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History of Sculpture – Ancient 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 (30,000 - 25,000 BC), from the area of Willendorf, Austria, is a well-known example.

Later, in the Near East, (the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers), the Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian kingdoms flourished. Materials used for sculpture during this time included basalt, diorite (a type of dark, coarse-grained stone), sandstone, and alabaster. Copper, gold, silver, shells, 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 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 Babylonian Times
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 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 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 feet high and 240 feet 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. Many sculptures can now be seen at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Aegean Sculpture
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 Minoan 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 most well-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 ca. 1500 BC. Also found in a tomb were gold cups from Vaphio, with bulls portrayed in relief.

Sculpture of Ancient Rome
Ancient Roman sculpture was inspired by the sculpture of ancient Greece. The Romans admired Greek art and tended to copy the Greek style.

Ancient Roman sculpture can be divided into different types:

1. 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 momument to the Rax 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.

2. Funeral reliefs - Many of the more well-to-do Romans had elaborate coffins called sarcophagi (singular - sarcophagus), adorned with elaborate carvings. Popular subjects includes scenes of the gods, battle scenes or marriage.

3. Free standing sculpture - such as statues. An example would be the Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (Marcus Aurelius on a horse), dating from 161 - 180 A.D. Common locations for statues were in the temples, the public baths or the city Forum (the social and commercial center of the town).

4. Portrait sculpture - often busts of famous Romans. Subjects for these sculptures would include the gods, generals and emperors. The portrait statues were usually very detailed and realistic, however, one well known example was the bust of Emperor Constantine, which seemed to be idealized and meant to convey strength and power.

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