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Human Form in Ancient Art

The depiction of human form in ancient art.

Since the ancient ages, the human form has remained central to art. Different ages and different artists have depicted it in their own unique style. Its depiction in art had begun right from the Paleolithic age. With each passing age, the depiction of the human form grew more and more perfect. Starting from the Paleolithic age, down to Ancient Egypt and Greece, the depiction of human form has remained an essential part of the art of these ages and civilizations. The purpose of depicting the human body was not always to portray human beauty but art also presented the social structure and customs of the era. The portrayal of the kings, queens and deities was a common theme in the art of several civilizations. Art has in this way continued to mirror the human society and define human beauty. The following article traces the history of portrayal of human form in art since the ancient ages:


Paleolithic age

Human depiction can be seen in art as early as the Paleolithic age, also known as the old stone age. The artwork of this era is known for its variety. Most common forms of art found in this age were shell necklaces, cave paintings, as well as animal and human forms. The stone sculptures of the Paleolithic age depict human forms, the most well known being the ‘Venus of Wineldorf’. Notably, only female form found representation in the art of this era. Art historians have named these sculptures of women ‘Venuses’ after the goddess of love and beauty. The Paleolithic age is considered the earliest stage in the development of art.

The Venus of Wineldorf was named after the name of the place it was found. The sculpture was discovered in Austria at a place called Wineldorf. The ‘Venus of Wineldorf’ is a limestone sculpture, a little taller than 4 inches in height. It is the nude sculpture of a woman with large breasts and hip. The nude sculpture with  bulky breasts and hips brings attention to female fertility which must have remained the primary emphasis of the artist. The Venus also signifies the important place held by the females in the Paleolithic society. The facial features of the Venus clearly; only a round head with tuft of hair at its top. This also showed that the focus was on fertility rather than beauty. The bulky figure of the Venus also made scholars imply that healthier women were considered more fertile and able during the Paleolithic age.


                          Ancient Near East

The Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Hittites, Babylonians and the Persians were among the most notable civilizations of the ancient near east. The art of near east depicted the human beings busy with their real life affairs. In this age, art did not contain nudity as during the Paleolithic age. Male forms were depicted with bare chests and female forms with  their breasts covered. This also reflects the society was evolving and so was art. The art of the Paleolithic age did not have facial features. However, the art of the ancient near East depicted finely carved faces. The faces were clear with sharp features. The Akkadian and the Assyrian art depicted the king as a deity. His authority and superiority over the other figures is reflected in the Akkadian and Assyrian art. Victory stele of Naram-Sin King, and the male head from Niniveh are some good examples of the depiction of human form in the art of ‘ancient near east’.

                       Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt produced art that was breathtakingly beautiful.  BY this time art had undergone great evolution and human figures depicted in art had exceptionally beautiful facial features. The bust of Nefertiti is a very fine example of how human beauty reflected in the art of ancient Egypt. The detailing of this era was exceptional. This age is also known for its human size sculptures. The pharaoh’s statue was built larger than others to demonstrate his authority over all. The statues of the greater Gods used to be larger than the smaller deities. The sculptures and paintings of ancient Egypt all have very finely and precisely carved faces and physical features. The wall of Nefertari’s tomb has paintings of fully covered beautiful women. Egyptian art also portrayed the supremacy and importance of the Pharaoh and other political or religious figures. The paintings and sculptures of the Pharaoh generally show him with his wife or courtiers. The bust of Nefertiti, wall paintings of Nefertari and the golden death mask of Tuton-khamun are some excellent examples of the portrayal of human form in ancient Egyptian art.


Aegean Art

The Aegean culture had sculptures crafted in marble because of its abundance there. The sculptures were made using plain geometrical shapes like triangles or simple planes. A figurine of a nude woman from Syros found inside a grave and that of a male iyre player from Keros, Cyclades are demonstrate the beauty of the Aegean art. These sculptures can be seen in the National Archaeological museum of Athens. Human forms are also visible in the Aegean paintings.. These paintings depict ceremonies like bull leaping. The women were painted in fair complexion and men were represented having dark features. The palace of Knossos, Greece has the sculpture of a snake goddess. The Goddess holds snakes in both her hands and there is a cat on her head which signifies the power the Goddess had over animals. Scholars also believe that it could be the sculpture of a priestess.

 Greek Art

Greek art’s depiction of humans is also quite exquisite. The carved statues depict the human body in its full beauty. There are both are nude and covered statues. The most important feature of the sculptures is the fine detailing of the body parts. The Olympian gods and goddesses are depicted with a sensuous appeal in the form of marble statues.The statue of Aphrodyte of  Knydos and that of Hermes and Dionsyos are excellent examples of the sensuousness and beauty that  the Greek art was known for . Another important sculpture from the Greek civilization is that of Herakles. These statues depict physical details of the human body very finely.


There has been considerable evolution and innovation in the depiction of the human forms in art. Art does not just mirror the society and customs of its age but also people’s religious and political beliefs. Art has also underwent remarkable development through ages and this reflects in the way the style and look of sculptures kept changing. However, with each passing age the interest of artists in human body has deepened. Most important thing is that the art of each civilization also helps at understanding its culture and particularly how it portrays its humans helps at knowing the society and its values.