Have you ever had the experience of seeing a piece of artwork for the first time and being completely blown away by it?
This morning I was reading my daily email of NY Times headlines, and a travel article about Roman ruins in the south of France caught my eye. I skimmed the article and then looked at the accompanying slideshow of photographs. At this one I had to stop for a long time:
Can you see how amazing the relief is in this Roman carving? I can see at least three levels of soldiers coming right out toward me, including the center-left soldier who is almost three dimensional at head level. And each soldier has a distinct, individual face and expression. Notice how some have facial hair, unlike typical Roman fashion — perhaps they are native Gauls? And Anthropapa noticed how the relief and level of detail increases from the bottom up. I love the composition of this piece, the beautiful forms, the expressive faces.
One of the more fascinating things I learned in Foundation Year was Rudolf Steiner’s views of the evolution of human consciousness, particularly as revealed through art. He divided human history (we will exclude prehistory here) into seven epochs, each represented by a particular culture that exemplifies the state of consciousness of that time: Indian, Ancient Persian, Egypto-Chaldean, Greco-Roman, Western/Central European (the current epoch), Russian/Slavic, and American.
Steiner described how humanity became more and more separated from the spiritual world, culminating in the incarnation of Jesus Christ who brought a new way for humanity to access spiritual truths and who averted the impendingly complete materialism of the human being. (Far too complicated to go into more detail here!) However, Steiner also said that this “fall” into materialism and separation was necessary for the development of individual human consciousness.
Hence arose that peculiar and quite “human” civilization in the Graeco-Roman time in which man was made to rely entirely on himself. For all the distinctive characteristics of art and political life in Greek and Roman times are traceable to the fact that man had to live out his own life in his own way.
–The Spiritual Guidance of Man and Humanity, lecture 3
I feel that I can see a little bit of that in this sculpture: the individuation of the faces, the high level of detail in three dimensions. We don’t see the stylized human forms of the ancient Egyptian or Persian cultures, and though those cultures did produce art with its own detail and complexity, I would argue not in such a three-dimensional way and certainly not with such individuated features. (And yes, this is a gross simplification of thousands of years of art.)