History of sculpture  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The history of the sculpture is varied and is illustrative of how sculpture has changed extensively over the ages. The art of sculpture continues as a vital artform worldwide. From pre-historic and ancient civilizations to the contemporary, from the utilitarian and religious to Modernist abstraction, and conceptual manifestations of both form and content, a continuous stream of creativity & an extremely modest show of compassion.

Sculpture has been central in religious devotion in many cultures, and until recent centuries large sculptures, too expensive for private individuals to create, were usually an expression of religion or politics. Those cultures whose sculptures have survived in quantities include the cultures of the Ancient Mediterranean, India and China, as well as many in South America and Africa. Moses's rejection of the Golden Calf was perhaps a decisive event in the history of sculpture. Aniconism remained restricted to the Jewish, Zoroastrian and some other religions, before expanding to Early Buddhism and Early Christianity, neither of which initially accepted at least large sculptures. In both Christianity and Buddhism these early views were later reversed, and sculpture became very significant, especially in Buddhism. Christian Eastern Orthodoxy has never accepted monumental sculpture, and Islam has consistently rejected all figurative sculpture. Many forms of Protestantism also do not approve of religious sculpture. There has been much iconoclasm of sculpture from religious motives, from the Early Christians, the Beeldenstorm of the Protestant Reformation to the recent destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan by the Taliban. Nonetheless, the Buddha remains a popular subject for sculptural art, and sculptors all over the world celebrate the Buddha in their work.


Sculpture in Prehistoric times

Sculpture as an art form goes back to Prehistoric times. Most Stone Age statuettes were made of ivory or soft stone, however some clay human and animal figures have been found. Small female statues known as Venus figurines have been found mainly in central Europe. The Venus of Willendorf (24,000-22,000 BC), from the area of Willendorf, Austria, is a well-known example.

Sculpture in Mesopotamia

Sculpture in Sumer and Akkad

In Mesopotamia (Iraq), beginning in the 5th millennium BC, the Sumerian civilization developed. Materials used for sculpture during this time included basalt, diorite (a type of dark, coarse-grained stone), sandstone, and alabaster. Copper, gold, silver, shells, lapis lazuli and a variety of precious stones were used for high quality sculpture and inlays. Clay was used for pottery and terra cotta sculpture. Stone was generally rare and had to be imported from other locations.

Sculptures from the Sumerian and Akkadian period generally had large, staring eyes, and long beards on the men. Votive stone sculptures of this type from 3100 BC include the Lady of Uruk, other pieces from 2700 BC were discovered at Tell Asmar. Many masterpieces have also been found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur (2650 BC). Among them are a wooden harp with gold and mosaic inlay with a black-bearded golden bull's head.

Sculpture in Babylonia and Assyria

The history of the Babylonian period is considered to begin with the reign of Hammurabi, in 1750 BC. Hammurabi was famous for his code of law. A bearded head, made of diorite, is believed to represent Hammurabi. The head has the wide open eyes, typical of the time period.

Also well-known is the lamassu, a human-headed winged lion from 883-859 BC. A unique feature of this piece is that it is carved with five legs, so that it can have four legs visible if viewed from the side. The piece was excavated at Nimrud (in northern Mesopotamia), and was donated to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1932.

Sculpture in Ancient Egypt

One of the earliest examples of Egyptian sculpture is the Palette of King Narmer, from ca. 3100 BC. The palette, which was used for mixing eye make-up, was carved in relief, and portrayed the victory of Upper Egypt over Lower Egypt.

The Sphinxes are another form of ancient Egyptian sculpture. The Sphinxes were statues of deities with the body of a lion and the head of an animal or a man, often made to look like the Pharaoh. The most famous is the Great Sphinx of Giza, located near the pyramids. It is about 60 ft high and 240 ft long, and was built in 2500 BC.

Another example of Egyptian sculpture are the statues of the Pharaoh Akhenaton and his Queen, Nefertiti (1350 BC). The statues are carved from limestone and are painted. There is also a very famous statue of Nefertiti from the same time period.

