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  • Art of Ancient Chinese civilization


                                                       Art of ancient Chinese civilization


    Fragment from Emperor Huanshong painting
    Fragment from Emperor Hongzthong painting

    Art of Ancient Chinese Civilization

    Art of ancient Chinese Civilization is very peculiar, distintive from others because Chinese Civilization is likely one; among most ancient civilizations that have particularly maintained a cultural continuity and philosophical cohesion throughout its history, thanks in part to its geography location that is unique, situated at the end of the Asian continent facing the Pacific Ocean, which allowed them to keep their strong culture pretty much intact, but thanks also to their way of life, which was very intimate keeping their distances from the influences of the outside world across millenniums.

    Even though few of the invaders along Chinese history could have diluted their way of life and Idiosyncrasy by absorbency, the Chinese choose to stick to their traditions and belief firmly, continued their devotion to nature and their ancestors, even when different religious believes were sustained in the country, as well as when invaders forced their violent ways in China.

    Chinese people keep as well their country, reliable on a self-sufficient economic, since traditional customs and artisanal trades knowledge pass from generation to generation among members of the families. Their art productions were a direct reflection of their particular believe and their philosophy of life. Particularly in early times, art also had social and moral functions. Witch the beginnings of the modern world in the XVI century was brought to them as well the effects of a huge wave of events that imposed important changes in the world. Chinese culture was also in certain way influenced by those changes and other internal issues, but this article would concentrate in ancient Chinese period art.

    Up to the Warring States period (475–221 B.C), the artistic representations were produced by anonymous craftsmen for the royal and feudal courts. It is thought that during the Shang and early Zhou periods the production of ritual bronzes was exclusively regulated under the authority of the court in which patrons design features were shared among specialists working in the various media and were remarkably uniform from bronzes to lacquer wares to textiles.


    Chinese Bronze Zhou Dynasty (1046-256).
    Chinese Bronze Zhou Dynasty (1046-256).
    Freer Gallery of Art. W.D.C


    Chinese culture promotes and emphasizes a form of social life in their communities rather than give more importance to the individual lives of human beings, but underlines the importance of the relations between the members of a family or between the individual and their King or Emperor according to the historical period. In their efforts to confront the challenges of everyday life as society get their greatest strength using the gifts from nature and working very hard. Among the typical themes of traditional Chinese art there is no place for war, violence, the nude, death, or martyrdom. Nor is inanimate matter ever painted for art’s sake alone. All traditional Chinese art is symbolic, for everything that is painted reflects some aspect of a totality of which the painter is intuitively aware.Their society was more prone to secularism and respect for nature than devotion to omnipotent gods as it was certainly the trend in Western civilizations.


    Chinese neolitic ceramic from Basham phase.


    So far the history of Chinese civilization has been situated in the Valley of Yellow River in China; between approximately 5,000 to 4,000 BC in the ” Early Neolithic period “. New archaeological findings at Sanxingdui, a small village about 20 miles northeast of Chengdu in Sichuan province have uncovered objects dating from  around 1200 B.C. There were two sacrificial pits containing hundreds of foreign objects never before found buried and hidden for 3,000 years,.

    Among them objects of gold, imposing human heads made in bronze, bronze with unusual shape masks, as well as some tools of stone and jade, showing how these early men already have certain skills that allows them to represent the elements that make up their daily lives such as viticulture, hunting and fishing. There are aspects of social coexistence represented with themes such as banquets and acrobatic shows, as well as its incipient world of mythology and religion. Today the Chinese people are learning much more about their own culture thanks to the multidisciplinary studies that are underway in this vast country in Asian region.


    Sanxingdui sculptures


    The agricultural villages in the Valley of the Yellow River tamed animals, made pots for storing grains and liquids and also produced bronze vessels and effective weapons. People who settled in homes along other rivers like the Yangtze and the Huai developed similarly their life. Artistic objects found in these ancient civilizations of China’s approximately 4,000 BC placed them as one of the cultures most skilled in the creation of beautiful and practical objects.

    The early history of China is traditionally divided into three dynasties:

    – Hsia or Xia (2205-1766 B.C.).

