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Abstraction, Symbolism & Spirituality ( A historical look at high art modalities)

Abstraction, Symbolism & Spirituality
A historical look at high art modalities


This work shall examine the modalities and evolution of art looking to clarify the relationship of abstraction to realism, the use of symbolism in abstraction as a product of spirituality; as well as the modern use of metaphor as a contextual parameter for direct meaning in contemporary art. I hope to draw correlations that will help students and laymen grasp an understanding of the enormous power and heritage found throughout art and its history.

Neolithic Paleolithic

The works considered to fall under Paleolithic periods is circa 32,000-11,000 years ago. Works first marking this time are typically known as cave paintings this also applied to objects found in or nearby these caves. Such as bone or antler typically carved with patterns or what are considered to be decorative motifs. I have looked to this period many times for many reasons, mostly to examine the first evolution of aesthetics and to ask some of the following questions along with others:

1. What drove the need to create objects painted or carved?

2. Was there rudimentary language through symbols that were understood by most at the time?

By looking at the need for early man to document day-to-day existence, we see the emergence of ritual as the first manifestation of expression. These first manifestations were based upon the relationship of man to his natural environment. It becomes easier to see modern civilization's relationship to this early understanding and subsequently understand its reciprocal admiration of this period. It is from these first early observations that we may begin to answer some of the questions listed above. I believe that the inhabitants living in the area of this time including Mesolithic, Neolithic with of course some variations, saw the use of marking there tools with symbols and inscriptions as a way of tribal identification or territorial marker. The symbols inscribed on tools found nearby these areas would signify to others that the territory had been marked. And by using the same inscriptions throughout the caves or objects let neighboring tribes see the extent of area or territory covered.

Once purpose was established in the marking of objects I believe associations of those markings started to acquire meaning for the individuals making the objects and the representation of how the markings where made also began to take on layers of meaning. What is in man that he feels the need to create? We first need to look to nature's role in relation to man in this time frame so that we may ascertain meaning if any, and begin to identify key elements those relationships appear to manifest. As with some artist today who explore the relationship of nature to materials and concept through art. It is my belief that individuals living in Paleolithic times began a similar relationship, though there are those who feel it as being unconscious to them at the time but in essence a spiritual relationship to nature. The same experience today that we now reserve for devote religious individuals. If these first markings began with spiritual relations to nature, it follows that the evolution of this process would not stray to far from its original intent. It seems logical that over time individual members (shaman) or (artist) where given the task of documenting the tribes identity and daily existence.

Lascaux cave. Paint on limestone, 15,000-13,000 BCE

Other archaeologist and historians such as Joseph Campbell have attributed the paintings to signify initiation rights of younger tribal members into manhood. I think this too deserves consideration having the benefit of studying rituals in present day tribal practice.









Storage Jar , ca. 2000–1600 B.C. C-Group; From Faras, Upper Nubia,grave 3,Griffith excavations Red and black ware with incised linear decoration; H. 6 11/16 in. (17 cm), Diam. 7 1/2 in. (19 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1913 (13.125.29)
Storage jar decorated with mountain goats , early 4th millennium B.C.; Chalcolithic period, Sialk III 7 type Central Iran Ceramic, paint; H. 20 7/8 in. (53 cm) Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1959 (59.52)
Basin ( pen ), Majiayao culture, Majiayao phase, ca. 3200–2700 B.C. Gansu Province, China Earthenware with painted decoration; Diam. 11 in. (27.9 cm) Anonymous Loan (L.1996.55.6)
Jomon vessel, ceramic, 10,000 BCE

Photograhy & Captions courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of New York

