Civilizations Book Summary By Mary Beard

*This post contains affiliate links, and we may earn an affiliate commission without it ever affecting the price you pay.

Civilizations, written by Mary Beard in 2018, is a fascinating and informative book on the relationship between civilization and artistic representation.

The book is divided into two parts and a reader can expect to learn about the history of how humans were depicted in art from centuries past as well as how religion has played an integral part in the creation of art.

In addition to its historical accounts, Civilizations also contains an array of visuals that are meant to highlight important concepts discussed within the book.

From paintings to cave drawings, the presence of artwork helps illustrate key themes throughout the book.

Overall, Civilizations makes for an engaging read, delivering insightful details about the intricacies behind human progress, state building, and our aesthetic experiences throughout time.

Civilizations Book

Book Name: Civilizations (How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith)

Author(s): Mary Beard

Rating: 4.1/5

Reading Time: 24 Minutes

Categories: History

Author Bio

When it comes to Civilizations, the author is a true giant.

Mary Beard is one of the most influential classics professors at Cambridge University and an internationally bestselling author.

Beyond her reputation in the academic circles, she's also known for her appearances on TV and radio shows as well as on Twitter.

Her books, including SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome and Women and Power: A Manifesto demonstrate Professor Beard’s comprehensive grasp of both history and literature.

Uncovering The History Of Artistic Representation Through Ancient Cultures And Civilizations

Ancient Cultures

When it comes to understanding the world around us, art plays an important role.

Think of the pyramids of ancient Egypt – they let everyone know who’s in charge.

Even something as subtle as a portrait on a wall can be powerful symbol or reminder of what and who matters to us.

Art is a great starting point when trying to unlock the values and ideas of past civilizations.

Examining a Damien Hirst installation tells us much about our postmodern society, just like an ancient wine cooler or medieval mosque reveals plenty about what people believed centuries go.

This is exactly what classicist Mary Beard explores in her interesting look at history through art representation.

Her sections bring insights into Italian Renaissance painters choosing Bible figures in contemporary clothing; civilizations that forgo images for depicting divine and the first Chinese emperor being buried with 7000 terracotta soldiers..

Through these examples we learn how art can tell us so much about any given civilization – that’s why it’s such an important tool in learning more about them and why it’s even more relevant today.

Ancient Art Was More Than Meets The Eye: It Engaged Viewers And Got Them Thinking

It has long been known that the meaning of artworks is shaped by how people interact with them.

Take the example of the two statues of Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III in Thebes: their meaning was defined by the reactions and interpretative opinions of visitors.

One of the statues was famous for being said to “sing” due to cracks in its masonry, leading visitors to interpret this as a good omen if they were fortunate enough to hear it.

Another striking example can be found from fifth century BCE Athenian ceramics which showed naked, drunken satyrs.

These images were not meant as simply decoration, but instead provided contemplation on civility versus barbarity; by placing these images on something as everyday as a wine cooler, guests were forced to contemplate its deeper meaning.

From these examples, it is clear that the understanding and context of artwork is heavily influenced by how we as viewers engage with them – providing insights into both current thinking and societal issues.

Art Used To Memorialize Our Loved Ones: From Greek Statues To Ceramic Portraits

Images of humans have long been used to honor those who have passed away, helping us remember them and come to terms with our loss.

The Greek statue of Phrasikleia serves as a prime example of how artworks used to be used for this purpose.

Discovered in the countryside near Athens, its intricate detail and traces of red paint make it a remarkable funerary monument.

It strikes the viewer with its realism – the magnificent eye contact between Phrasikleia and her viewers helps us feel connected to her even centuries after her death.

Meanwhile, Romans created portraits not just as a way to help them cope with death but also to keep departed loved ones close while they were away.

Pliny the Elder writes of a daughter who traced, by candlelight, the shadow of her beloved’s head before he departed on a journey – Boutades subsequently sculpted this into ceramic, creating the earliest known 3D portrait.

Art has always been an effective tool when it comes to paying tribute to those we can no longer be around physically – from ancient Greece and Rome up until today, images of humans have long been utilized for remembrance and solace.

Power And Monument: How Rulers Have Used Art To Appear All-Powerful

Power And Monument

Throughout history, artwork has been used to demonstrate power to both subjects and rulers.

One of the best examples is Qin Shihuangdi’s Army of Terracotta Warriors, located in Shaanxi Province in China.

The site was excavated in the 1970s and contains over 7000 individual soldiers.

It’s clear that a huge amount of time, energy and resources went into crafting them – an ode to the emperor’s power – and this would not have gone unnoticed by his subjects.

On the other hand, Egyptian Emperor Ramses II chose to use art for self-serving as well as public means.

His images were everywhere – from palaces to tombs – getting his name out there so people would always remember who was in charge.

However, it’s likely that his subjects saw through this kind of propaganda and reacted accordingly!

Finally, many depictions of Ramses were only visible to a certain elite; another way for rulers to remind themselves that they possess something that others do not.

Artistic display can be a powerful tool for power but its effectiveness is hard to measure directly.

How Ancient Greek Art Revolutionized The Concept Of The ‘Male Gaze’ And Inspired An 18Th Century Art Historian

In the fifth and sixth centuries BCE, ancient Greek art took a radical shift from older conventions of representing humans.

This move towards more realistic depictions of muscles, limbs and movement had a huge impact on art since then.

A prominent example is Praxiteles’ sculpture of Aphrodite from 330 BCE, which broke with the custom of depicting women only dressed.

