Sacred Art

Art as Theology: Chapter Three

      1. Getting Organized
      2. Egypt in the Middle Kingdom
      3. Akhenaton
      4. The Spirit of Greece

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"Every artist writes his own autobiography." (Havelock Ellis, The New Spirit, 'Tolstoi', 1890)

Getting Organized

Neolithic society is marked by an increase of agriculture and a more settled community life. As communities grow in size, many of the activities of the community are taken over by specialists. Religion in these larger agrarian communities is an organized affair requiring idols, amulets, sacred symbols, votive offerings, burial gifts and burial monuments (Hauser, vol.1, 1951. Page 15). Religious specialists shape the rituals of the religious life. Things religious are increasing separated from the ordinary or profane life. In Neolithic society there is a clear distinction between sacred and profane art, (Hauser, vol.1, 1951. Pages 21-26). By the end of the Neolithic era there is a distinct class of artist-crafts worker, and a distinct class of religious officials (Hauser, vol.1, 1951. Page 33).

An important note must be inserted here. Almost all modern scholarship see these social developments as a step in social evolution. At the root of this evolutionary model of society is the hubris of believing that we are the most highly evolved people to have ever existed. While my own views simply followed in line with my academic training, I now seriously question this. The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) illustrates that from God's point of view, increased social strength and cohesion is not necessarily a good thing. Ultimately higher civilizations all succumb to the lusts of the flesh and especially pride. The rise of powerful civilizations has been accompanied by massive campaigns of brutality. The history of the last century alone should silence the notion that somehow the planet is in a process of social evolution which is creating ever better “civilization”. It was not some other higher civilization that conquered Rome, but waves of Neolithic nomads.

To my mind, Enoch (Gen. 5:21-24), who may well have owned nothing but stone tools, represents a higher man than I. By this I am not suggesting a neo-Luddite quest for a pure society. After all, I am using a computer to write this. I am merely arguing that refined tools do not imply a refined man. Billions of dollars are spent on internet pornography annually, this is not progress toward social refinement in any stretch of the word.

Therefore it is my hope to reshape the discussion from an evolutionary one, to a discussion of social models and how the artist interacts with religion. As noted above, artists, in Neolithic society, were separated from the realm of sacred practitioners, now a specialized priestly class. Art objects were produced by this specialized class of artist-craft workers. Priests absorbed themselves in astrology, the magic arts, expiation, philosophy and theology. The artist took the task of representing and embellishing the spiritual life of the community, but, all under the watchful eye of the priesthood. The priest and the artist are now clearly distinct, with the artist in service to the priest, (Hauser, vol.1, 1951. Pages 33).

There is a definite move to larger and more awesome representation. Larger communities have larger aggregate wealth with which to display there religious beliefs. Statues, alters and temples within these larger communities take on gigantic proportions. Scientist and scholars today are amazed at the accomplishments that these societies managed without modern heavy machinery. In addition to the massive art projects, separation of the priests from the common people lends an air of sacred awe and mystery to their practices.


Egypt in the Middle Kingdom

Egypt is an excellent example of how tightly controlled by social and religious etiquette the arts were. Quoting again from Hauser, “The fact that the sculptures of the Old Kingdom are richer in individual features than the biographical records of the same period is to be explained, among other things, by the circumstance that they still have a magical function reminiscent of Paleolithic art, which the literary works lack. For in the portrait the Ka—that is the guardian-spirit of the deceased—was supposed to find the body in which he had dwelt on earth in its true and genuinely lifelike form again; this magical religious aim is partly the explanation of the naturalism of the portrayals.

“In the Middle Kingdom the representative function of works of art gain the upper hand over their magical and therefore, also their naturalistic character.” (Hauser, vol.1, 1951. Pages 38-39). The naturalistic style of the earlier period shifts to a more formal style in the Middle Kingdom (2030-1640 B.C.), because of a fundamental shift in religious and spiritual culture of Egypt. This shift cannot be explained without looking beyond changes in artistic technique, (Hauser, vol.1, 1951. Pages 38). “Reliefs of the Middle Kingdom and Empire periods show a high degree of abstract refinement that sums up the deliberately assumed artificiality of the Egyptian method. The rule of ‘frontality’ is the product of a long evolution and is a conscious choice to fulfill a symbolic and hierarchic social purpose.” (Myers, 1967. Pages 25-26). The frontality to which Myers refers is the manner of Egyptian paintings and sculpted reliefs in which the head, the arms and legs all point to the side while the torso still faces front. The appearance is awkward and stiff and unmistakably Egyptian.