It is interesting that all cultures no matter of location have found the need to decorate objects it almost appears to be instinctive on some level. An outward expression for the appreciation or admiration of their surroundings? The patterns seen here can be viewed as some of the first abstractions illustrated as idealizations of nature. My personal experience as an artist says that the use of lines in this fashion represent energy patterns as a matrix of connectedness, and that these marking in the style portrayed is a conscious stylistic decision by its maker. I say this for several reasons looking at the structure of the vessels themselves they appear though hand made to be perfectly symmetrical this is an artist pride in striving for perfection aspiring to something beyond his daily existence for something beyond words. Early civilizations did not confine markings to just objects it can be observed that the tribes surroundings dictated the style of the people and that identity itself of the tribe would be defined by what type of markings where used on objects and on the body. Later these rhythms would be seen on textiles and heard in music, the innately spiritual nature of man would manifest itself in making all aspects of nature metaphorically alive within them. Hence the rulers of the sky the planets the water etc… To honor life by making objects that honored the gifts man defined as blessings from other realms of experience beyond what could be seen but could only be intuited.

Table of Evolution 18.000 BCE – 1.CE

CE stands for " Common Era." It is a relatively new term that is experiencing increased usage and is eventually expected to replace AD. The latter is an abbreviation for " Anno Domini " in Latin or " the year of the Lord " in English. The latter refers to the approximate birth year of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ). CE and AD have the same and value. 2004 CE = 2004 AD.

BCE stands for " Before the common era." It is eventually expected to replace BC, which means " Before Christ ." BC and BCE are also identical in value. Most theologians and religious historians believe that the approximate birth date of Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus) was in the fall, sometime between 7 and 4 BCE, although we have seen estimates as late as 4 CE and as early as the second century BCE

Late Paleolithic
Transition Phase
Metal Age

18,000 b.
18 ,000-10,000
Central Russian mammoth
bone settlements

12,000 b.
12 ,000 Domestication of
10,500-8000 Natufian

10,000 b. 85 00 Domestication of sheep
Development of farming
in the Middle East

8,000 b.
Domestication of pigs, goats, cattle
7000 Full-fledged town at Jericho
6250-5400 Çatal
Huyuk at its peak

6,000 b.
56 00 Beans domesticated
5000-2000 Yangshao
culture in North China
5000 Domestication of
maize (corn)

4,000 b. 4000-3000 Age of  innovation in the Middle East: Introduction of writing, metalworking, the wheel, and the plow
3500 Llama domesticated
3500-2350 Civilization
of Sumer
c. 3100 Rise of Egyptian
2500-1500 Indus civilization in South Asia

2,000 b.
2000 Kotosh culture in Peru
c. 1766 Emergence of
Shang kingdom in China
1 700 - 1300 Rise of village culture in Mesoa America
1000-500 Olmec civilization in Mesoamerica
400 Potatoes domesticated

7000 B.C.E.
4000 B.C.E.
3000 B.C.E.
2000 B.C.E.
1000 B.C.E.
1 C.E.

7000–4000 Spread of agriculture through most of Middle East
5000 Farming along
Nile River
4000 Sumerians settle in Tigris-Euphrates valley

3500 Early Sumerian
3100–2700 Initial
3000 Introduction of bronze tools

2700–2200 Old Kingdom period
2600 First great pyramid
2400–2200 Akkadian
empire conquers Sumer
2052–1786 Middle
Kingdom period; civilization to Upper Nile
2000 Phoenician state
2000 Gilgamesh epic

1800 Babylonian empire; Hammurabi, 1796 –1750
1700 Hyksos invasion
1600 Minoan Civilization [Crete]
1600 Possible settlement of Jews in southeast Mediterranean
1575–1087 New
Kingdom Period
1 4 00–1200 Hittite
empire; use of iron
1250 Moses and Jewish exodus from Egypt (traditional belief)
1100 Spread of use of iron
1000–970 Kingdom of Israel under King David
1000 Kush independent kingdom
1000 Indo-European
invasion of Greece
1000 Spread of Phoenician settlements in western

800 Beginning of writing of Bible
730 Kushite rule of Egypt
721 Assyrian invasion
conquers northern Israel
665–617 Assyrian empire
539 Persian empire


