Painting Before 1300 AD (1): Overview

Painting Before 1300 AD (1): Overview

In the 32,000 years (more or less) since the earliest known paintings were created, untold numbers of tribes, towns, villages and cities have come and gone. Few, however, have left enough paintings to make it possible to study their art as a connected sequence. This essay gives an overview of the most important early civilizations in Europe and the Mediterranean area for paintings.

Prehistoric

Painting from the Altamira cave in Spain, perhaps 20,000 years old. Photo: Yvon Fruneau for UNESCO / Wikipedia

For the very early period – the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods – we have only archaeological evidence of activities such as tool-making, hunting, domestication of animals, and burial practices. Recorded history begins around 3200 BC, with the invention of writing by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that’s also known as the “Fertile Crescent” (modern Iraq). The Sumerians and those who dominated the area after them, from Akkadians through Babylonians to Assyrians and Persians, left distinctive sculpture, but to date few if any paintings have been found from their cultures.

Egyptian

Egyptian painted low relief from tomb of Nebamun, ca. 1350 BC. British Museum. Photo: Wikipedia

Meanwhile, in the Nile River valley, writing developed around 3000 BC, apparently independently of the Sumerians. The Egyptians were the longest-running act in the ancient world. They sustained a distinct civilization, with highly characteristic art, at least until the first century BC – despite being overrun in succession by the Assyrians in 715 BC, then by Persians, Greeks and Romans. Some Egyptian writings and illustrations on papyrus survive, but we will be looking mostly at painted low reliefs from tombs and temples.

Aegean (Minoan & Mycenaean)

Minoan fresco from the Palace at Knossos, Crete, ca. 1600-1400 BC. Photo: Wikipedia / cavorite

In mainland Greece and the Aegean, the Minoan and Mycenean civilizations both began around 2800 BC. Paintings survive from ca. 1600-1400 BC, mostly in the form of frescoes. Some are of stunning design and great charm. While most or all of them were lost to view in the Greek Dark Ages, and hence had no effect on subsequent art, they provide a fascinating first look at the Greeks.

Greek (and Roman)

Around 700-500 BC, the Greeks burst out of their Dark Ages with a new form of writing, new types of government, and increased trade. Greek philosophy, literature and science began at this time, as well as monumental building in stone and life-size sculpture. Regrettably, the remains of Greek painting are scarce and fragmentary: many works were on wood, which has rotted away, or on wall frescoes, which shattered when the buildings they decorated were destroyed. Indisputably, however, the Greeks of the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods (ca. 600-ca. 100 BC) made more innovations in painting than any previous civilization, and were unchallenged in that respect until the Renaissance. Their work strongly influenced the Romans, and through Roman paintings, mosaics and manuscripts, influenced the Byzantine Empire (the eastern half of the Roman Empire) and eventually medieval Europe.

Alexander Mosaic, ca. 100 BC (Roman mosaic copy of a Greek painting). Naples, Museo Arqueologico. Photo: Magrippa / Wikipedia

Medieval

Medieval Europe, as the inheritor of the tradition (however mangled and fragmentary) of the Greeks and Romans, and the predecessor of the Renaissance, is the final topic of study in this unit. We will see what sort of paintings were produced in the Dark Ages (ca. 476-800 AD), and then what was depicted as Europe began its long, slow crawl upward, with the return of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s this-worldly point-of-view, the breakdown of the feudal system, more extensive trade, and better living conditions all setting the stage for the Renaissance.

Christ in the Book of Kells, ca. 800 AD. Trinity College, Dublin. Photo: Wikipedia

So: painting before 1300 AD is not a single, steady progression. It is a series of hard-earned advances, of great leaps forward and equally astounding losses. Knowledge of how to skillfully depict landscapes, still lifes, and all sorts of narratives with human figures in a myriad of poses was slowly gained, then lost and forgotten. The use of blended colors, of lighting to show volume and texture, of linear and atmospheric perspective: all came and went at least once, sometimes more often. Many of these advances were unknown to later generations, until the extensive archaeological excavations of the early twentieth century.

In the following essays we will examine the styles and subjects that distinguish paintings of the prehistoric, Egyptian, Aegean, Greek and Medieval periods. We will also see what skills artists retained from previous periods and what innovations they made, and consider what their art can show us about the concerns and attitudes of the civilization whose artists produced it.

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  • Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a couple dozen essays on the history of painting for BeyondBooks.com, a subscription service that provided online supplementary materials for high-school students. The site’s owners have given me permission to publish the essays (copyright © 2001 Beyond Books) on my website. This lightly edited essay is the first of six in the section on painting before 1300 AD. I’ve only lightly edited this essay because copyright issues could get thorny … I’m using this series to get my mind back in gear for getting into book form my Innovators in Painting, a companion to Innovators in Sculpture. Both focus not on the art of separate civilizations, but on the major innovations that gave all artists greater power to make viewers stop, look, and think about sculptures. I’m using it to get my mind back in gear for getting into book form my Innovators in Painting, a companion to my Innovators in Sculpture. The Innovators books focus not on the art of separate civilizations, but on the major innovations that gave all artists greater power to make viewers stop, look, and think about sculptures.
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