Hauser suggests there is a transformation from religious significance to representative function. I would contend that the change is rather a change from individual representations for spiritual purposes to idealized representation for spiritual purposes based on a body of community tradition. With a large community, stability and order require that the social and religious structure be maintained. Religion and magic do not become less significant, rather the stability of society mitigates against spiritual whimsy and encouraging an entrenchment of those forms which encourage the greatest long term stability. The idea that both Hauser and Myer seem to float is that religion is evolving and therefore art is transforming to keep up with it. But look again. Magic continues to prevail at the heart of the religion. Burial arts become more elaborate. The gods, spiritual mediators or spiritual entities, to whom they pray multiply and become more significant.

Politics, it must be said, plays the governing hand in these larger and more organized societies. The priesthood is significant in Egyptian society because of their close connection to the political establishment. We know from historical accounts that the priesthood gave great religious deference to the highest political authority, the Pharoh. This undoubtedly secured their place as the representatives of Egyptian spirituality. The ‘hierarchic social purpose’ that Myers notes is the entrenchment of the priestly and political elite which is aided by the power and awe of the religious symbols placed before the public. Undoubtedly there were other religious and political groups who were suppressed, probably brutally suppressed.

This paints a rather grim and somewhat Machiavellian picture of the religious elite in Egypt. It would not be difficult to apply the same analysis to many other societies, modern societies included. Certainly the assertion of strong spiritual authority is hard to maintain over the long term, if the larger society does not buy into this. This is where the professional artist-craftsman come into play. They have the job of selling the religious vision. This takes comprehension on their part, and a willing energy to evoke the message.

From an artistic standpoint, the artistic output of Egypt's Middle Kingdom is superlative. The placid calm of the Old Kingdom art remains like a standard of fearlessness and supreme self-confidence over and against the insecurities of life. Great monuments continue to be erected. There is an increased stylization, as if the artist were conveying something of greater power and authority than meets the naked eye. Human and animal forms meld, representing a oneness with the various spiritual powers. The message is clear, what you see doesn't compare with what you don't see.



The art of Egypt changes very little over two and a half centuries with one remarkable exception. When Amenhotep IV (Akhenaton, 1375-1358 B.C.E.) came to power this rigid adherence to formal style is temporarily broken, (Myers, 1967. Page 26). The reasons are political and religious. Amenhotep IV founded a new religion, a monotheism based on the worship of Aten, an old name for the sun god Ra. He took on the name Akhenaten, “all is well with Aten,” and moved the seat of government from Thebes to Amarna. In one swift blow he confronted the corrupt priesthood of Thebes, both politically and religiously, (Gardener, Pages 59-71).

This brief period brought a temporary release of artistic forces. Akhenaton by breaking the established system of religious authority unleashes a period of aggressive experimentation. “The overcoming of the stiff, academic style by his artists is in harmony with his own fight against pedantic, empty, and meaningless traditions in religion.” (Hauser, vol.1, 1951. Page 43). For this short time an entirely different style of Egyptian art reigned. The stiff poses and taut, erect torsos, give way to supple bodies, dainty and undulating in their pose. Akhenaten's religious, and hence artistic transformations, disappeared almost entirely shortly after his death. The previous priesthood and religious cult of Amen was restored and Egyptian art returned to the previous formalism with little change all the way up until the Persian conquest of Egypt.

The rapidity of the change in the artistic style of Akhenaton's reign, and especially the swift return of the preceding style, shows the powerful control of the priesthood over Egyptian artistic style. The exquisite formalism of Egyptian art was nurtured, protected and eventually enforced by the priests of Amen. Even tighter religious control was in place in Mesopotamia, where art followed an even more formal pattern, (Hauser, vol.1, 1951. Page 49). Throughout Egypt's long history there was always a potential for artistic outbursts of wildly varied styles. There were many currents of artistic energy. But these were always kept in check. I would suspicion that the controlling factor was as much self-censorship as it was the social pressure or political disapproval. This was not a world in which independence was highly regarded. A free spirit was likely to be considered a danger to the society as a whole.

In a world where the changes in fortunes of a society could spell horrific disaster for everyone, stability and control were of greater importance to the society as a whole than were innovation and independent thinking. The calm strength of the figures in formal Egyptian art, which we also see in Mesopotamian art and other art of the region, evokes the confidence that was of a great importance to those whose fortunes could collapse overnight if the Pharaoh's armies crumbled in battle. We really don't know much about the upheaval of Akhenaton's reign, but the quick demise without a trace would indicate that it really didn't have the heart of Egyptian society. The wonderful and energetic art of Akhenaton's realm with its willowy and fluid figures failed to assure the people that strength remained in the seat of government.

