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Since the dawn of mankind, humans have crafted tools to assist them in their daily lives. From the first rock thrown in anger, to the first tree branch used to dig, society’s relationship to tools and weapons has been represented in all of the visual arts. Throughout our textbook I have interpreted the recurring theme of tools and weapons in the arts.
From the opening chapter we examine “Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa” Fig. 0.1 (Sporre 12). His relationship with his weapon appears both proud and protective as he positions his sword away from his body opposite it’s target – the head of Medusa. It almost seems as if Perseus has stepped in between a fight amongst two quarreling school children, holding his weapon aside as the innocent party and the head of Medusa as the instigator. And though this piece is anatomically from a distance, a closer look reveals many details were left out; nipples, eyebrows, etc. However, the handle of the sword seems to have an abundant of detail in the decoration. This indicates the artist put considerable thought into this weapons appearance.
Later in chapter one, we are reminded that cavemen did not invent the wheel. In “Ashurnasirpal II killing lions” Fig. 1.6 (Sporre 37), the rendering of an early Sumerian chariot clearly highlights the magnificent tool as utilized for transportation. Note the fine lines, the intricate detail on the hub of the wheel, and even detail on the spokes. When taken as a whole, the wheel in this carving is more prominent than the people riding in the chariot.
Again, in chapter two, we find another piece where the weapon ends up being the center of focus. It is difficult to tell if any one work of art intended for the weapons to figure so prominently, but collectively there is certainly a subconscious emphasis on them.
In “The Pan Painter, Attic Red Figure Krater” Fig. 2.7 (Sporre 58) the weapon is clearly the focal point. The vast negative space contrasting with the thin, but balanced bow and arrow draw ones eye right to the area. Furthermore, the weapon in this particular vase painting is the impetus for the entire scene. Without the weapon, Artemis would not be shooting Actaeon. It is difficult to look at these weapons without noticing the great detail in both the weapon and its accessories. In this particular piece the artist went so far as to include a detailed arrow quiver complete with strap.
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It seems through times of war the weapon occasionally took a back seat to the actual action or battles depicted in the work.
Fig. 3.11 (Sporre 88), entitled “Scopas” clearly sacrifices weapon detail in lieu of overall drama. Perhaps this could be attributed to the fact that the Greeks were actively warring with the Amazons during the creation of this piece and the artists did not have time to fully appreciate the detail of the weapon. While the human form is generally very accurate, there seem to be a general lack of detail in this piece which further promotes the idea that time was an issue. In other words, the weapons were not the only things lacking detail in “Scopas.”
While interpreting some of these pieces, I often wonder how common it was for a non-warrior to be the artist in question. In modern society, those who are artists are rarely warriors, and vice versa. I bring this point up because some of these works of art so emphasize the detail on the tools, and weapons in particular, that it seems only a warrior would notice his weapon with such vivid clarity.
As time progressed into the Roman period, weapons were represented, but often in a more civilized manner. The seems to be run concurrently with the natural progression of civilization in general. With the Roman Republic firmly in place, society began to create art that represented a more casual or aristocratic flair. For example, “Gemma Augustea” Fig. 4 (Sporre 110) show its subjects casually sitting atop a bench with their weapons aside, almost as if they were a side thought. While still in the public consciousness, they were being depicted as an afterthought. The sword handle is the only part of one weapon showing in this picture, while Augustus is leaning on his spear as if it is just there to prop his arm up in the same manner one would hold onto the overhead rail on a subway car.
The fact that relatively few modern paintings and sculptures exhibit weapons is probably due more to the use of other visual medium in popular culture than to society’s attitude toward weapons in general. For instance, there are plenty, some say too many, weapons depicted in today’s movies and video games. One could argue the artistic merits of a video game versus a classic sculpture; both are considered “art” both those creating it and both take years to create, however the depiction of weapons remains rather constant.
The late Roman piece “Diocletian’s Tetrarchy” Fig. 5.16 (Sporre 161) clearly shows the tradition continuing through the later Roman era with soldiers both clasping shoulders in unity while firming gripping their swords. The weapons, again, figure prominently in the way the soldiers coats are open to expose them and their positioning in the center of the art.
As our time line continues into the westernization of Christianity, the 1577 painting “St. Peter and St. Paul” Fig. 5.31 (Sporre 171) illustrates the apostle Paul clutching his two most important assets – his Bible, and his sword. The realism in paintings such as these reveals the material construction of the weapon. For example, it is clear from the painting that Paul’s sword is made of metal with a woven rope around the handle for grip.
As with modern depiction of weapons, the construction and craft work of the weapon is brought to the forefront in this piece. The re-creation of weapons in art may have had a powerful impact on those making the weapons. After all, if you knew the weapon you were making would live on in artwork, even after it was destroyed in battle, you might give a second thought to adding decorative elements and detail indicative of your own personality.
In summary, the depiction of weapons through art, whether classic or modern, tends to reflect both the technology of the time and the relative acceptance of weaponry in society. While peace time artwork tends to depict weapons at bay, war time art leans toward to glamorization of weaponry.
Sporre, Dennis J. The Creative Impulse An Introduction to the Arts, 5th Edition.
Massachusetts: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2000.