100 C.E. Decline of Kush
and its capital Meroe
300 C.E. Rise of Axum

Early Languages Pictographs & Hieroglyphs



Early Chinese Writing Evolution

Early Sumerian Writing Evolution



Early Mesoamerican lamojarra Hieroglyphs

Early Brahmi Writing (India)

* Writing Samples courtesy of Copyright © 1996-2005, Lawrence Lo. All Rights Reserved



Early Berber Writing Evolution

Early Egyptian Hieroglyphs

* Writing Samples courtesy of Copyright © 1996-2005, Lawrence Lo. All Rights Reserved

You can see from these early writing forms that these languages are 90% pictorial 80% geometry it appears that most forms resemble things found in nature and have been stylized (simplified) making them in most likelihood more universal and easy to reproduce.  The development of a written language serves to catalog events in a civilization to communicate to the masses but the key here is communication & documentation. I believe that these early iterations of language operate on many levels one of the key factors here also relating to the early use of symbols we saw on the pottery on the previous pages is the use of symbols and how they relate to our own thinking process.  Recent work in neurophysiology have put forth the idea that experiences are converted to symbols and processed by the brain with this in mind it is easy to conclude that it is our physical nature that dictates the use of symbols in culture. This makes it easy to see how there use became so entrenched so early on, and for so long.


As you can see there are many similarities in these Petroglyph. Even though they were found in different locations throughout the world. This seems to support the idea of the use of symbols, as a physical parameter for the process of thought itself.  It is important to keep in mind that these early artist and shaman had a relationship to nature that bordered on maternal. It was widely held in many parts of the world that every action of men had repercussions to nature and the land. This ideal also had a relationship to the elements that where used to create objects this also became one of the founding principles around alchemy and early magic rituals. It follows to conclude that the common elements among us found daily in nature are those things we find pleasing or what we have come to term as (aesthetic). i.e.

  • Sun (yellow)
  • Sky (blue, orange, violet, white, gray)
  • Trees (green, red, white)
  • Flowers (variegated colors)
  • Water (aqua, turquoise)
  • Animal Skins (leopard, giraffes, cows, mink)
  • Rocks (variegated colors)
  • Sand (variegated colors) etc…
  • Gold
  • Silver
  • Bronze
  • Lapis Lazuli
  • Copper
  • Cadmium
  • Wax
  • Cobalt
  • Zinc
  • Indigo

These elements each acquired there own importance over time some became associated with royalty and religious iconography. What’s more important to take note of is the relationship of these elements and how they are used in works of art i.e. (the sun or natural light may be illustrated in religious works by using gold leaf the reflection of Gods light by the physical reflection of gold.)

The birth of the metropolis

Most historians’ look to Egypt, Rome and Greece as the foundation of planning and the development of urban architecture, paved roads, monuments, and cathedrals. Artist defined these early civilizations as to providing a distinct style to the cultures they embodied; this distinction was attributed to societal beliefs and religious ideologies. This impled that artist at this time were beholden to their patrons pharos, emperors, kings and priest. Although Egypt by far is well known for its great cities starting as far back as 5000 BCE  Mesopotamia  has been credited as the birth of civilization. And looking at some of the pictures below you can see how incredibly advanced the architecture was as far back as 3500 BCE. Babylon was the largest city in the known world at the time. We have observed that most cities although from slightly different time periods have displayed extraordinary advances in architecture. Again this style of design was only used for building palaces and temples, but it not only heightened the cultural status but contributed as well to the moral of the people living in these cities giving them an tremendous sense of accomplishment.

image image
Hulton Deutsch Ruins of Babylon
The ancient city of Babylon, located east of the Euphrates River near present-day Baghdad, developed in stages and reached its peak of expansion during the Neo-Babylonian dynasty under Nebuchadnezzar II. The city was the capital of a kingdom encompassing a large part of southwest Asia and was the largest city in the known world.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002.
THE BETTMANN ARCHIVE Hanging Gardens of Babylon
This hand-colored engraving by 16th century Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck depicts the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Technically, the gardens did not hang, but grew on the roofs and terraces of the royal palace in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar II, the Chaldean king, probably built the gardens in about 600 B.C. as a consolation to his Median wife who missed the natural surroundings of her homeland.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002.