This fully naked work caused an uproar amongst contemporaries – not just for its scandalous nudity but its sensual charge, too.

It’s thought that it was this kind of artwork that kickstarted what ’70s feminists termed as “the male gaze” which has been repeated in myriad forms throughout history.

This revolutionary depiction would go on to become known as “the classical style”, with future generations trying to emulate it in their own artworks throughout time.

This classical style was notably evangelised by now-famous eighteen-century German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann who argued that antiquity was unbeatable in terms of artistry – highlighting Apollo Belvedere as an exemplar.

How Art Informs Religious Experience: Comparing Ajanta Caves And San Vitale Church

Religious Experience

Christiane Herringham’s work to document the religious paintings of India’s Ajanta caves gives us a valuable insight into how religious art can be interpreted differently depending on the way it is interacted with.

By simply treating them as fine art examples and tracings, she misinterpreted their true purpose.

The Ajanta caves are an example of art being meant to make viewers actively engage with the stories and themes being portrayed, rather than merely providing narrative or aesthetic pleasure.

Meanwhile, the beautiful mosaics inside the Church of San Vitale show how artwork can guide believers towards a specific understanding of their faith.

Religious art does more than just provide aesthetic or informative pleasure- it also offers powerful experiences for those who interact with it.

To truly understand the significance of religious art, you have to look at how believers use and respond to it in order to deepen their understanding and personal relationship with their faith.

How Religious Art Can Bring History To Life And Forge Connections With The Sacred Past

For religious believers, art can provide a powerful way to bridge the gap between their faith and its historical events.

Take, for example, how Jacopo Tintoretto’s mural of the crucifixion—created for the walls of a Venetian Scuola di San Rocco—managed to make viewers feel that the painting was happening in front of them.

By dressing Jesus and his followers in clothing from Tintoretto’s own era, he managed to collapse time and make it seem as if they were coming alive right before their eyes.

But it’s not just large works like murals that can evoke such feelings – individual figures can also have an effect on people.

The statue of the Virgin Mary at Seville’s church has been continually dressed up with donations from devotees over its centuries-long existence; items such as jewelry and real human hair have completely transformed it into something sacred.

Those who come to visit treat her as if she were alive, and on Good Friday—the most sacred day in Christianity—she is placed on a throne and paraded through town while believers respond as though they are welcoming a living person.

Ultimately, art can provide religious experiences in which the faithful participate – by embracing these works of devotion or reverence, the gap between our beliefs and historical events can be minimized.

Iconoclasm: From Mindless Destruction To Appreciation And Reuse

Mindless Destruction

Iconoclasts, those who reject images that go against their religious beliefs, may be opposed to certain imagery, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they feeling towards it is always one of erasure.

The Taliban’s notorious destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which shocked news viewers around the world in 2001, serves as a powerful reminder that iconoclasm can lead to drastic and extreme acts.

However, an example from Ely Cathedral in England shows that such opposition often takes much milder forms.

Ely Cathedral is a prime example of medieval Gothic architecture with intricate and beautiful decorations.

But in 1644, when Protestant reformers such as Oliver Cromwell came into power, these same decorations were destroyed – albeit not completely.

It was only human features on sculpture – like heads and hands – that were targeted for removal so as to underline the Protestants’ rejection of worshipping images.

In this way, the cathedral was transformed rather than completely destroyed and today even has an interesting kind of beauty after this history-altering chapter in its life.

Similar cases could also be seen in Delhi’s Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque constructed during 1190s; Hindu designs within it had their faces removed but were reused and incorporated into the new design nonetheless.

Iconoclasm clearly isn’t just about erasing figures entirely – it involves some level of reinterpretation using whatever imagery is available.

Examples like these illuminate how despite being strongly opposed to certain images, objectors might still value them deeply enough to repurpose them instead of erase them altogether.

The Written Word As A Way To Artistically Represent The Divine Across Different Religions

Religious art has long posed the question: what kind of images can be used to best represent the divine? Different religions have tackled this question in various and interesting ways.

Take for example, Islam.

While Islam does not generally approve of representing living creatures in art, this does not equate to an artless religion.

Instead, different methods are adopted to depict the divine such as written word art – something seen in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.

There, intricate ceramics surround a dome adorned with beautiful Arabic script that serve as reminders that Allah upholds all elements of life.

This style is known for being aesthetically pleasing and able to communicate, even to those who may not be versed in Arabic script.

Moving outside of Islam, there’s also Jewish artwork which combines text and imagery such as the Kennicott Bible created in mid-fifteenth century Spain.

Unlike Islamic writing, there was a playful element typical of the culture due to different religious traditions colliding and intermingling within one place and time period; cute animals mingled with micrography (tiny writing) to create an artwork that was equal parts beauty and devotion!

These examples all show how art is a vital part of faith – it updates our relationship with divinity and often helps us illustrate aspects that words alone cannot explain.

When interpreting religious art, it’s important to stay open-minded as boundaries are always shifting on what or how the divine should be represented at any given point in time.

Wrap Up

When it comes to understanding the art created in history, it’s important to recognize our own biases and think twice before claiming an absolute truth.

That is the major message of this book on civilizations.

Art can be seen to tell us a lot about how each civilization sees itself, as well as its place in the world.

It’s especially interesting to reflect on the thoughts of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who allowed his personal tastes to influence his interpretations of artworks.

We should take this as a warning and strive to look beyond our own opinions when learning about ancient civilizations through their art.

As such, we should find our own way of looking at them by asking ourselves honest questions about any new idea that comes our way.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.