These are only a few of the many sculptures produced in ancient Egypt which ran from strongly stylized to of exceptional realism such as that seen in the Ankhhaf sculpture. Many sculptures can now be seen at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Aegean sculpture

The Aegean civilization covers the time period of 3000-1200 BC, during the Bronze Age, in the area of the Aegean Sea. The Aegean civilization can be broken down into three main divisions, the Cycladic, the Minoan and the Mycenaean.

The Cycladic culture developed on the Cycladic Islands, a group of islands in the Aegean Sea, southeast of Athens. Cycladic culture developed pottery, often decorated with rectangular, circular, or spiral designs. They also produced silver jewelry. Characteristic of their sculpture are marble sculptures of the human figure ranging from a few inches in size to life-size. The figures are usually nude females with their arms crossed over their abdomen. Other sculptures included seated or standing musicians. Examples of sculptures of musicians include a seated lyre player from 2000 BC. Statues of a lute player and a harpist were found together in a single grave on Keros, dating from 2700 - 2750 BC.

The culture developed mainly on Crete, especially at Knossos and Phaistos. The civilization was named after King Minos and reached its peak in the second millennium BC.

Minoan sculpture consists mainly of a few statuettes and carved semi-precious stone seals. One of the best-known sculptures is that of a snake goddess, of a goddess holding a snake in each hand, from Knossos, 1600 BC. Bulls were also depicted in both paintings and sculptures of Minoan times. A rhyton (drinking horn) in the shape of a bull was found in Knossos from 1500-1450 BC. In addition, there are many double-bladed axes, called "labrys", probably related to sacrifice. Some of the axes are taller than an adult.

The Mycenaen culture flourished in the late Bronze Age, on the mainland of Greece. According to legend, it was the Greeks of Mycenae under King Agamemnon that fought the Trojan War.

The Mycenaeans adorned their architecture with relief carvings. A relief is a design or scene that is carved into a flat area, so it is like a three dimensional picture. A famous example of this is the Lion Gate in the outer wall of the Palace of Mycenae (14th & 15th centuries BC). Above the lintel (top of the doorway), two lions are carved to fit into a triangular shape.

The Mycenaeans also produced funeral masks. A famous example is a gold mask found in the royal tombs of Mycenae from c. 1500 BC. Also found in a tomb were gold cups from Vaphio, with bulls portrayed in relief.

Sculpture of Ancient Rome

Roman sculpture

Classical Roman sculpture began with the sack of the Syracuse in 212 B.C. during the second Punic war with Carthage. A wealthy outpost of Greek civilization on the island of Sicily, Syracuse was thoroughly plundered and most of its magnificent Hellenistic sculpture was taken to Rome where it replaced the earlier styles of the Etruscan tradition. The Romans continued to admire the Hellenistic style, and eventually workshops throughout the Greek world (especially Asia Minor) provided the statuary without which no patrician villa was complete.

Some different kinds of classical Roman sculpture are as follows:

  • Relief - shallow three dimensional carvings on flat surfaces, used for architectural works such as columns, arches and Temples. An example of this type of sculpture would be the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) from 13 - 9 B.C. The Ara Pacis was a monument to the Pax Romana (The Roman Peace), 200 years of peace and prosperity ushered in by Emperor Augustus. Another example of relief sculpture would be Trajan's Column, dating from 106 - 113 A.D. adorned with scenes of Trajan's battles in a continuous spiral around the column.
  • Free standing sculpture - Most of this work was destroyed during Barbarian invasion or Christian rebuilding. The marble was burned for lime and the bronze melted for other purposes. An outstanding example of a piece that survived is the Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (Marcus Aurelius on a horse), dating from 161 - 180 A.D. Legend has it that the emperor's imposing demeanor spared the piece from destruction. Another tradition states the statue was spared because a happy misconception of the Middle Ages, when the famous statue was thought to be a portrait of Rome's first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great and was thus piously left unharmed. <ref>Kleiner, Diana E.E., Roman Sculpture, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1991</ref> Common locations for statues were in the temples, the public baths or the city Forum (the social and commercial center of the town).
  • Portrait sculpture - Subjects for these sculptures would include various patricians and especially emperors - multiple copies of which were circulated around the empire. Roman portrait sculpture embodied Roman civic virtues and have set the standard for European (and American) public portrait sculpture ever since. One well known example is the bust of Emperor Constantine.

