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Art as a Product of Its Context

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Introduction

It is the common knowledge that art is a product of its context which is often influenced by the historical period of its creation. In order to demonstrate how each cultural period utilized specific conventions of representation and defined a method of delivering them, three pieces of art will be analyzed. They are: the Stele of Hammurabi, Women at a Fountain House, and Cubicullum of Leonis, Catacomb of Commodilla. The paper seeks to define how the historical context is depicted in each of the artworks to support the idea that art is a product of its context.

The Stele of Hammurabi

Hammurabi is known for creating a systematic codification of Babylonian people’s duties, rights, and punishments for wrongdoing. The codification is now known as the Stele of Hammurabi, and is engraved on a black diorite slab. This famous artifact, therefore, is both a valuable historical document that records a conversation about justice between man and god, and an artwork that depicts a legendary event. At the top of the Stele, one can see Hammurabi who is standing in the state of praying to the sun god and god of justice, Shamash. The codes of justice are situated underneath, grouped in horizontal bands of engraved signs. Such an idea of laws given by god, engraved on a stone has a long historical tradition in the ancient Near East. For example, the lawgiver of Israel, Moses, according to the Bible, received two tablets of stone with engraved Ten Commandments from God. Therefore, the Stele can be considered to be a product of its historical context, the king strengthened his power by referring to the power of the god. This can be also proved by the fact that a prologue on the front of the Stele contains an epilogue which glorifies him as a peacemaker and lists the buildings Hammurabi has restored (Adams 2007).

The main emphasis of the artwork is made on Hammurabi’s role as a theocrat, and that the laws come from the god himself. The content of the code is of immense historical importance; the laws describe the code of justice, laws on commercial and property matters, physical assault, and domestic problems of the time. Although some punishments are quite violent and excessive today, the Hammurabi code was breaking new ground by regulating punishments and laws, instead of leaving them to the whims of officials and rulers.

Women at a Fountain House, Priam Painter, 520-510 BC.

The Priam Painter, an archaic period ceramic artist, gives an insight into Greek life by painting a fountain house in Greece. As most of ancient Greek women were confined to their homes, their trip to the communal fountain or well, which they made every day, was a crucial event. The popularity of fountain scenes at the time may also reflect the improvements in water supply in Athens. Alternatively, the scenes might have ritual connotations. Some figures depicted in the scene carry leafy branches on the shoulder of the jar, which is often interpreted in religious context (Gardner and Kleiner 2009).

The inclusion of the gods Dionysos and Hermes has influenced some scholars’ suggestion that this and the similar scenes may depict the ritual of Hydrophoria. This ritual usually took place on the second day of the Antherestia, the spring festival in Ancient Greece, and involved the ceremony of pouring water into a chasm. 

Cubicullum of Leonis, Catacomb of Commodilla

There are two main parts of the painting in the Catacomb - the left and the right. On the right scene, two early Roman Christian martyrs, Adauctus (d. 303) and Felix (d. 274) flank a young, beardless Jesus, who is holding a book which emphasizes his teaching role. While including Roman martyrs and Peter in the decoration of the chamber, the early Christians, who made this catacomb to bury their dead, emphasized the important status of their city in the history of Christianity. Moreover, on the left scene of this Roman catacomb painting, Peter, as well as Moses before him, strike the rock from which water starts to flow. Peter, being imprisoned after the arrestment of Jesus, converted his fellow jailers and prisoners to Christianity, but he needed water to baptize them (Stockstad 2011).

On the painting, Christ takes on the guise of not the miracle-worker or young teacher, seen so often in the art of Early Christianity, but of a Greek philosopher, with long hair and beard. The halo around his head demonstrates his divinity and importance, a symbol taken from the conventions of imperial art of Rome, where haloes sometimes appear around the emperors’ heads.

As a matter of fact, the two paintings represent two main directions of the Christian art: the iconic and the narrative. The narrative direction recounts an event drawn from the life of St. Peter striking the rock, which evokes the Church establishment, as well as the Christian ritual of baptism. The iconic depiction of Christ’s face flanked by omega and alpha offers a tangible depiction of an intangible idea. The letters symbolize the beginning and end of the world, and, combined with Christ’s image, represent an idea of the everlasting heavenly Christ. Therefore, one can see the peculiarities of Early Christian period in art, which define its historical context.

Conclusion

Having analyzed the abovementioned artworks, it is evident that the Stele of Hammurabi was designed to strengthen the king’s authority on the conquered land and his connection to the god, as well as establish his rule of law on these territories. Women at a Fountain House on the ceramic were supposed to popularize Greek religious rituals and Hydrophoria. The Catacomb of Commodilla pictures demonstrate the mix of Early Christian traditions with Greek ideals and the divinity of Roman emperors. The following evidence proves the fact that art is a product of its context and is influenced by a specific period in history. 

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