The Eye Of Faith: The History Of Art, Religion And The Human Body
Companion to the BBC TV Series CIVILISATIONS
Focusing on the arrival of the human figure as a subject of art, Mary Beard examines the history of beauty in civilisation with The Eye Of Faith.
Beginning with the Jericho painted skulls from 10,000 years ago, and the extraordinary figures of Ain Ghazal. It examines in depth the creativity that gave identity to ancient Egypt, where colossi of powerful rulers were also matched by the depictions of citizens and the wider population. From there, we explore the unprecedented art of the Greek revolution, where beauty and the perfection of the human figure set a benchmark for all Western art to come and profoundly influenced the flowering of human sculpture in Rome. Finally, it moves to China to examine the vast army of Terracotta Warriors commissioned by the first emperor and ends with the unexpected figure of Monk Wuxia, a mummified Buddhist monk created from the body of the monk himself.
Duffy’s Review Of How Do We Look? The Eye Of Faith
If you love a good history documentary, you are likely to have watched one presented by Mary Beard. Mary is a professor of classics and has world-wide academic acclaim. She is regularly on television, written some best selling books on ancient Rome, and also more recently, and disappointingly been the target of some pretty crappy internet trolling. I won’t give those comments and stories any credit here. Instead, I will just talk about this wonderful book, which accompanies the incredibly interesting BBC series, Civilisations.
The Eye Of Faith is in two parts. The first shows us how the human body was represented and displayed in ancient art and how this changed through the ages. From the giant stone heads carved by the Olmec in Central America to the fluid statues full of movement and incredible detail created by the Greeks and the enigmatic terracotta army commissioned by the first emperor of China. The second part of the book delves into art and religion. The wonder of the Ankor Wat, the huge Christian mosaics and iconography such as the crying Virgin Mary of Seville.
Mary Beard takes a step back with these examples of ancient art and steers us away from putting our modern day points of view on them, or delving too deeply for meaning and making assumptions. When writing about the giant statues of Ramses II, arguably one of the most famous Pharaoh’s in history with either the biggest ego or biggest insecurity, Mary reminds us that not all ancient people would’ve been submissive and towed the line.
‘Ancient viewers were not all naive consumers of any message that was thrown at them. Even if some would have looked on these statues in awe and wonderment it is a fair guess that others would have walked by and laughed, or even spat.’
Today, most of us in the western world laugh when Putin wrestles a bear or rides a horse topless to show off his power and masculinity, why would that be different back then?
Even taking a look at something as simple as Greek pottery can demonstrate the power of art. The pottery used in the kitchen by women usually depicted a woman holding a child and making wool. Two key achievements for any roman wife. Whereas the men’s drinking pots show slaves at half the size of their masters and much merriment, drunkenness and nakedness, or manly pursuits such as stoking a fire.
For the great leaders of history, art and grand statues were part of the propaganda machine. More art and gigantic statues were erected at main town entrances, and close to palaces, courts and gathering places across all religions and ancient civilisations. Why was this? Mary takes the view that when it comes to staying at the top, you need to exert your power first to those closest to you, as they are the most likely to want to topple you.
I would say that theory is just as true today as in ancient history. There may not be cloaks, daggers and poison, but there certainly is phone hacking, scandal and underhand tactics to topple a leader, or to gain power in unscrupulous ways.
The Eye Of Faith is a very interesting book which will stay around on my coffee table for a while. I look forward to reading the rest in the series.
The Eye Of Faith is available in all good bookstores. Buy here for 23% off!
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Published by Allen & Unwin
Hardcover RRP $34.99