Hypostyle Hall, Temple of Amon at Karnak
The hypostyle hall at the Temple of Amon in Karnak, Egypt, has more than 100 columns, each more than 20 m (70 ft.) high. The hall was built during the reign of Ramses II in the 1200s bc.Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2002. © 1993-2001

Scala/Art Resource, NY Basilica of Maxentius
This Roman basilica was begun by the emperor Maxentius between 307 and 310 and completed by Constantine the Great after 312. The quality and scope of the architecture was outstanding for its time.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002.

The Temple of Athena Nike is part of the Acropolis
in the city of Athens in Greece. Built around 420 BCE,
Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2002. ©

It would appear that the early work of artist were to create structures that would inspire an almost spiritual presence. Quite often writing or pictures would also adorn the facades and columns sometimes depicting everyday events or describing historical or religious ideologies. By using this scale the creators introduce a new idea into these monumental works that is a mixture of metaphor coupled with design & function. This is important to note because art and the role of artist in society widen to create other disciplines we see less decorative works and more utilitarian and functional objectivity. It was not unusual for artist to work in teams to create these extraordinary wonders and the masters were the overseers

of important projects. As early as 500 BCE artist began to maintain individual reputations for particular excellence in a field of artistry. There was a kind of early renaissance in art around this time starting in Greece and widening to neighboring civilizations. There began an appreciation for the art of art so to speak this probably came about from the organization of society and the education of its inhabitants. Although noble’s and emperors enjoyed the better of this new cultural awareness society also marveled at the ability of the artist and they took pride in their achievements as reflecting positively on society as a hole. It is in these early tracing of history we find the foundation of fine art and its power to unite and enrich society.  With the birth of this new ideal also came the birth of an internal and engaging dialogue among philosophers, artist, poets, musicians, writers etc... One that would last to this day and eventually set the foundations for art throughout the world. This is the primary journey that I will investigate and in doing so explain some of the disparities and awe that come as acknowledged baggage to this extraordinary life for those engaged in the act of creation. This ideal was in part establishing standards for the arts as society became more intellectually advanced so did their sensibilities; the evolution of painting and sculpture strove to become more naturalistic architecture also became more refined and set a standard in design
Indus Valley Civilization
In the Indus valley area now known as Pakistan, an advanced Bronze Age culture rose up about 2500 B.C. and lasted for nearly 1000 years. Scholars do not know how it began or whether its people were related to those who now occupy Southwest Asia. Nomadic tribes called Aryans invaded the Indus River valley, probably from the region north of the Caspian Sea, in 1500 B.C. The Aryan culture became dominant in the area, eclipsing that of its predecessors. Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002.

Greek Architectural Orders

The ancient Greeks developed three major architectural styles, or orders, that determined the major features of a temple facade. The Doric is the oldest and simplest order. The Ionic and Corinthian orders added a base to the column and developed a more elaborate scheme for the column’s capital. The entablature (above the columns) also differs in each order. Click on the red arrows to see the capitals and entablatures in more detail.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002.


Greek Artist

Alcamenes (circa late 5th century B.C.)
Exekias (circa  550-525 B.C.)
Lysippus (circa 4th century B.C.)
Myron (circa 490-430 B.C.)
Phidias (circa 490-430bc)
Polyclitus (circa 450-420 B.C.),
Polygnotus (circa 470 and 450 B.C.)
Praxiteles (circa  390?-330?B.C.)
Scopas (circa 395-350 B.C.)
Zeuxis (circa 4th century B.C.)

that would be followed to present times. The Greeks where among the first cultures to consciously evolve their art as attitudes in society changed. As one looks at these works below you can see starting from the Archaic period the stiff stylization of an early  Kore  (Young Woman) these works depicted more of an ideal rather than specific individuals. Another early view of the conscious use of symbolism socially accepted at the time. As we move into early Classical we a shift to more naturalistic depiction of form coupled with the power of emotion.