Sculpture in the Middle Ages

Pre-Romanesque sculpture

The Early Christians were opposed to monumental religious sculpture, though continuing Roman traditions in portrait busts and sarcophagus reliefs, as well as smaller objects such as the consular diptych. Such objects, often in valuable materials, were also the main sculptural traditions (as far as is known) of the barbaric civilizations of the Migration period, as seen in the objects found in the 6th century burial treasure at Sutton Hoo, and the jewellery of Scythian art and the hybrid Christian and animal style productions of Insular art.

Byzantine art, though producing superb ivory reliefs and architectural decorative carving, never returned to monumental sculpture, or even much small sculpture in the round. However in the West during the Carolingian and Ottonian periods there was the beginnings of a production of monumental statues, in courts and major churches. This gradually spread; by the late 10th and 11th century there are records of several apparently life-size sculptures in Anglo-Saxon churches, probably of precious metal around a wooden frame, like the Golden Madonna of Essen. No Anglo-Saxon example has survived, and survivals of large non-architectural sculpture from before 1,000 are exceptionally rare. Much the finest is the Gero Cross, of 965-70, which is a crucifix, which was evidently the commonest type of sculpture; Charlemagne had set one up in the Palatine Chapel in Aachen around 800. These continued to grow in popularity, especially in Germany and Italy. The high cross reliefs of Christian Great Britain were in the tradition of the rune stones of the Nordic world and the Pictish stones of Scotland.

Romanesque sculpture

Approximately after 1000 there was a general rebirth of artistic production in all Europe, due to a general economic growth in production and commerce. Great cathedrals and pilgrim's churches were decorated with huge series of sculptures, the great majority architectural stone reliefs. Romanesque art developed new focuses for sculpture, such as the tympanum over church doors, and the inhabited capital (one with figures). In France the most important centers for sculpture include: Cluny, Autun, Vézelay, Toulouse and Moissac. In Spain, León and Santiago de Compostela have some of the finest survivals, and in Italy Como, Modena, Verona, Ferrara, Parma, Pisa, Lucca and Apulian cities.

Gothic sculpture

During the Gothic period (from 12th to 15th century) there was a return of natural proportion and realistic human figure description in sculpture. Masters such as sculptors of the Reims school in France or Nicola Pisano in Italy often anticipated developments in painting by several decades; Nicola Pisano's first masterpieces date from the 1260s; Giotto's masterpieces date from the end of 13th century).

Especially in Germany, wood sculpture also thrived, and wooden retables could be huge. Single free-standing figures, typically still less than half-size, were made in various media, normally of religious subjects. Life-size tomb effigies in stone or alabaster became popular for the wealthy, and grand multi-level tombs evolved, with the Scaliger Tombs of Verona so large they had to be moved outside the church. By the 15th century there was an industry exporting Nottingham alabaster reliefs over much of Europe for economical parishes who could not afford stone retables.

Paris was the main center for small ivories, mostly in deeply cut relief. As well as small religious works, often in polyptych form, secular combs, boxes and mirror cases were common among the rich.

Sculpture in the Renaissance

Renaissance means rebirth and this period takes its name from the renewed interest in secular, classical art and literature developed among the ruling and mercantile elites of Northern Italy in the 15th Century. Michelangelo, Donatello, and Verrocchio are three of the best known Italian sculptors of this period, while Tilman Riemenschneider's name stands out among those north of the Alps.

