Today’s Art History Lesson

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:

An ancient carving at the Musée Départemental de lArles Antique

An ancient carving at the Musée Départemental de l'Arles Antique, Photo: Ed Alcock for The New York 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.)

Achaemenid (Ancient Persian) archers

Achaemenid (Ancient Persian) archers

Nebsen and Nebet-Ta, ca. 1400-1352 BCE

Nebsen and Nebet-Ta, ca. 1400-1352 BCE

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Filed under Anthroposophy, art

10 responses to “Today’s Art History Lesson

  1. The depth is pretty amazing. My daughter and I are knee-deep in Roman history right now. Thanks for sharing that.

  2. Lisa Zahn

    Thank you for the lesson! The single piece of art that has most spoken to me, for reasons somewhat beyond understanding, is Renoir’s “On The Terrace” (the two sisters, that is). When I saw it at the Art Institute in Chicago, I started to cry. The colors and 3D effect of the oil paints, particularly the red in the older sisters lapel flower, just popped out and amazed me. It wasn’t even the subject matter, as much as those colors and the dimension.

    So, I get why this sculpture spoke to you. If only we could go to the south of France to see it in person!


  3. I really need to read more Steiner. I’m curious about what he said the next epoch would be like.

  4. “evolution of human consciousness”…I love that phrase. Much to think about with this post. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  5. dadwhowrites

    I’ve always felt that the Romans are very close to us and that when Europe fell into the Dark Ages, we lost a lot more than we like to think. The meditations of Marcus Aurelius and other miraculously preserved legacies are quite precious to me.

  6. Kit

    Very interesting on Steiner’s view of history. My kids are at a Waldorf school, and the way they study history now makes more sense reading your post. I’m going to have to start reading in more depth on his philosophy. So far I’ve only skimmed his educational theory.

  7. Alida

    When we stepped into Notre Dame Cathedral, Sergio let out this sigh. I had never heard it before and the look on his face was priceless. He was just blown away!

    I love the detail on that Roman Carving. I would be able to stand in front of it and just study it for hours.

  8. By the way I started reading the Steiner books I checked out from the library, but the end of the semester rush pushed that aside. I then had to return them since they were interlibrary loan and could not be renewed. I’ll order them again!

    It’s also interesting how art after Rome became very much built around spiritual perspective (and the dark ages, of course, were certainly not primarily materialist — at least not in the Christian world). Jesus or God was the largest, and the size would diminish until you got to the smallest folk — average humans (church people were larger). At the time of the renaissance as old Roman methods were recovered, and knowledge from the Islamic world was introduced, perspective shifted. It went from being a “God”s eye view” to a “human’s eye view” and everything changed. That’s what I find fascinating about art — what it says about the perspective a culture.

    But though it was long ago, and they couldn’t get beyond the limits of their technology, the Romans mastered the material world with the level of technology they had. The aqueducts, roads, and military technology are truly extraordinary — as well as some of the artwork!

  9. Art history, travel, …sigh….yes that sculpture is amazing.
    Thanks for your thoughts and the push to go google some art!
    Can you recommend any books that expound upon these Steiner thoughts?

  10. Eve

    I’m very late commenting on this, but brilliant insights! I’ve just come from a local art museum, myself, today and was mulling over some of these very ideas. That Roman relief is amazing.

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