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How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith
- Read in 15 minutes
- Audio & text available
- Contains 9 key ideas
Civilizations (2018) is the companion to a major new BBC documentary series co-presented by renowned classical historian Mary Beard. Divided into two parts, it takes a close look at the relationship between civilization and artistic representation. Beginning with the history of depictions of the human form, Beard moves on to cast an eye over the long and intimate relationship between art and religion over the centuries.
Key idea 1 of 9
The meaning of artworks is shaped by the way people interact with them.
If we want to see art, especially ancient art, we usually head to a museum or the library. But that’s not how most artists down the ages intended for their work to be seen. In fact, the meaning of many artistic creations has been shaped by how people interact with them.
Take the two statues of Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III in Thebes: their meaning was defined by what people thought when they traveled to the ancient city to see them up close and personal.
One of the statues was a famous attraction in antiquity. Its main draw was its ability to “sing” – how it sang remains unclear; it may have been a prank played by mischievous local children or possibly just the sound of air escaping through cracks in the masonry.
Because it depended on the weather (or naughty children), visitors weren’t guaranteed to hear the statue singing. Soon enough, however, contemporaries began to interpret it as a good omen if a visitor was fortunate enough to hear the sound.
One traveler who made the journey was the Roman emperor Hadrian. His sojourn was recorded in verse by the courtier Julia Balbilla in 130 CE and later inscribed on the left foot and leg of the statue.
In the poem, she states that Hadrian heard the sound and that this was a clear sign that the Gods favored him!
It’s clear, therefore, that art in the ancient world was about more than just being pleasing to the eye, and Athenian ceramics provide another great example of this.
Take, for example, a wine cooler crafted in the fifth century BCE. The vessel is decorated with images of naked, drunken satyrs – mythical half-human, half-animal creatures who lived in the wilderness. They are shown having a fittingly wild time: one balances a wine goblet on his erect penis, while another guzzles wine poured directly into his mouth.
That might strike us a celebration of hedonism, but appearances can be deceptive. The real meaning is rather more sober.
Athenians were busy building cities and settling down to urban life when the cooler was made and were bothered by the question of where to draw the line between civilization and barbarity.
The images were designed to make the vessel’s users think – something only possible because they had been placed on something as humdrum and everyday as a wine cooler.