    – Shang (1766-1050 B.C.).

    – Zhou (1050-256 B.C.).

    As I had mentioned before;Chinese culture since ancient times has always been closely identified with nature, in which the rivers and Mountains occupy the center of their attention. Nature was widely represented in their paintings and ceramics decorations, even the buildings were made with shapes that resemble the mountains. Those buildings are focused on the practical use not in its decoration. Chinese architect and craftsmen from ancient times combined the architectural features of the building with its surrounding and integrate them perfectly balanced with nature. The Great Wall of China a renowned architectural wonder made to protect the country along miles and miles was at the top of mountains, taking advantage of a natural geography of a protruding landscape.

    They made gardens with gentle and simple designs with the intention to represent a perfect microcosm where water, plants, flowers and animals are perfectly combined. With this representation of natural elements, the Chinese people wanted to get a balanced integration between man and nature. During the Buddhist and Taoist period this respect, veneration and protection of nature rich a peaks and can be perceived very well in its representations of art in the caves, sanctuaries and decorated objects of everyday life that have been conserved.




    Thematics of artistic expressions, including stories and poems, mainly revolved around nature, rivers, mountains and valleys where mythological creatures with super powers influenced their lives. It is known that in the Shang dynasty period, they believed in the existence of a good and all-powerful dragon that they believed lived in the seas and rivers, and could rise to the heavens. They do not directly worship the gods in ancient times; they demanded justice and favors through their ancestors.

    Legends and stories told at night in discussions around campfires must have helped spur the social and cultural evolution of these first humans, who poured their imagination in to decoration of objects, such as pottery, paintings and weapons. Their imagination was later reflected in their writings symbols and thanks to this the legends and important historical events have come to us.


    Han Xizai
    Two fragments of this large painting.


    Importance of the Chinese’s people calligraphy in their works of art.

    In early times the Chinese paintings were made using a lot of colors and artistically located in them was their calligraphy, once this one was invented, to the point that it prevails over the images represented throughout its history in some stages.

    The calligraphy of China raise the level of their artistic decorations and was perfectly integrated into their pictorial representations, on the embossment of practical bronze vessels, as well as in the grip of weapons, in their beautiful lacquered wood objects, in their colorful textiles of exquisite beauty and even in decorative wood elements that were part of its buildings.

    This form of artistic expression and communication is considering an art that is helping today the better understanding of their plastic works in general and the historical and socio-economic context in which they were created. Skill and expressive quality in the practice of calligraphy and painting helped establish one’s status in a society of learned individuals from the Song dynasty (960–1279) onward.

    Calligraphy was represented in decorations since the days when they only were pictograms, until they become ideograms artistically representing ideas trough symbols. Their calligraphy was unified by imperial decree throughout China by the first emperor Ying Zheng, so even though they were speaking different dialects across the country could understand each other thanks to the writing symbols. He imposed in the country the use of the zhuanshu style as standard writing system, laying thus the basis for the further evolution of Chinese characters. Calligraphy has also led to the development of many forms of art in China, including carved seals, ornate paperweights, flags or banners and other pieces made of stone. All made with a practical function but in which the decorative aspect was also observe.


    color to monotone


    Their representation of nature although very detailed and colorful in early periods as mentioned earlier, dramatically changed along the way to become a painting style with two tones of colors with different shades, although they continue working with high attention to details. This change is related to the school of painting creation by the artist and patron, Emperor Huizong of the Song dynasty in the 12th century, which promotes Taoism during his tenure. This is the style of Chinese painting period in which their artistic creations were not based on real scenes, they are more idyllic, yet imaginative and gentle, with very detailed depiction of nature feature, but in which the human figure is no more than a tiny element represented in beautiful and romantic landscapes and integrated seamlessly in it. The calligraphy gets from this point on an important role in the painting.


    The Ancient Chinese people art and their religious belief representation.

