Art: Roman, Islamic, and Early Middle Ages
Art forms and styles differ from period to period and for culture to culture. They often display different characteristics that pertain to that particular culture or period. In understanding the history of art one has to take into account the historical, cultural and other conditions that prevailed at the time and which may have affected the type and style of art that was created. This refers particularly to different religious perceptions and orientations
At the same time understanding a piece of art in the context of its period and historical- cultural matrix is never a simple process. Many factors and complexities come into play in the analysis of any one work of art. Another aspect that we will explore in this paper is the comparison of styles and forms of art from different cultures and periods of history. This paper will attempt to discuss these different works not only in terms of their dissimilarities but also in terms of any similarities that can be found. The following study will also provide a very brief overview of the different periods and cultures as a precursor to the more in-depth discussion of selected artworks from periods and cultures.
Roman art refers to the visual art that was created during the history of the Roman Empire and which relates to the cultural milieu of ancient Rome. Roman art includes many types of art; architecture, painting, sculpture and mosaic work as well as other art forms, metalwork, gem engraving, ivory carvings, pottery, and miniature book illustrations.
Central to the style of Roman art is that they inherited many of the views and perceptions about art from the ancient Greek civilization. This refers in particular to Roman sculpture that was deeply influenced by the Greek understanding and predilection for the human form. This aspect will also form a focus of the following discussion. Other influences that should be considered in an analysis of Roman art include Etruscan as well as Egyptian cultural influences. Most importantly one must realize the impact of these various influences when examining the Roman Art.
Islamic art is usually defined as art produced in Islamic countries from the seventh century onwards.
One of the central characteristics that distinguish this art from Western art in Europe is the relative absence of the human figure or rather the reductions of emphasis on the human element. Because of Islamic religious views, they tend to see the human figure as inappropriate in works of art. They consider this as a form of idolatry or idol worship that would go against the teaching of the Koran.
On the other hand, Islamic art is not only religious but the art also refers to the rich and varied Islamic culture. One also has to bear in mind the complex historical antecedents of Islamic art. Many countries that the Muslims conquered had artistic traditions that were absorbed into Islamic art (The Nature of Islamic Art). Furthermore, Islamic art is noted for its strong aesthetic appeal and its unique balance between design and form that very often transcends cultural differences.
Early Middle Ages
In historical terms this period of history is referred to as the "Period in European history traditionally dated from the fall of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Renaissance" (Middle Ages). As a result of the decline of the Roman Empire, European society was exposed to a wide variety of new social and cultural influences. This was to start a series of changes in the cultures of Europe that would lead to the Renaissance. For example, this change was characterized by "... the emergence of Gothic architecture, the appearance of new religious orders, and the expansion of learning and the university" among others (Middle Ages).
In terms of art this meant that the decorative arts of the Celtic and Germanic barbarians were incorporated into Christian art. This led to new artistic forms and content. Among the most important art forms of this period were the impressive and ornately decorated manuscripts by monks on vellum (Art and architecture of the Early Middle Ages). These will be further discussed below.
As has been suggested above, Islamic art like many other cultural forms of art is "...the mirror of a culture and its world view" (Siddiqui). This could also apply to the analysis of Roman and Medieval art. However, with Islamic art one must encounter an art form that is strongly linked to the cultural and religious milieu from which it originates. In Islamic art we find that not only does Islamic art reflect the cultural values of Islamic countries but "...even more importantly, the way in which its adherents, the Muslims, view the spiritual realm, the universe, life, and the relationship of the parts to the whole" (Siddiqui).
Two central aspects of this form of art that can be isolated in a number of examples; these are the religious injunction against idolatry and the general view that to represent something in art was the function of Gods and not human beings. As a result much of the art in older Islamic cultures is decorative and abstract.
This results in art that limits the representation of the figure as a consequence of cultural views and perceptions. When figures do appear, they are secondary to the religious features of the artwork. As a result in general Islamic artists "....did not develops an understanding of anatomy, musculature, and perspective" and they "...channeled their energies into the development of decorative patterns; based on geometric forms..." (ISLAMIC ART AND ARCHITECTURE).
