Free Essay On Portraiture In The Ancient World
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Introduction Portraiture is the art of creating a portrait, or an image of a person. Today, portraiture comes in three major forms – a painting, a photograph, a piece of sculpture and a specialized form is that of a self-portrait (whether as a painting or as a photograph). A portrait is said to be a “window” into the personality and even the soul of the subject. The artist’s intention on how the subject is to be presented to the viewer can also be said to be a major driving force in the understanding of a portrait (Brilliant, 1991, 7-8). This short paper will look at the role of portraiture in the ancient art world, the styles and compositions of these portraits, and how these were viewed by the ancient world back then.
Portraiture in the Ancient World One significant characteristic of portraiture in the ancient world is that the distinct anatomical characteristics of the subjects were copied onto the portrait. The Moche of ancient Peru created portraits of their people and used them as heads of vessels that contained liquid. The faces on these ceramic vessels are so distinct that one may recognize the owner of the face if he were walking down the streets of ancient Peru (Donnan, 2004, 7-8).
One more famous portrait of the ancient world is the bust of Queen Nefertiti. Nefertiti was the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaton, who first introduced monotheism in ancient Egypt, causing an uproar then among the priests and the public as well. From ancient texts, there is the realization that Queen Nefertiti was proclaimed as among the most beautiful, and her bust by the sculptor Thutmose reveals several anatomical characteristics all thought to be traits of a beauty – the long neck, perfectly arched eyebrows, long, almond-shaped eyes, and the beautiful mocha-colored skin (Lange, 2009, 83).
A second function of portraiture in the ancient world was to honor the dead. This is evident in the Fayum Mummy Portraits of Egypt, which were portraits of those who died made on wooden boards covering the mummified bodies of those who perished then. The paintings are said to be life-like, and it appears those in the portraits belonged to the wealthier class of society, as shown by their adornments and clothing in the portraits. Perhaps through their portraits, these individuals would somehow “live” forever in the minds of those who would see these wooden panels (Thompson, 1992, 8, 37). In the mummy portrait below, the woman appears to be of the wealthier stature, and she is fully accessorized as well.
Continuities and Difference in Portraiture Throughout the Ancient World
The Hellenistic Empire during the reign of Alexander the Great could be said to bring about continuities throughout the ancient world. Portraits became even more realistic, and these images were more lifelike as well. During the Roman Empire, portraiture was utilized as a form of propaganda, with sculptures and busts of leaders all over the empire. By the imperial age of Rome, realism was an element of the portraits, so that followers across the empire would be able to recognize the Emperor. Portraits were also placed on one side of coins such that the subjects would always be reminded of the presence of their now-familiar emperor (Fejfer, 2008, 15-18). Greek portraiture at this time was also quite life-like, and as coins first appeared during the height of the Greek empire, as with the ancient Romans, portraiture on coinage served as propaganda in order for the rulers to be known across the empire. As for ancient Egyptian portraiture, the use of funerary masks was not only to honor the dead but also to provide substitute heads for the dead to go to the afterlife in case his original skull was damaged due to accidents or disease during his lifetime (Spaniel, 1988, 19). Therefore there distinct similarities between the portraiture of ancient Rome and Greece – that of depicting realistic images of rulers and leader to strengthen their position throughout the empire.
As for Byzantine portraiture, a specific branch emerged – that of religious portraits. There was now a religious base for the creation of portraits. Thus, in this period, one finds standardized images of Jesus Christ. The Council of Hieria in 754 AD prescribed the manufacture and distribution of the icons of Jesus Christ throughout the empire (Mango, 1977, 2-3). The most famous icon of Jesus Christ is Jesus Christ Pantocrator found inside the dome of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, as shown below. The image of Christ here is more or less the image of Christ everyone is familiar with today.
In all the cases studied, portraiture could be said to have accomplished the goals and reasons why such portraits were done and commissioned. In the case of Ancient Greek and Roman portraiture, the necessities of holding the empire prompted the ancient rulers to have busts, statues and paintings of rulers placed at strategic locations around the empire. The subjects then became familiar with their ruler, and if they received the benefits of belonging to the empire, the ruler was exalted and thus left to rule for perpetuity. Profiles of leaders on coins also helped run economies, knowing that the wealth that was building was to be gained by merchants, dealers, and ultimately by the government coffers, in the form of taxes and tributes. As for the ancient mummy portraits, one could say that those long-dead are remembered to this day because of their portraits, which provide onlookers and scholars alike with an idea of what life was like for the more affluent citizens of Fayum and other ancient sites as well. Portraiture in the ancient world was largely for propaganda, and for letting others know of the lives of people who existed back then.
Brilliant, Richard. 1991. Portraiture. London: Reaktion Books.
Donnan, Christopher. 2004. Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Fejfer, Jane. 2008. Roman Portraits in Context. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Press.
Lange, Brenda. 2009. Nefertiti. NY: Infobase Publishing.
Mango, C. 1977. Historical Introduction: Iconoclasm. Birmingham, AL: University of Birmingham Press.
Spaniel, Donald. 1988. Through Ancient Eyes: Egyptian Portraiture. Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Museum of Art.
Thompson, David. 1992. Mummy Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Malibu, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum.
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