    For the ancient Chinese was always very important show respect to their ancestors, probably to the same level as other cultures worshipped their gods. They performed the Oracle divination by reading the bones. Remains of those pertaining to the Shang dynasty have been found in which can be perceive they valued bronze material more than gold. On the bronze vessels, the Shang King offered wine as a tribute to their gods and honored their ancestors. The bronze also was used in domestic tasks developing vessels to contain wine and water, although its high content of lead may had been harmful to their health.

    Religion was associated with the cosmology in ancient Chinese culture, the movements of the planets and stars were represented in Shang dynasty (1766-1050 B.C.); showing their acute observation capacity and proverbial patience when they use this knowledge to their advantage in agriculture. They represented in art this knowledge, leaving proof of this in pottery with decorations of stars and Zodiac symbols.


    bronze wine continers


    Shang bronze


    Inventions attributed to Chinese civilization related to art.


    Many are the inventions attributed to the Chinese people in ancient times that are directly related to their art, and those are the one about to talk in this article. They were known for keep the secrets of their skills in each trade well protected for millenniums in with no foreigner could obtain them. Many inventions related to the art in China were invented hundreds and even thousands of years before the Western civilizations. The invention of a method to print with ink over paper made from rice paste was one of the most significance.

    Noteworthy was also the elaboration of beautiful ceramics with practical use, but when the porcelain was discovered, were famous for their perfection in its design and detailed decoration. They kept for centuries for themselves the secret of how to do porcelain vessels. For the Chinese, it was not only an economic issue, but also a way to honor family traditions.


    Sung Dynasty ceramic



    Its artisan tradition, with attention to detail and hard work turned their developed objects into exquisite works of art. As soon as the products of this ancient Chinese culture are known in Western civilization have high demand, mainly for its high quality, plus an aura of mysticism about the unknown Eastern civilization that captivated immediately the imagination and desire of upper class in the West to own so wonderful and exotic goods.

    The secret of making porcelain for example was protected by the Chinese authorities with the death penalty to those who dared to reveal it, even it was forbidden for the foreign dealer visit the interior of China and only in specific commercial places designated near the coast they could obtain the goods. They have always been cautious about the commercialization of their products tending to rather be economically self-sufficient, but they had to adapt to new economic necessities’ to increase its monetary flow due to the growth of the population, creating specific products to export in line to the Western taste.


    porcelain and jade


    Equally protected was the method for the production of silk fabrics which was discovered in China 5000 years ago. The famous Silk Road was developed by Western countries to obtain coveted merchandise, its soft and light texture reached high appreciation and demand that were compared with the value of gold and even magical attributes were also conferred to the silk. It is well known that the Roman Empire citizens did care so much for this fabulous fabric and imported such huge amount that textiles trade protection laws was decreed by the Roman authorities.

    Chinese were masters in the use of wood for construction, furniture and artistic decorations.

    In China the elaboration of various wooden objects becomes also a trade which passes from father to son for generations; as other trades did. Bamboo and precious wood objects were developed for centuries by them with practical use and detailed decoration, some with very difficult intricate designs, among them hand fans, jewelers boxes, containers for incense, as well as diverse architectural elements such as doors and windows in which not a single nail is used, but putting instead overlapping wood pieces with a pretty clever technique that has tested for centuries the efficiency of their innovative constructive skills using wood.


    Hand fans


    In Chinese art is often used lacquer; a clear layer of the SAP of the trees used to add beauty and luster to objects made of wood which protects them from insects and the deterioration of climate. The western culture try to imitate in different ways the incredible finish the Chinese provide to their artistic objects some of which had up to sixteen layers of the lacquer. Lot of time, try and error efforts had to be endure by the western artisan’s until they found some decent approach using different techniques that offered a look alike lacked itch effect in their pieces. Although they had certain demand were very expensive due to the hard work and time consuming task that their technique require.



    Laque wood


    The ancient Chinese Folding Screens.

    Highlighted among the furniture produced by the Chinese art are the folding screens. The Chinese people have known them as ‘pingfeng’ meaning in Chinese language “to protect from the wind”. It is known the existence of these panels or folding screens from the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).This screens were very popular through the years and found in palaces and mansions of kingship both in China and European courts, where they used them to divide rooms and for privacy. These folding wooden lacquered panels are combined often with paintings on paper and are true masterpieces showing the screens mostly secular content where dragons, birds, colorful peacocks and landscapes support the illustration of Chinese boundless imagination.

