A Tour of Five Eras Essay
The best representatives of Greek and Roman culture for the Greco-Roman room of the museum are the terra cotta amphora Funerary Crater and marble sculpture Emperor Caracalla, respectively (Benton and DiYanni, pp. 38, 61). Funerary Crater, created by an unknown artist in the eighth century BC, is decorated with black-figure images typical of the Geometric period, mainly depicting mythological symbols and scenes (Benton and DiYanni, p. 38). This fits well with the Greek culture, which was totally permeated by mythological ideas; a vase such as this one would have been used in burial, since images of the afterlife “help[ed]… define their funerary purpose” (Spivey, 1997, p. 76). On the other hand, the conquering Roman Empire was marked by political leaders with personalities as intense as the Greek gods’. Roman rulers were especially known for their brutality. The crisp, penetrating facial expression on the sculpture Emperor Caracalla, created by an unknown sculptor in AD 215, captures the authoritarian political reality that influenced day-to-day life in the Roman Empire. Taken together, Funerary Crater and Emperor Caracalla showcase the religious beliefs of ancient Greece and the outplay of those beliefs as Roman rulers claimed dominion for themselves.
The Early Christian room transitions from the authoritarian figures of Roman art to the true King, Jesus Christ, to whom “all authority in heaven and on earth” belong (Matthew 28:18). The mosaic The Good Shepherd, created by Meister des Mausoleums der Galla Placidia in the fifth century, particularly emphasizes His regal sovereignty, depicting Him with a royal purple sash and golden cross (Stokstad, 2004). Messages of Jesus’ authority were precious to the early church because of the heavy persecution they faced (Benton and DiYanni, p. 86). If Jesus is truly God’s Son, then His promises are reliable, particularly His promise that “everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:40). This promise of resurrection receives attention in Jonah and the Whale, a sarcophagus relief, created by an unknown artist in the third century around the theme of Matthew 12:40: “[F]or just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” This theme is reinforced by miniature scenes of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in the upper-left corner and the depiction of the road to Emmaus in the center (Jonah, n.d.).
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Created by an unknown artist in AD 1260, The Dragon Pursues the Woman Clothed in the Sun Who Receives the Wings of an Eagle is typical of the many striking illuminations that decorating medieval manuscripts and a fitting exhibit for the Gothic room (Gothic Grandeur, 2012). Depicting a vivid, highly supernatural account from the Bible using tempera colors, gold leaf, color washes, pen, and ink, this piece makes a fitting transition for the biblical accounts that received focus in the Early Christian era (Dragon Pursues, n.d.). Illuminations in general also expressed the medieval respect for the written word, which associated the content of any book, not just the Bible, with the “secure and potent force of authority and power” held by written charters from the Middle Ages (Harvey, 2000, p. 52). In keeping with this notion, Mary Enthroned With Child represents the cultural veneration of Mary as the “Queen of Heaven,” amid other Catholic views that began permeating society (Glatz 1, n.d.). Painted on poplar wood by an unknown Bohemian artist in AD 1350, this piece uses two lions to represent the kingdom of Solomon (1 Ki. 10:20), uses the black base of the throne to represent “a garden enclosed” (SOS 4:12), and makes Mary’s complexion “dark yet lovely” (SOS 1:5), symbolically connecting Mary to the idealistic Shulamite bride from Song of Solomon (Suckale, Weniger & Wendram, 2006, p. 42).
The Renaissance features a tempera painting on canvas by Sandro Botticelli in AD 1482, Primavera, and an oil on wood painting created by Leonardo da Vinci in AD 1503 (Benton and DiYanni, pp. 130-131). As Catholic religious unity dissolved across Europe, and the cultural focus shifted from Christian themes back to the Greek myths. “[A] complex allegory of spring,” Primavera walks us through a right-to-left interpretation of spring in terms of Greek gods and goddesses (Benton and DiYanni, p. 131). This reversion to classical themes was accompanied by intensified interest in humanistic, secular artwork (Benton and DiYanni, p. 130). Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, Mona Lisa, conveys the mysterious happiness of humanity; the word “giocondo” means “happy,” and Mona Lisa’s smile, simultaneously “alluring and aloof,” is symbolic of the mysterious happiness of humanity (Mona Lisa, 2011). Mona Lisa became the first portrait to depict the sitter as having an individual personality, making it a significant milestone in the progression of Renaissance humanism (Mona Lisa, 2011).
As Baroque art tended to be more dramatic, the first piece of artwork in the Baroque room is Gianlorenzo Bernini’s life-sized marble statue, David, created in AD 1623 (Benton and DiYanni, p. 181). The focus is not on the biblical or theological significance of David so much as on the suspense of a critical historical moment. David is frozen just before releasing a stone from his sling, leaning forward with his gaze locked on an implicit target (Benton and DiYanni, p. 181). There is similar theatrical bent in Rembrandt van Rijn’s Dr. Tulp’s Anatomy Lesson, an oil on canvas painting created in AD 1632, which portrays a riveting moment in the middle of a lecture on anatomy (Benton and DiYanni, p. 187). The drama is heightened by the students leaning over the cadaver in anticipation and the dynamic use of light and shadows (Benton and DiYanni, p. 187). These two pieces convey the Baroque culture’s focus on action and realism as opposed to idealism and spiritual symbolism; in many places, people tended toward “realistic paintings that recorded their lives” (Benton and DiYanni, p. 187).
- Benton, J.R., & DiYanni, R. (2014). Handbook for the Humanities. Pearson Education, Inc.
- Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200-1350. (2012). The J. Paul Getty Museum. Retrieved from http://news.getty.edu/presskits/gothic-grandeur-manuscript-illumination-12001350.htm
- Harvey, D. (2000). Continuity, authority and the place of heritage in the Medieval world. Journal of Historical Geography, 26(1). Retrieved from https://ac.els-cdn.com/S0305748899901901/1-s2.0-S0305748899901901-main.pdf?_tid=73a3a1eb-0618-44eb-b001-41dbefbad79d&acdnat=1552531767_385539300b48afb4e51803ad605125b2
- Mary Enthroned with the Child (Glatzer Madonna). (n.d.). Google Arts & Culture. Retrieved from https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/mary-enthroned-with-the-child-glatz-madonna/uAEH8VtWAMBbfA
- Spivey, N. J. (1997). Greek art. London: Phaidon Press.
- Stokstad, M. (2007). Art in the Christian Tradition: Christ the Good Shepherd. Jean and Alexander Heard Divinity Library. Retrieved from http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51106
- Suckale, R., Weniger, M., Wundram, M., & Walther, I. F. (2006). Gothic. Hong Kong; Los Angeles: Taschen.
- The Dragon Pursues the Woman Clothed in the Sun Who Receives the Wings of an Eagle. (n.d.). The J. Paul Getty Museum. Retrieved from http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/3077/unknown-maker-the-dragon-pursues-the-woman-clothed-in-the-sun-who-receives-the-wings-of-an-eagle-english-about-1255-1260/
- The Mona Lisa – By Leonardo da Vinci. (2011). Leonardo da Vinci. Retrieved from https://www.leonardodavinci.net/the-mona-lisa.jsp
- The Jonah Sarcophagus. (n.d.). Retreived from http://www.christianiconography.info/sicily/sarcophagusJonah.html”