The first appearance of the free-standing, erotic, young male nude connects this period to the ancient Greeks and Romans - but the sculptural style borrows equally, if not more, from the late Gothic masters like Lorenzo Ghiberti, Tullio Lombardo, Jacopo Della Quercia, and Andrea Pisano. Donatello is usually singled out as the first master of the Renaissance - with dazzling complexity in his deep perspective reliefs and virtuosity everywhere in his large body of work. The Renaissance period ends with the beginning of the 17th century, as sculpture is primarily called to serve a revived and militant Roman Catholicism.

But its many great sculptural monuments continued to make the cities and churches of Northern Italy important tourist centers through the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries - and up to the present day.

Michelangelo's great rival Leonardo Da Vinci designed an equine sculpture "The Horse" for Milan-but only succeeded in a 24 ft clay model which was destroyed by French archers.

Mannerism to Neoclassicism

The Flemish sculptor Giambologna, based in Florence, was the presiding influence on Northern Mannerism, with editions of his smaller bronzes reaching all the courts of Europe. Leone Leoni worked mainly on portraits of the Habsburgs and their allies. His compositions were designed to be seen from all angles, and this reflected a general continuation of the Renaissance move away from the relief to sculpture created in the round, and designed to be placed in the middle of a large space - elaborate fountains such as Bernini's Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Rome, 1651), or those in the Gardens of Versailles were a Baroque speciality. The Baroque style was perfectly suited to sculpture, with Gian Lorenzo Bernini the most outstanding of a number of masters. More work became

The Protestant Reformation brought an almost total stop to religious sculpture in much of Northern Europe, and though secular sculpture, especially for portrait busts and tomb monuments, continued, the Dutch Golden Age has no significant sculptural component. Statues of rulers and the nobility became increasingly popular.

In the 18th century much sculpture continued on Baroque lines - the Trevi Fountain was only completed in 1762. Rococo style was better suited to smaller works, and arguably found its ideal sculptural form in early European porcelain. The Neoclassical style that arrived at the end of the century gave great emphasis to sculpture. Jean-Antoine Houdon exemplifies the penetrating portrait sculpture the style could produce, and Antonio Canova's nudes and the idealist aspect of the movement.

The Americas

Sculpture in what is now Latin America developed in two separate and distinct areas, Mesoamerica in the north and Peru in the south. In both areas, sculpture was initially of stone, and later of terra cotta and metal as the civilizations in these areas became more technologically proficient.<ref>Castedo, Leopoldo, A History of Latin American Art and architecture, Frederick A. Praeger, Publisher, New York, 1969</ref> The Mesoamerican region produced more monumental sculpture, from the massive block-like works of the Olmec and Toltec cultures, to the superb low reliefs that characterize the Mayan and Aztec cultures. In the Andean region, sculptures were typically small, but often show superb skill. In South America, wood was sculpted for totems, totem poles, masks, and boats. The arrival of European Catholic culture readily adapted local skills to the prevailing Baroque style, producing enormously elaborate retablos and other church sculptures in a slightly hybrid style. Later, artists trained in the Western academic tradition followed European styles until in the late nineteenth century they began to draw again on indigenous influences.

The history of sculpture in the United States after Europeans' arrival reflects the country's 18th-century foundation in Roman republican civic values and Protestant Christianity. Compared to areas colonized by the Spanish, sculpture got off to an extremely slow start in the British colonies, with next to no place in churches, and was only given impetus by the need to assert nationality after independence. American sculpture of the mid- to late-19th century was often classical, often romantic, but showed a bent for a dramatic, narrative, almost journalistic realism. Public buildings of the first half of the 20th century often provided an architectural setting for sculpture, especially in relief. By the 1950s, traditional sculpture education would almost be completely replaced by a Bauhaus-influenced concern for abstract design. Minimalist sculpture often replaced the figure in public settings. Modern sculptors use both classical and abstract inspired designs. Beginning in the 1980s, there was a swing back toward figurative public sculpture; by 2000, many of the new public pieces in the United States were figurative in design.

See also

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