    There are a variety of types of screen, to be the principal which have vertical and folding screens, although very few of the older ones are preserved. They have been used extensively throughout history and were made as well in other countries over time, following the traditional Chinese mode.




    Their amazing ability to create beautiful carved ivory objects is also proverbial. These objects have a wide range of different use with elaborate designs that show scenes of hunting, military confrontations and the courtly life. This illustrations help us to understand the life of these ancient men, their philosophy of life, love for nature and its conflicts as a society.


    Ivory and bone


    Development of carved jade figurines is another artistic manifestation where Chinese artisans shine since ancient times. This material was also used in jewels, boxes and formidable decorative containers intended for religious purposes, many have secular content and practical use and is truly remarkable the quality and beauty reached because this material is very hard and difficult to carve.




    The aesthetics of line in calligraphy and painting have had a significant influence on the other arts in China. There are many artistic manifestations in which Chinese ancient culture excel, among them its painting really protrude, with the distinctive way to represent nature perfectly balanced with human life and using calligraphy in them, as well as by combining delicate and poetic typical expression of popular Chinese traditions and legends in their work with clever technique and inventions and applying them to painting, architecture, sculpture, pottery and textiles. This was possible thanks to the imagination and hard work of the unknown craftsmen first and to more intellectually developed artists latter since the creation of the school of painting that produced true masterpieces, many of which have been preserved despite the effects of wars, weather, and religious clashes.


    Chinese Hanguing scrool



  • Romanesque Sculpture


    Romanesque stone sculpture


                         Romanesque Sculpture


    It is subordinate to architecture, which determines the places and spaces that must be covered with reliefs or statues, the porticoes of the entrance and in the capitals of the cloisters (place of religious retreat).

    The pilgrimage that took place using the shrine dedicated to St. James from the 8th century destined to paid tribute to this Saint in the Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela; became the most renowned medieval pilgrimage and favors an increase in the production of sculpture. Under the Organization of the order known as “The order of Cluny”, were carried out in the places of passage constructions with the purpose of welcoming the pilgrims on their way to the Cathedral and also to display religious relics that contributed to exalt religious fervor.


    Cathedral of Santiago of CompostelaRomanesque Art


    An increase in the use of applied sculptures with exclusive religious thematic to architectural structures can be seen above the Northern Europe. These images are mostly carried out in wooden polychrome and in some cases covered with metals such as bronze or silver.

    Other sculptures carves in the stone to decorate specific spaces in this buildings are; as in the case of the paint very stylized, been a mere idealization of the reality. They have to serve as a religious propaganda vehicle efficiently and for that purpose a forced perspective to fix this figures in the space destined in the building is imperative.


    The figures scupture were adapted to the architecture spaces in Romanesque Art.


    The sculpture although not as outstanding as the Romanesque architecture, applied the same pre-established codes and artistic scheme to provide a clear and educative religious message about the sacred word. The sculpture and the architecture both used the Northern Roman elements.

    Were also seen in Romanesque style the presences of the Byzantines and Persians elements as well as some Arabs decorative characteristics. The Romanesque sculpture between the XI and XII centuries mimics artificial models establishing a particular routine of decoration.


    General Features of the Romanesque Sculpture


    • · Non-artistic didactic purpose; (Catechism and religious instruction).
    • · Stylization and disproportion of the figures (not portray of the natural proportions).
    • · Wrong perspective, illogical relationship between size of the figure with the depth of the background.
    • · In the reliefs, the size difference of the figures means the importance of character.
    • · Symmetrical composition; the scenes are made up, observing this principle of proportion.
    • · In the eardrums, composition always has the figure of Christ as the axis.
    • · Some rigidity of forms.
    • · There is lack of expression suitable in figures or sometimes this is very exaggerated.
    • · Forget the sculptural muzzle in the human form.
    • · Imposed symmetry in the folds of the cloths that resembles the Greek archaic period.
    • · Occurs a repetition and monotony in the elements of the scene being rendered.
    • · Stiffness and Coarseness can be seen in the execution of the work.
    • · They often adopt the theme of flora and represent it stylized.
    • · Represent fauna but sometimes as monstrous.
    • · The heads represent all at the same height in some figures of sets.
    • · Marked polychrome with vivid colors when they take place in materials that allowed it.


