I mostly like art and I love unusual architecture, but I am hardly an expert. That’s why I am thrilled that Erin Halvey, art expert and blogger extraordinaire, agreed to write this guest post for us today. I learned a lot and I know you will too. You can check Erin out everyday on her web site A Sense of Place.
Thanks to the American school system, you may or may not have graduated with at least one measly nugget of art history. Often, you’ll get a glimpse in a history class or world cultures class or even a studio art class. But here’s the thing: you were probably taught a couple myths. These myths and misconceptions, in my opinion, can really detract from your travels. Either you miss out on why it’s such a cool site, or you might skip something entirely based on an assumption. Since my focus in both my art history and history majors was on ancient and medieval, and since Europe is where I’ve mainly traveled, I’m going to highlight a few myths and misconceptions tied to ancient and medieval Europe.
Christians Hid from Persecution in the Catacombs of Rome
Nope. Ancient Romans, as well as other cultures, would only bury the dead outside the city walls; unless you were emperor, but that’s another story. The Appian Way was the traditional place to bury the dead, but since Rome was an extremely large city, it was starting to get a bit crowded out there. Starting around the 2nd century AD (or CE if you prefer), Romans started digging tunnels in the soft rock and made lots of chambers to place urns and coffins. If you think about it, catacombs were condos for the dead. Since Christians favored burial over cremation, they needed more space, and that space was below ground. There are several catacombs that have both Roman and Christian tombs. Christians weren’t hiding out here, but they were performing funeral rites.
Why is this all important? Roman funerary art was co-opted and adapted to become Christian art. The Good Shepherd looked a lot like the pretty pastoral scenes featuring shepherd boys, the peacock was adapted to be a symbol of the Resurrection, and so on. Catacombs are where you can actually see pagan motifs evolve into clear Christian symbols. These symbols went on to be standard themes in medieval and Renaissance art. Without Christian art, there would have been a very different evolution of Western art. If you look at the art in a catacomb and realize that you’re seeing the beginning of a form of art, it makes a catacomb visit much fuller than “ooh, people hid from the Romans here”.
The Arch of Constantine Looks Weird Because All the Good Artists Left
If you’re a history buff, you’ve probably encountered Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” His idea that classical art basically tanked as the Roman Empire fell apart formed the entire thought structure of medieval history for centuries. Turns out that’s not true.
Thanks to some open-minded scholars willing to take a second look, or really a good look the first time around, we know that it was extremely common for Roman rulers to borrow pieces from older monuments to legitimize their power. They linked themselves to these predecessors by recycling their monuments and having busts or coins produced that made the new ruler actually look like the older, legit ruler.
What makes the Arch of Constantine interesting is that he’s got to market himself as the new, single ruler after a tetrarchy to a more diverse empire. So he embraced the Roman tradition of upcycling pieces from other monuments to build the arch, but he also appealed to his Eastern subjects by using a flattened perspective and a visual hierarchy that made it clear to them that he was emperor. Think of ancient Egyptian art. It’s clear who the person of power is no matter the scene since they are always the largest figure. The perspective of foreground and background confuse this form of visual hierarchy so they flatten it to make the important person obvious. They didn’t depart from classical art because those artists left or forgot; they created a new, abstracted system that blended the temporal world with spiritual and made the subject front and center.
Medieval Churches And Ancient Sculpture Are Boring With All That Gray
I can see how looking at a ton of stone can get monotonous with just shades of white and gray over and over. But here’s the thing, only Renaissance sculpture is monochromatic. Ancient sculptures and medieval churches were PAINTED. This can be a bit jarring when you’ve always assumed the images that you see of the Laocoön or Vézelay or Augustus of Prima Porta were the original versions of them.
What did they really look like back in the day? Well, let’s just say their sense of color compared to what is considered normal today are a bit different. Augustus of Prima Porta looked like he borrowed clothes from Ronald McDonald. Medieval church interiors were colorful with painted carvings, wall paintings, colored choir screens, and tapestries. The colors of stained glass would meld with these colors to create a true jewel box effect. Scandinavia and the British Isles have several medieval churches with remnants of paint. Just image what the galleries of museums would look like with brightly colored busts and medieval sculptures rather than the faded stones we see today.
I hope I opened up a new world of understanding ancient and medieval art, whether it’s in a museum or on site. Understanding the truth and the background behind a few blocks of stone can make a visit far more interesting to the casual visitor. It can make a simple visit far more enriching or even pique your interest to check out things you might have otherwise written off as boring.
What are some surprising things you’ve learned about art and architecture on your travels?