Early Classical

Late Classical






Nimatallah/Art Resource, NY
Peplos Kore
An Ancient Greek statue of a standing female figure is called a kore, meaning “young woman.” The Peplos Kore, so called because she wears a loose overdress called a peplos, was presented as an offering to the goddess Athena. She was carved around 530 B.C. and is in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002.

Scala/Art Resource, NY Discobolus
The Discobolus (Discus Thrower) is a Roman copy in marble of a statue made by Greek sculptor Myron of Eleutherae in about 450 B.C. The original was made of bronze and was life-size, as is this copy. The composition of this piece incorporates two intersecting arcs, creating a feeling of movement and tension.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002.

Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York
Hermes Holding the Infant Dionysus
Hermes Holding the Infant Dionysus (about 340 B.C.) is attributed to Praxiteles, a Greek sculptor of the Late Classical period. The piece is marble and stands approximately 2 m (7 ft) high. It was originally made for the Temple of Hera at Olympia. This sculpture displays the qualities most desired by artists of the Late Classical period: individualism and naturalism.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002.

Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York
Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo (about 150-100 B.C.) is considered by many art historians to be the ideal of Hellenistic beauty. It was carved out of marble and stands approximately 205 cm (6 ft 10 in) high. It is housed in the Louvre in Paris, France.
1993-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

The line in these works represents a beautiful use of geometry forming expressive special tensions. Moving into late Classical we see the continued simplification of line and naturalistic posture, and quiet grace. The Greeks captured and idealized proportions and essentially set the bar for high art during this period. As society came under different rules and other cultures started to occupy the city the artist strove to incorporate other subject matter to accommodate a widening cultural diversity. Although these icons broadened there emotional range did as well it sought to capture death, old age, portraiture, any subject that could express the range of human emotion naturalistically. This is a vital shift in art for many reasons the first being that of conscious interpretation of life itself by creating





Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY
Amon-Ra, Father of the Gods
The Egyptian god Amon-Ra was a combination of Amon, a god from the city of Thebes, and Ra, the sun god. Amon-Ra is depicted with a hawk’s headsurmounted by a sun disk in this painting from the Tomb of Sennedjum, in Luxor, Egypt. The painting was created around 13 B.C.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002. © 1993-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Scala/Art Resource, NY Paestum Tomb Painting
Few paintings on walls or tombs survive from ancient Greece. This scene of men drinking and lounging at a banquet was painted on a tomb at Paestum, Italy, between about 490 and 470 B.C. The painting has since been removed from the tomb and is now housed in Paestum's Archaeological Museum.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002. ©

Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York
Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii
This mural in the Villa of the Mysteries, located in Pompeii, Italy, is thought to depict the initiation rituals of a mystery religion. The Villa of the Mysteries, which was built about 50 B.C., featured a large hall with this mural encircling it. Roman religion was not static; the Romans adopted new gods to help them with specific needs.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002. ©

works that would essentially reflect and represent the state of humanity and the ideals they stood for. Another being the universality found in common expression setting form as a language able to be understood on multiple levels. Before I move on I would like to take a brief look at the Roman works found in Pompeii for several reasons one being the reinforcement that the art produced in this time strove to capture and enhance life to tell stories of religious beliefs and mythology.


Villa of the Mysteries photo John Hauser


House of the Vettii photo John Hauser

Eros Venus

image House of the Vettii.

imageWall-painting from the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto This photo depicts Narcissus captivated by his own reflection.

Detail of the Alexander mosaic from the House of the Faun Battle of Issus 333BC the mosaic depicts Alexander the Great's defeat of the Persian king Darius; the detail here illustrates Alexander himself. In its entirety the mosaic measures 5.82 x 3.13m (19ft x 10ft 3in), and is made of around a million tesserae (small mosaic tiles).

End part I