    Forced size and positions of figures in the capitals od the buildings in Romanesque Arquitecture.



    Among depictions of biblical scenes that are found in many of these Romanesque buildings sculptures are the one called “Bestiaries” as well as personifications of the signs of the zodiac. There is also a frequent use of peculiar diptychs of ivory, crucifixes made in both ivory and bronze and also statues in which it represents the Virgin Mary.


    Expression of adoration in the scupture humans figures in the Romanesque Art.


    Decoration of caskets for both jewelry and relic showed great mastery in the finish, careful detailed figures against the background manage to fix very well adapted to the shape of the container.


     Fundamental schools in the development of Romanesque sculptures that stand out:


    • Irish and Anglo-Saxon school. Since the 7th century. (Interlaced and calligraphic ornaments)Elongated figures.


    • German school. From the 9th century. With the momentum of Carlo Magnum. (Works of bronze and Byzantines classical tendency).


    • The Italian school. Since the end of the 11th century until the middle of the 12th century  (Italic-Byzantine)  than is guided by Constantinople models.                                                 (Bronze doors with relief in several cathedrals).


    • The French school. Since 12th century. With 6 outstanding schools:

    –          The Isle of France School.

    –          The School of Normandy.

    –          The school of Poitou and Saintonge.

    –          The Auvemia School.

    –          The School of Toulouse and Languedoc.

    –          The Provence and Burgundy School.


    As well as in the case of the Romanesque paint (that will be explained in a separated post) the use of the” Isocefalia” (disposal at the same height of the heads of a group of characters in a painting or a relief) is portrayed in numerous Romanesque sculptures to decorate capitals, walls, and porticos responding to the ecclesiastic propaganda and their standard codes of decorations pursuing to establish a hierarchy of the character represented.

    A derivation occurs in the representation of designs towards the 13th century that can be called as a transitional phase towards the Gothic period. Imitated in a certain way the reality of nature, permeating the sculptures with greater dynamism but in which the artist cannot be complete separated from previous codes of decoration. Some figures made almost as exempt sculptures are the prelude to the next and new period in with these elements of movement, details and perfection rich a high level of execution in some of the artistic work in the late period of the Romanesque sculpture and evolve in accentuated way if they are compared with some of the previous sculptures of the Romanesque period.


    Excempt sculptures in Romanesque Art


    The resulting amalgam of this transition produces very good works but others with no artistic value whatsoever even in the same region; since they are a mix between the old rigid style and the new pushing to establishes. In this transitive time some of the rigidity of the figures is loss as was mentioned before; as well as the symmetry and exaggeration of the straight and vertical line; gaining in delicacy and realistic movement. Some new decorative elements in this Romanesque sculptures such as the use of abundant narrow tiny folds in the clothing are incorporate that were not used before with such detail.


    Romanesque to Gothic scupture transition 0



  • Byzantine Sculpture


    Byzantine sarcophages


    Byzantine sculpture in the early days.


    The Byzantine sculpture In the early days is more an extensions of the Hellenistic art, were portraits of great impacting aesthetics drama were produced. Sculpture underwent changes very similar to those in architecture; were several good examples of secular architecture survive from that period. Among them are vestiges of an atrium in the Great Palace of Constantinople. This building was decorated with an splendid mosaic plant, containing in it sculptures representation, worthit example of the empire wonder’s.

    In sculpture the forms are still basically representational, but they are treated in an abstract manner what give us an indication on how the symbolic character of the art becomes gradually more important; over even its expression and aesthetic, responding to the new theology and ecclesiastical power. 

    For instance the three-dimensional representational sculpture forms they inherited from the hellenistic period in the early days of the long Byzantine period progressively were reduced, until they vaguely used them in subsequent stages.