A good example of this particular style of art is the abstract motifs and decorative emblems in the artwork of a glazed ceramic tile: Iran: Late Fifteenth century.
This work of art clearly shows the religious and cultural motivation that lies behind Islamic art. In the first place the center of the work represented the dome of as mosque - that is as central symbol of Islamic religion and culture. Second, the calligraphic script that borders the central symbol is intended to be both decorative as well as abstract, and an informative element of the tile. The script refers to the religious context of the artwork and the entire work becomes an example of the way that art serves religion in Islamic culture.
The above example differs markedly from the human-centered world of Roman art. An example of Roman art is human figuration and strong sculptures. A Good example is the statue of Augustus of Primaporta.
This is a statue of the mighty and revered Augustus Caesar. It represents pomp and power and human achievement - that is very different to the abstract humility of Islamic art. Once again we can refer to the way that culture plays a decisive role in the form and content of art. In this sculpture we note that the human form is clearly outlined and the sculpture in the first place is a celebration of the human.
Second, the raised hand and the military accoutrements of the figure attest to his high social position and the conquering and all powerful nature of the Roman Empire at the time. The statue is a symbol of human triumph and achievement that reflects the vast and dominating Roman Empire of the time. This is in strong contrast to the Islamic emphasis on the spiritual as opposed to the human, which is evident in figure 1.
The artworks prevalent during the early Middle Ages in many ways stand between these two extremes. The art of this period was one that was both religiously inclined but also celebrated the human form and human nature that was to become so prominent in the Renaissance. In many ways much of early Medieval art was similar to the abstract and decorative art that we find in Islamic examples. An example that has been chosen to represent this early period of European art is the Gerona Bible Master from Bologna, Italy,
This decorative example displays intricate artwork that emphasizes and enhances the Biblical context. The text or lyrics on the page refers to hymnal and religious phrases of praise, "Let us rejoice" (Art: Middle Ages). The decorative images add depth to the aesthetics of the script and the manuscript. Another good example from this period is the Lindisfarne Gospels.
The Lindisfarne Gospels is described as "...one of Britain's greatest art treasures, and was probably made on Holy Island in Northumbria (North-East England), in the late seventh or early eighth century" (The Lindisfarne Gospels Tour). This exquisitely designed and painted manuscript "...contains the oldest surviving translation of the Gospels into English" (The Lindisfarne Gospels Tour).
The resemblance between this work and the style of many Islamic artworks is obvious from the above discussion. Both show the same decorative embellishments of the religious text that acts as a support for the religious or spiritual message.
In general, while Islamic art is characterized by a representation, Roman and to a lesser extent medieval art was concerned with representing and often extolling the virtues of the human figure and the human enterprise in art. In this sense many critics comment that the Roman art was more secular than the religious art of Islam and the early Middle Ages.
In this discussion on these different periods and cultures it becomes clear that one shouldn't make the mistake of presuming that a period of art is homogenous. In other words, there are many differences and variations in a single culture or period; for example, Islamic art is extremely varied and is influenced by a number of different sources.
The above brief analysis and comparison is intended as a discursive overview of the different periods and cultures. As noted this overview is not exhaustive by any means. What is however clear from the above is that there are some cardinal differences between Islamic art and both Roman and medieval art. The most striking difference is the greater emphasis of decorative elements that is religiously inspired, compared to the more secular Roman art. This can be seen in the emphasis on the human figure, power and fame, which is markedly absent from early Islamic.
- Art and architecture of the Early Middle Ages. Retrieved from http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Middle_Ages
- Art: Middle Ages. Retrieved from http://www.artlex.com/ArtLex/m/middleages.html
- Roman art. Retrieved from http://www.artchive.com/artchive/R/roman.html Siddiqui E.
- Islamic Art. Retrieved from http://www.colostate.edu/orgs/MSA/find_more/islart.html
- ISLAMIC ART AND ARCHITECTURE. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?vendorId=FWNE.fw..is045900.a
- The Lindisfarne Gospels Tour. Retrieved from http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery
- The Nature of Islamic Art. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orna/hd_orna.htm