and endurance. Built about 2530
BCE, and towering to a height of 66 feet,
the sphinx has the body of a reclining lion
and the head of a man, thought to be the
pharaoh Khafre, whose pyramid tomb is
nearby. Egyptian kings ruled absolutely
and enjoyed a semi-divine status, taking
The Great Sphinx, Giza, c. 2530 BCE, limestone rock, height 66’.
their authority from the sun god Ra, from
whom they were assumed to be
WATCH THIS: Ancient Near East and Egypt https://youtu.be/A_8yPgC9zQc
Be warned, it’s a little juvenile in the tone of the video, but it covers all the major
points in the art of the Near East and Egypt that we cover in this lecture so it’s a
brief way to reinforce everything that you’re reading.
Sphinx of Hatshepsut, c. 1479-1458, granite and paint.
• Volume has three dimensions:
length, width and height.
• Volumes may have interior or
exterior contours and may be open
or closed in form.
• Mass is the quantity of matter, often
meaning its weight.
• Closed form is volume that is not
pierced or perforated.
• Open form sculptures are closer in
shape to the figures they represent
Revisiting this slide from a previous lecture. Is this closed or open form?
and are thus more lifelike.
A basic subject for sculpture, one that cuts across time and cultures, is the
human figure. Thinking back to how many of the sculptures we’ve looked
at today that have had representations of humans, we can connect the
human desire to leave some trace of ourselves for future generations.
Metal, terra cotta, stone – these are materials for the ages, materials
mined from the Earth itself. Even wood may endure long after we are
From earliest times, rulers powerful enough to maintain a workshop of
artists have left images of themselves and their deeds. The royal tombs of
ancient Egypt, for example, included statues such as the one illustrated
here of the pharaoh Menkaure and Khamerernebty, his Great Royal Wife.
Portrayed with idealized, youthful bodies and similar facial features, the
couple stand proudly erect, facing straight ahead. Although each has the
left foot planted slightly forward, there is no suggestion of walking, for
their shoulders and hips are level. Menkaure’s arms are frozen at his
sides, while his wife touches him in a formalized gesture of “belonging
together”. This formal pose is meant to convey not only the power of the
rulers but also their serene eternal existence.
Statue of Menkaure and Queen Khamerernebty II,
2490-2472 B.C., graywacke.
Statue of Menkaure and Queen Khamerernebty II, 2490-2472 B.C.,
• The subject matter of this Ancient Egyptian sculpture is
a pharaoh and his queen.
• A canon is a set of rules, principles, or norms, used to
represent human beings, often gods or rulers. These
principles determine proportions, stance, garments,
as well as other aspects of the human figure.
• Idealization is a form of representational art that follows
given canon for the representation of special persons in
The Principles of Design - Scale and Proportion
Proportion - refers to size
parts of a whole, or
between two or more
items perceived as a unit
*slide from previous
viewpoint are the
Stela of the sculptor
Userwer, detail. Egypt,
Dynasty 12, 1991-1783 BCE,
limestone, The British
Egyptian painting reveals clear visual design and illustrative skills as the
sculpture and architecture, a fragment of a wall painting taken from a
tomb chapel in Thebes depicts a man named Nebamun posed very
much like the figure of Narmer. Again, we see the lower body with its
striding legs in profile, the torso and shoulders full front but with a
nipple in profile, the face in profile, the eye from the front again, again
he is larger than other figures the most important person in the scene.
A mid-level official, Nebamun would have been buried in a sealed
chamber dug somewhere beneath his painted chapel. He and his tawny
cart are shown hunting birds in a marsh. Nebamun is young, handsome,
and athletic, the form he hopes to have in eternity. He holds a throw
stick in one hand and grasps three flapping egrets with the other. The
small, elegant woman standing behind him on the papyrus skiff is his
wife, Hatshepsut. The still smaller girl between his legs is their
daughter. All are depicted in the formal, dignified poses suited to elite
members of society. Birds and butterflies fill the air. The birds are
shown in profile, the view that gives the most information. The same
goes for the fish in the water below. All are depicted in such closely
observed detail that we can identify many of the species.
Fragment of a wall painting from the tomb
of Nebamun, Thebes. c. 1450 BCE, paint on
plaster, height 32”, The British Museum,
Unknown artist, Nebamun Tomb Fresco Dancers and Musicians, 14th
century B.C., fresco.
Also found in the tomb is the image of musicians and dancers.
What do you notice about the form of the figures that differs
from the image of Nebamun and his family? What do you
attribute that to?
Fragment of a wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun,
Thebes. c. 1450 BCE, paint on plaster, height 32”, The
British Museum, London.
Art is often created to mark
a moment of triumph and
to interpret the conquest as
a validation of a leaders
right to rule, established
Palette of Narmer, from
Hierakonpolis, c. 3100 BCE, slate,
height 25”, Egyptian Museum,
The Palette of Narmer illustrates many characteristics of Egyptian art.
The palette (so named because it takes the form of a slab for mixing
cosmetics) portrays a victory by the forces of Upper (southern) Egypt
led by Narmer, over those of Lower (northern) Egypt. Narmer is the
largest figure and is positioned near the center of the palette to indicate
this high status. He holds a fallen enemy by the hair and is about to
deliver the death blow. In the lowest sector of the table are two more
defeated enemies. At upper right is a falcon representing Horus, the
god of Upper Egypt. In its organization of images the palette is strikingly
logical and balanced. The central section has Narmer’s figure just left of
the middle with his upraised arm and the form of a servant filling the
space, while the falcon and the victim complete the right-hand side of
Narmer’s pose is typical of Egyptian art, when depicting an important
personage the Egyptian artist strove to show each part of the body to
the best advantage so it could be “read” clearly by the viewer. Thus,
Narmer’s lower body is seen in profile, his torso full front, his head in
profile, but his eye front is not a posture that suggests much motion,
apart from a stylized gesture like that of his upraised arm. But action
was not important to Egyptian art, order and stability were its primary
characteristics, as they were the goals of Egyptian society.
Palette of Narmer, from Hierakonpolis, c.
3100 BCE, slate, height 25”, Egyptian
3100 BCE, slate,
The seated scribe depicts a high court official
whose position might be explained as
“professional writer”. In an era when literacy
was rare, the scribe played a vital role in
copying important documents and sacred texts,
and his work commanded much respect. This
sculpture, although somewhat more relaxed
than standing pharaoh portraits, is still
symmetrical and reserved. The scribe’s face
shows intelligence and dignity, and his body is
depicted realistically as thickening and rather
flabby, no doubt a sign of his age and sedentary
occupation, perhaps also an indicator of
Seated Scribe, from Saqqara. c. 2450 BCE,
painted limestone, with alabaster and rock
crystal eyes, height 21”, Musee du Louvre,
One of the stand-out changes in Egyptian art occurred under
the reign of pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who came to power
about 1353 BCE, he revolutionized the culture, changing his
name to Akhenaten and attempted to establis ...
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