    Byzantine Diptychs



    Previous to the iconoclastic period themes were more related to religious themes. Representation of sacred figures and saints were prolific also in sculpture as they were used elsewhere in art such as painting and mosaic, although we also see more everyday themes and motifs from nature that were still reminiscence from the Hellenistic influence. Many represent animals loaded with symbolism, Christian, Dove, deer, peafowl, or acrostics signs (form of writing in which taking the first letter; syllable or Word of different lines and putting them together it can be read a message) these contained a great theological significance.

    During the Iconoclastic struggle sculpture representations are forced to completely abandon sacred images representations, instead the naturalistic themes rich predominance. The struggle between iconódulos (in favor of images representation) and iconoclasm (opponents of the images) resulted in the year 754 all art; based on religious images were banned in the Eastern Church.

    They try to put an end to the religious images representation to avoid idolatry and the cult to the images therefore was banned. The exempt  sculpture lost importance and was reduced to the Arts under the ivory, enamel, bronze and gold materials; in with they work the bas-relief with great skill. The topics represented during the iconoclastic period persecution were the geometric, astral and animals figures, with uneven and concave moldings (estrigilos).









    Sculpture after the Iconoclastic struggle.


    After the Iconoclastic period important Byzantine sculpture are the one of small sizes; such as the diptychs and boxes, carved in ivory which was used for the realization of objects of luxury and religious use. This type of exuberant and luxurious objects were preferred  mostly by the elites of Constantinople and to supply with those specifically, was necessary brought them from distant places such as Egypt and India.

    The elaboration of those art pieces in ivory; does not require a complex structure such as workshops and numerous people, is rather a handmade work made with extreme careful. Some have very intricate and elaborated work; to which sometime gold and silver elements were added to highlight some aspect of the scenes or figures, but also this metals were used in to the frame support. In the images above and below can be appreciate the spectaculars results. 

    This very detailed oriented trade, elaborate by the artisan himself and perhaps some other assistant in training; since this type of trades knowledge was pass in that kind of fashion, have a high demand at that time. Their results were of incomparable beauty and exquisiteness accessible only to the wealthy hierarchies and the principal client of course was the Church.


    This Art work are of incomparable beauty and exquisiteness accessible only to the wealthy hierarchies


    After the culmination of this iconoclastic period there is a return to the worship of images, but not to return to idolatry and under the influence of the new Islamic currents; the human figures representations disappears  from  the exempt sculpture representation to avoid the predecessor idolatry ever to take place again.

    The most outstanding works are the ornaments of the capitals with vegetal motifs competing with animals figures such as those of San Vitale of Ravenna,  or the sarcophagi with themes as the good Shepherd.




    Sculpture representation  in Sarcophagus in the Byzantine art.


    In sculpture, the best sample of the Byzantine art can be found located in the reliefs of the sarcophagus. Subsequent to the year 313 the figurative items, inspired by the Roman models are the most common, on the fronts of the sarcophagi appear reliefs, which initially only follow classical aesthetics. One mainly example is “The sarcophagus of Probes”.

    Subsequently representation turns to be with more flat designs and figures, generally in the same sizes. These were placed in those spaces in which the structure of arches give unit to the scene.


    The better examples of sculptures in this period related their thematics around religious representation of well known passages from the bible, applying them to the decoration of the sarcophagus. As examples those tematics were:

    The life of Christ.

    Scenes from the Old Testament (Daniel and the Lions)

    The sacrifice of Abraham.

    – Adam and Eve.



    Most important sarcophagi representation in Byzantine art.

    The Junious Basso (Vatican)



    The junius Bassus Sarcophagus.


    The Dogmatic or the Trinity. (Museum Lateran)


    Dogmatic of the Trinity Sarcophagus. Byzantine period.
    Dogmatic of the Trinity Sarcophagus. Byzantine period.

    You can also see the version in spanish of this post in http://www.historiadelarteen.com

    The part corresponding to Byzantine architecture, painting, glass making and mosaic are explained each in separate posts to better understand those tematics. You will find them in the archives of the blog or in the right column by categories.