Semiotics of Greco-Roman Art

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Greco-Roman exhibit is chock full of work that has an immense impact on their culture and their era. Most of the art found from ancient Greece and ancient Rome was created solely for the purpose of worship as their respective religions were based in paying honor as a means of keeping the universe balanced. Pots and plates represent vessels in which offerings would be given to the gods. Sculptures in the round and reliefs were means of storytelling as well as godly  personification. Earth shattering cosmic events and human success due to the gods are all depicted in some way. To these ancient cultures, their means of creating were highly successful at meeting the requirements in which they were produced.

I have always had a connection to Greek art specifically due to the fact that my family is Turkish. Geographically, the two nations are neighbors. I have also stated many times that they are the same country, the only difference between the two is the religion they are identified with. Both, in modern times, have strong connections to their religions and pay homage in similar ways. There is also the factor of grand architectural advances during the heights of each respective empire.

As stated before, many of the Greek and Roman art that has been displayed are in the forms of vessels, the most common being terracotta pots. However, there are a few instances where these vessels took on strange forms. An example of this is a Votive Offering in the Form of a Boot from 3rd-4th century ancient Greece. Containers that were produced in the shapes of hands, feet, genitalia and other anatomical parts were placed in shrines with the hope of a cure for illness or fertility. They would also be placed in thanks for the gods gifts of either one.

More commonly known of ancient Greek vessels is obviously terracotta pots. These containers were used for a multitude of reasons. One being storytelling. Mythology is one of the largest spiritual factors that sets both Greek and Roman culture apart from other ancient civilizations. Similar to that of the ancient Egyptians hieroglyphics.  Had they not created these works of art, we would not have the same amount of information on what their lore and religion meant to their society.

Furthering on classical art forms from these empires, who could forget about their grandiose sculptural achievements. In the same manner of the containers, sculptures could be considered gifts to the gods. They were also a means for artists to personify these imminent beings. No one sculpture of a specific god or goddess is like another, as there are no solid physical descriptions of any one. An excellent example of Greek godly replication is found in depictions of Aphrodite of eros. The goddess of love and beauty has been replicated countless times. In greek lore, she is said to look different to every human as they have their own definitions of what beauty is.

Unfortunately, many greek and roman sculptures have been worn down by time. Regardless, the fragments that are left behind still hold the same weight and craftsmanship of their wholes. The Venus de Milo is one of the most well known fractured ancient greek sculptures of all time. It has moderately withstanded the test of time and has been even recontextualized for other purposes. The most prominent being a focal point of Salvador Dali’s Hallucinogenic Toreador.

Another form of sculpture seen throughout the roman and greek empires is relief. For those who don’t know, relief sculpture is either the carving from or adding to a flat slab of marble or clay with the intent of only being able to view it from one side. The VMFA has on display a Relife entitled, Mithras Slaying the Bull (Tauroconty). It personifies a story of roman lore, just like the vessels that have been aforementioned.

I have always found the art and culture of ancient greece and rome. Despite the lack of modern means of creating, these empires created countless works of art that have lived on for centuries. They managed to create beyond their original intentions and that in itself is an extraordinary accomplishment.

There is also the factor of usability of these old trinkets. Of course the vessels that were created withstood the arduous tasks of holding whatever substance they were meant to carry. Being that most of them were sculpted from terracotta, these containers could still be used today. The process behind what we today call ceramics, is full of science and math. The Greeks were famous for those two subjects. It is no surprise that craftsmen had the ability to produce such sturdy pottery. First the clay is thrown, or more common for this time period, sculpted, and then dried. After it becomes bone dry, the container is fired. Once the clay has been dried and fired, it is difficult to break, even without the use of glazes. In knowing this, one could easily use a 3rd century greek, terracotta vase as an antique decoration for their living room.

In regards to their usage during the time they were initially created, these works most definitely served their purpose. People of ancient times truly believed that paying homage to their gods kept the universe balanced and to uphold these great and prosperous nations. For many years, these empire remained powerful due to the belief that their offerings in the form of art aided them in some way. On a smaller scale, however, it is difficult to say whether or not these offerings were reciprocated with what was asked of the gods. Tales have been told of cured illnesses and women who were infertile being gifted with children. This is all lore, not history backed by facts.

As storytelling and lore were highly important to ancient Greek and Roman culture, these artworks do an excellent job at such. Centuries later, we have the ability to comprehend the mythology of the past. Stories are meant to be passed through time. We have these ancient tales before us in the form of art.

As stated prior, ancient Greek and Roman art have always fascinated me. Part of my family is turkish so i am connected to Greece geographically and through past conflict. Turkey does not have much to offer in the art world besides decorative tiles. There is a small amount of ceramics in my home countries past, but once again, not to the same depth as the greeks. In knowing that some of the most infamous artistic and intellectual advances came from these two empires, I can not help being intrigued. There is also the mythology that coincides with the art produced from these time periods. There are thousands of movies, TV shows, books, and other publications that have been inspired by Greco-Roman lore. All renditions of these ancient stories never fail to excite viewers. They lack modern cliches which feels like a hard feet to escape nowadays.

Over all, Greco-Roman art had an everlasting impact on the world and the cultures it dwelled in. Pieces from these eras succeeded in carrying out their original intent of paying honor to the gods and enlightening later civilizations of their lore. They have withstanded the tests of time and stand as reminders for us now and those of the future to continue to create not only for pleasure but for purpose.

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