Since ancient times art has been associated with many different religious practices in a variety of cultures. The artworks that has been left behind by these ancient societies demonstrate how impactful religious beliefs were to shaping their civilizations. Perhaps many have forgotten this, but without such artwork, we may not have known the magnitude to which religion affected their lives and culture. These pieces of art help bring back past events to the present and bestow us the opportunity to not only see, but understand the religious beliefs covered behind their art. For civilizations such as Ancient Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, and Rome, religion was the single most important aspect to their development because of the cultural impact it had on its citizens.
Originating from Egypt, the Kneeling Statue of Hatshepsut with Offering Jars reveals not only significance in the art world, but cultural prestige as well. Originally this sculpture was made for the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, but unfortunately, it was destroyed by her successor Thutmose III who tried to erase her name from history. Luckily, we were able to find and resemble the granite fragments in the early 20th century, however much of it was guesswork and we can’t be sure which fragments belong to which statue. Since she commissioned the construction of dozens of these statues, she was put into various positions. In some, she standing, sitting, kneeling or even being represented in the form of a sphinx. Now, since Hatshepsut is a pharaoh, she would only kneel to a god and that helps us place this statue at an important ritual or ceremony that occurs in Egypt.
Once a year, the Egyptians would take the sculpture of the god Amen-Re (Egypt’s main God) from a temple in Thebes and it would be transferred across the Nile inside a shrine located on a Barque (a type of ship). Then the barque would be carried passed these dozens of statues all the way to the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut where it would be placed in the upper mortuary. So as the god of Amen-re passed the kneeling statue of Hatshepsut, you can see that she was making an offering to the god with the two jars she possesses. Now, these sculptures weren’t just seen as statues, they were quite literally the manifestation or embodiment of the being whether it was Hatshepsut or Amen-re. The Ancient Egyptians worshiped these gods so their life could be lived as best as possible. If the gods were happy, the people would be happy. This is why they dedicated much of their time to pleasing the gods with such offerings and gestures that could be seen everywhere in their culture (E.g. vases, sculptures, paintings, temples, and ceremonies, were all such things they gave to their gods) Religion wasn’t just for something to believe in, it was clearly a way of life that shaped generations of Egyptians for Millenniums.
The following piece of architecture that is the Altar of Zeus has its origins from the magnificent civilization that is Greece. Constructed in approximately 175 BCE in Pergamon, Turkey, this sculptured frieze is almost 400 feet long and contains more than 100 larger-than-life figures. The sculpture depicts the great celestial battle between the Gods and giants for the control of the world and universe. One of which Zeus and his gods would emerge victorious. On the eastern frieze, we can see the elegant Athena as she engages in battle with the fierce giant Alcyoneus. Athena is clearly in control of the situation as she pulls Alcyoneus from the earth while his mother is watching in horror of the tragedy the is becoming to her son. Nike the goddess of victory is seen coming forth and crowning Athena, showing us her enviable victory. There is sense of great valor and exhilaration from Athena that shows us the importance of this story for the Greeks.
The Altar of Zeus demonstrates the time, resources, and effort put in crafting such a piece of architecture, that was of no easy feat. The Greeks fully believed that offerings such as this to the gods would make their lives better, both when alive and in the afterlife. Basically, if you do right by the gods, they will do right by you. This piece helps us see that religion was heavily integrated in Greek culture in way that would be difficult to separate the two. While the altar showed this mythical battle between celestial beings, it also showed that while the Greeks were scared of the unknown, they were ready to battle and conquer those who tried to subdue them. This piece is only but one of the thousands of artworks that show the impressions the Olympic gods have left in the long-standing Greek civilization.
Long before Greece entered the pinnacle of their artistry, the civilization of Mesopotamia was thriving and produced artwork at an exceptional level for their time. Transpiring from the Neo-Sumerian era, the period of art that appeared during the Third Dynasty of Ur, is the breathtaking Seated Statue of Gudea. This statue is composed of the rare mineral called Diorite and is but one of many Gudea statues that were found in an excavation in Tello, Iraq. This statue of Gudea is in a seating position and has his hand placed in a greeting or praying gesture. In his lap is a blueprint for a temple that he will be donating to the god Ningursu. It is said that he had dreams informing him to make this offering to please the gods. Also, according to “The impact and significance of the Statue of Ur-Ningirsen” by Joan Aruz, this statue would have been placed in a temple upon a ziggurat where they would be used as a representative to greet the gods if you could not be present to do so. The gods would also have their name inscribed on a statue so people would know who it’s dedicated to. For example, Aruz discusses how the statue of Ur-Ningursu was dedicated to the god Ningizziada (god of vegetation and underworld) and placed in Ur-Ningursu’s house so the gods would grant him a long life.
