Depictions of Human Form in Religious Artby Rit Nosotro
How were representations of the human form reflections of cultural and religious values in Egyptian, Greek, and Buddhist works? Explain Islamic and Eastern Orthodox reaction to human depictions.
[ed: Content is great but the endnotes need reformating.]
The depiction of the human form varies greatly from culture to culture. In
Egypt, frontalism was used for thousands of years. Frontalism involves painting
the head as a profile, but keeping the whole eye facing the front. The body
also faced forwards, while the legs and feet were turned sharply to the side
in the same direction as the head, with one foot placed in front of the other1.
Pharaohs were depicted as larger than everything else, and were painted with severe frontalism. Nothing could be painted in front of the Pharaoh’s head, so pictures of bow and arrow hunting or spear throwing, if the drawn arm was in front, had to have the arms bent at weird angles to allow the spear or arrow to go behind the head. Lesser beings and animals were painted more realistically1.
Over thousands of years, this was the only pattern the Egyptians followed. Egyptian art from any time period followed the same rigid rules. The one exception was during the reigns of Akenaten and his son, Tutankhamen. They relaxed the rules, allowing themselves to be painted and sculpted in a more realistic style, called the Armana style. This was probably done so that they would stand out from the rest of the Pharaohs. Akenaten, in particular, wanted to be remembered as the Pharaoh who brought monotheism to Egypt1.
Egyptian art was simply that, art. However, there was a lot of idol worship connected to it. Gods and goddesses were regularly depicted in temples, tombs, and palaces. The god Anubis, for example, we know had the body of a man and the head of a jackal because of the various statues we have unearthed. Their art was directly connected with their idols, but that didn’t mean a relief carving of a man hunting crocodiles was a bad thing.
Statues, paintings and relief carvings tell us about the rich cultural history of Egypt. Art was religion combined with the culture. In Buddhaism, however, the art was the main form of idol worship. The ideal physical measurements of a Buddha statue tell us a lot about Buddhist beliefs, and their idea of a heavenly, or perfect, body2.
The mark placed in the center of the forehead is called the Urna, and represents the Eye of Wisdom. The little flame-shaped elevation put on the top of the head is called the Ushnisha, which represents the Enlightenment Elevation that emerges from the head of a fully enlightened person2. I think Buddha just had a bad hair day.
The legs are seen in a seated yoga or meditation pose called the Dhayanasana with the bottoms of the feet visible. This is thought to be the posture of deepest meditation2. Buddhist statues always show four of the six subtle energy spheres of the body.
The first is the Sphere of the Thousand-Petaled Lotus, which is the enlightenment center and is on the top of the head. The second is the Command-Center, which is the center of thinking and conciousness, and is between the eyebrows. The third is the Sphere of Speech, which is the gutteral center and at the base of the throat. The fourth is the Sphere of the Inner Voice, which is the Source of the Heart, or emotions, and is located in the center of the chest area2.
The fifth is the Naval-Center, which is the Brain of the Belly, and is in the loin area. This is not shown because of the posture of the Buddha’s legs and feet. The sixth is the Root-Center, which is the root of all streams of vital energy and is located at the base of the tailbone. This is also not shown because of the Buddha’s sitting position2.
Buddha statues and images are innately connected to their religion. Any statues made, if not being sold to tourists, are for the purpose of worshipping. Buddhist art is probably all idols because there is no definate world region to pin it to. It is a religious, rather than cultural art. However, in Islamic art we again see religion combining with culture to produce unique art. Calligraphy is the highest form of art in Islamic countries because of it’s association with the Qur’an, but it is also used in any Arabic script. It is used in secular writings and on pottery, metalwork, stone, glass, textiles, and palace walls.3
Another common theme in Islamic art is complex geometric and vegetation patterns, like the arabesque. The continuous pattern is supposed to bring up thoughts of the unending God. Complexity of patterns may have developed because of the lack of religious imagery and/ or figures. Figuaral images, however, are abundant in the secular and private form.3
In contrast to Western art, the primary form of art in Islamic culture is “decorative art”. Wall hangings, rugs, glasses, tiles, inlaid metalwork, carved wood, furniture, ceramics, etc., all are part of the highly developed Islamic art. Small things in daily use as well as monumental architecture all reflect the Islamic habit of meticulously decorating their surroundings.3
Muslim communities, although shying away from religious imagery for fear of idolatry, indulged heavily in secular and personal imagery. Royalty quite often ‘competed’ for the best and most costly array of art. However, a great deal of art was also patronized by urban, middle-class citizens. The artists were usually anonymous except in the case of royal manuscripts, quite a few of which calligraphy artists and a few painters are well-known. The few signatures on pottery, metalwork, etc., suggest that it was a family trade.3
Eastern Orthodox tradition, instead of banning religious art, embraces it wholeheartedly. A vital element of the Church is beautiful art, architechture, and icons. The spledor of the compositions are supposed to remind one of the glory of God. Orthodox images are supposed to reveal transcendental beauty, instead of earthly forms that change with popular opinion. One Orthodox writer says, “One often hears people complain of the somber faces in icons. While the Church's worship appeals to the senses, it presupposes a canon of beauty that is compatible with the new life to which believers are called. The outstanding achievement of the sacred arts of Orthodoxy lies in their brilliant and creative response to the requirements of this canon.” 4
The church building itself had it’s origins in 313 when Constantine the Great legalized Christianity. Most were basilicas, a long rectangle with rows of aisles and an altar at the end in a sort of semi-circle. The dome of the church was introduced in the Hagia Sophia, where it revolutionized Orthodox architecture. Byzantine churches also began incorporating the “cross-in-square” plan, in which the ground floor was cubical and the second floor was crucifux-shaped, usually with a dome on top. After that, spreading to Slavic countries as well as Mediterranean, Orthodox architecture became much more diversified, although usually incorporating a vaulted ceiling and walls bedecked with paintings and icons.4
Images within the Orthodoxy usually trade realism for a form of abstract that sizes objects according to their importance. Icons were decorative as well as instructive, and are an intrinsic part of the church. Orthodox art seems to have the most religious imagery without being associated with idol worship. There was one violent instance somewhere around 729 where Iconoclasts cast down icons as idols and Emperor Leo III banned all images of Christ as a human. The Iconoclasts finally lost the battle in 843, when the majority of the people were persuaded that venerating an image of a deity was not the same as worshipping the object instead of the deity.4
Egyptian, Buddhist, and Orthodox art all share the characteristic of religious images; however, Egyptian and Buddhist images were worshipped whereas Orthodox were merely art. Islamic culture is without religious imagery altogether. All share the similarity of being highly evolved art forms, intricate and manifold cultural expressions that, worshipped or not, were not the cause of idolatry. False religions are what causes idolatry, and the complex art forms that each begets is simply the offpspring of creative minds.
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