While it is tempting to criticize the religious establishment of Egypt and the rigid formalism of Egypt's art, it did fulfill its most important goal, Egypt remained a dominant power in the world over several millenia. They eventually succumbed to another power with an equally formal religious establishment and artistic expression, Persia.

“When men make gods, there is no God!” (Eugene O'Neill, ‘Lazarus Laughed’, act 2, scene 2)

The Spirit of Greece

Early Greek art shows much of the formalism of Egypt, although on a much smaller scale. Greek formalism allows room for inventiveness. The reason is not hard to trace if we look at the example of Egypt in the last chapter. Egypt is a large kingdom with rigid centralized control of politics and religion. The arts are forced to adhere to centralized standards dictated by the priestly class for the maintenance of a centrally controlled spiritual vision.

Greece was not a single kingdom, but a patchwork of small city states, which tended toward a looser democratic form of governance. Instead of large state run temples tended by a powerful priesthood, Greek religion relied on many small cultic shrines and statues, each tended by its own priesthood, (Hauser, 1951. Pages 51-55). Early Greek states, although democratic, are still very group oriented, (Pollitt, 1972. Pages 10-14). Greek religion in this period is the product of group consensus. Like any people living on the constant edge of extinction, a fear of chaos (Pollitt, 1972 Page 3) keeps Greek art somewhat rigid.

By the 7th century B.C.E. Greek settlers are spreading to Egypt, the Middle East, Asia Minor, Spain and Italy. Greece is becoming a thriving center for commerce. This success allowed more individuality and a looser democratic form of religious expression. Herodotus tells us that the Egyptian king Psammetichos (c.660-609 B.C.E.) allowed Greeks to settle on the Nile, (Richter, 1974. Page 56). Greek art, which was now thriving, shows an immediate influence from Egypt and the East. Greek artists are now walking a fine line between formality and convention on one side and inventiveness and experimentation on the other. “Just as Greek poets ‘avoided the appearance of originality’ and ‘treated a traditional theme in a conventional style and form’ (Thomson, Page 22) so Greek artists used certain accepted types for the expression of their thought. No sculptor, however, merely reproduced the work of another; each renovated the familiar theme, continually advancing on the path of naturalism.” (Richter, 1974. Page 57). The plays of Aeschylus from the end of this period show a deference the gods and to the formal structures of dramatic rite, but with an exuberant exploration with the human side of the gods. He has deference but is not afraid of offending.

The defeat of the Persian fleet by Athens at the battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.E. and subsequent Greek victories leading to the defeat of Persia and the Peace of Callias, give the Greek peoples a renewed self-confidence, (Pollitt, 1972. Page 22). This ushers in a new period of exuberance in Greek politics, religion, philosophy and art, which we know as the classical period. The Persians had sacked the Acropolis in Athens and Pericles who came to dominate Athenian politics embarked on a significant building program. The Parthenon built between 447 and 432 B.C.E. shows a remarkable development. The frieze surrounding it seems to include contemporary people. “Greek architectural sculpture had always in the past represented the archetypal actions of gods and legendary heroes. If in the Parthenon frieze the Athenians have in fact inserted a picture of themselves into a context normally reserved for gods and demi-gods, the innovation is only explicable in the light of the humanistic idealism and confidence of Periclean Athens.” (Pollitt, 1972. Page 87).

Art rushes to the fluidity and naturalism that we know as Greek classical art. Playwrites can now use the gods as a backdrop for the study of the human condition. In the visual arts the stiff poses of the archaic period are gone. In its place is so much flesh, a sensuality unparalleled in the ancient world.

So what has happened to the spiritual underpinnings of art. Religion is now wild and chaotic, but to many it is vapid, unimportant or simply wrong. Philosophers analyse the meaning and the morals, experimentation with new and foreign cults is common, but mostly the average citizen is released from all religious obligation. It is not surprising that the focus is now very personal, human and self-focussed.

Rome's conquest of Greece has none of the earmarks of ancient conquest. The brutality, pillaging and enslavement typical of the time, was atypical of Roman conquest and adminstration. The Roman conquest was close in line with Alexander's conquests which preceeded them. The administrative center changed to Rome. In fact, Greek culture and learning came to dominate Roman society. Much of what we have come to know as Roman art is in fact the art of Greek craftsmen working in Rome or Greek art imported to Rome. The philosophical and religious life of Rome had its own starch, but was heavily reliant on Greek teachers imported to Rome.


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