Since religion was critical to those societies located in Mesopotamia (E.g. Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, or Babylonians) it evidently affected their everyday lives. Since each Mesopotamia city had their own patron god or goddess it would explain the amount of artwork found that was dedicated to these celestials. Even In the clay tablets left behind by the ancient Mesopotamians, they describe for us their religious beliefs and practices as well as mythology. These people wanted to keep the gods happy because like many other civilizations they believed they would be punished if they angered them. Being one of the first civilizations we know of they were significantly more sophisticated than the previous hunters and gathers that came before them. For example, the Babylonian King Hammurabi created his own set of laws called the Code of Hammurabi and this code even had references to the gods. So, these laws put together by King Hammurabi was at least somewhat influenced by the gods and religion he puts his faith into. So, religion wasn’t just present during the time of Mesopotamia it was flourishing and influencing parts of their culture, whom without probably would have turned out completely different.
Ultimately, we come to the latest civilization to make their debut on the world stage, Rome. Emerging from the successful campaigns in Spain and Gaul for Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, is the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) dedicated to Pax, the Roman goddess of peace. Typically seen as an artwork of political propaganda, the Ara Pacis Augustae has religious significance as well. On the northern and southern ends of the altar there are relief sculptures of Augustus, his family, and other Roman officials. Unfortunately, we are quite unsure of what this means, but art historians have suggested this great gathering of people is what would have happened when the altar was revealed. On the eastern side is a figure that has been widely debated as Venus (Goddess of Love), Tellus (Goddess of Earth), or some sort of figure that represents peace. Regardless this figure displays fertility and great prosperity. On her lap sit two children, but again we are not sure who these children are, they have been speculated to be Augustus’s nephews Lucius and Gaius. On both sides of the female figure are two mythological creatures who seemingly are pulling their drapes over their body while looking directly at the female figure and the children. And below them all is an ox and a sheep laying down representing the peace that has finally come to Rome after years of conflict.
Like all the other civilizations discussed, the Romans were also polytheistic. While Romans did have their own gods, they adopted many foreign gods into their own culture and religion, which is why their collection includes many Greek gods (E.g. Jupiter is the Roman version of Zeus). When Augustus came into power in 27BC he claimed the title of a high priest of the state religion but also portrayed himself as a god because his uncle Julius Caesar became a god. This is important because while the Ara Pacis Augustae certainly has political significance, it displays the gods and imperial family on a single altar. So, if you were going to the altar to present an offering to the gods, not only are you presenting them to the ones the look down upon you from the heavens, but also the celestial beings, such as Augustus, that walk among you. Romans wanted piety with the gods and attributed much of their success to this fact. So, in a way Augustus himself as become a god to pray to because of his Divinity that has been represented in the Ara Pacis Augustae as well as another artwork (E.g. Portrait of Augustus and The Via Labicana Augustus). With this altar we can see the great diversity that helps develop the Roman Religion as well as the civilization as a whole, the two are simply inseparable. As Augustus once said, “I found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.” I think the same can be said about religion, it was found upon cities of brick but helped them develop it into a civilization of marble.
From the dawn of ancient times, religious beliefs have been one of if not the most important factor in developing these civilizations. Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome have been no exception, they exemplify the significance religion can have on society and culture. The artworks such as Hatshepsut with offering jars, The Alter of Zeus, Seated Statue of Gudea, and the Ara Pacis Augustae all show how religion integrated themselves into their culture and came forth in their beautiful artwork. Without religious intervention, I have no doubt it would have changed the course of each of these ancient societies. For better or for worse, I have no idea, but I do know that the pieces of art I’m looking at right now would have not existed if not for the strong religious supremacy that took the ancient world by storm, almost as if it was its own divine entity.