Notes on How Art Made the World – To Death and Back Again 5/5

In this BBC series from 2004, Dr Nigel Spivey investigates everything from cave paintings to ceramics, pyramids to palaces and icons to artifacts across five continents and 100,000 years of history. Although this one isn't available online, you can rent it from LoveFilm (or Netflix) and failing that, it is available in Amazon UK and there is also an excellent micro-site on the PBS website with in-depth information and links.

How Art Made the World : Episode 5, To Death and Back Again

See my notes on the previous Episode, Once Upon a Time here

Death captured the mind of early man and since then it has driven us to create some of the most powerful images in the world.

The episode starts in Jericho (in the Jordan Valley) where in the 1950 Cecil Western, the British Archeologist, discovered decorated skulls with a reconstructed nose and shells as replacement for eyes. The skulls were found in the walls of homes and it appears they had been placed in specially made alcoves. Since their discovery, other decorated skulls have cropped up all over the middle east and Asia and some tribes in South East Asia still practice this today.

All animals have an instinct to avert their own death, it's a basic survival mechanism. Humans, however, are the only creatures that understand the inevitability of our own death. Psychologists understand that there is a way to overcome the fear of death and that is by creating images of our ancestors, we lesson blow of inevitability. Professors Solomon and Greenberg have done experiments with 2 groups of students. Using subliminal images they got the students to thinks of death. They then showed both groups images of dead celebrities. The subjects were given the choice of how long to look at pictures and those who were made to think about death wanted to look at images for longer ( Solomon and Greenberg explain this is for reassurance ). In Jericho, in the 1st millennia BC, the average life expectancy was 24. The prospect of Death would have terrified them and these artistic representations would have allowed them to keep their ancestors alive.

Death of Marat by David

Reassurance, however, is only part of story. Some have used images of death for opposite effect, to exploit our fear of death. The French painter Jacques Louis David used the image of Marat (the leader of the revolution) murdered in bath to gain support for their cause. The SS used images of the skull and cross bones on their uniforms to strike fear in their victims. The Peruvian Moche created the Waca Da Luna temple to honor their human sacrifices. The walls of this temple show horrific images of death, featuring spiders with human faces and fangs, lizards that have been decapitated and the pottery found their shows people having their eyes pecked out by birds. A mass human grave was found nearby and many of the bodies had been both decapitated and dismembered, the bodies were those that had been sacrificed by the Moche. The neighboring Aztecs, however, did human sacrifice on an industrial scale. In one 4 day even, over forty-thousand people were sacrificed. Archeologists believe that the mass sacrifices of the Aztecs were to repay the debt of their sun god, who used his own blood to keep the sun alive. If his debt was not repaid with their most highly prized gifts (their lives) then the sun would go out. This is one of histories most successful regime of terror, that kept a tight grip on their people, thankful to be Aztec rather than the victims of the sacrifices.

Solomon and Greenberg have collected evidence which shows, that by reminding people of their own death, it drives them to support those that share their values and oppose those who don't. It's a universal instinct across time. When we think about death we become more invested in our own belief system (Solomon and Geeenburg). This has been used through out history and one that Christians can relate to best is the image of Chris on the cross, or simply the cross. A symbol of a man oozing blood, dying a terrifying death.

The Etruscans are not as well known as the Romans, but they laid the foundations of Rome, most things we remember of the Romans were in fact traditions from the Etruscan. The main archeological record we have is their tombs, and these contain vivid images of the afterlife. The tombs were designed as houses for the dead with carvings of all they would need in the afterlife. Thousands of years after traces of the Etruscan civilisation had vanished overground, their dead cities serviced. In 1985 a pipeline for Tarquinya was being laid and during the excavation a new tomb was discovered. Archeologists used camera's to look into the tomb and what they first saw was unexpected. At first they saw the reassuring images they expected, but then they turned the cameras around and on opposite wall were disturbing images of blue demons, rotting flesh, snakes, and a winged devil. The tomb dates back to 420bc and these are the oldest surviving image of hell. In the 200 years leading up to this, the Etruscans created images promising a happy afterlife, but threatened by rise of the Romans, these tombs acted as a call to arms. Damned or saved these reminded them of what awaited, if they failed in defending against Romans. This is the earliest know use of conflicting images being used together: Redemption images.

Later in 1500ad, in Orvieato, the Estrucian capital, the Christians built a cathedral here, they painted frescoes showing on one wall the damned going to Hell and the opposite wall the saved going to heaven. Uncannily similar images to those of the tomb and the devils are depicted in a green / blue. The Etruscan legacy, that redemption can lead people to look forward to death, rather than fear it.

When we no longer fear the inevitability of death, not only are we prepared to give up life for a greater good, we do so knowing that we are remembered for it, a heroic death.

See my notes on the previous Episode, Once Upon a Time here