Thursday, May 05, 2011

Index to Athabasca University essay assignments

From early in 2008 to early in 2011 I dedicated much of my time to taking courses at Athabasca University. I completed eleven courses and withdrew from a couple more. My general aim was to get the Bachelor Degree that I should have achieved in my twenties. (Oh well).
While I promise to write more soon on what went right and what went wrong with my university education; in this blog I will simply write an index or table of contents for the essay submissions that I recently translated into blogs.
  • Course: HIST203 Western Art I
  1. Essay: A description of the Minoan Snake Goddess
  2. Essay: Influence of Concrete on the Development of Roman Architecture
  3. Essay: Characteristics and Development of Middle Period Byzantine Art
  • Course: HIST201 Western Culture I
  1. Essay: The writings of Plato and Aristotle and their Influence on the Philosophy of pre-Renaissance Europe
  • Course: HIST307 The Pacific Century
  1. Essay: Western influence and penetration into late nineteenth century China
  2. Essay: Lu Xun, Kita Ikki and their struggles for the “national souls” of China and Japan
  • Course: HUMN360 East Meets West
  1. Essay: Similarities and Differences between Buddhism and Taoism
  2. Essay: Ideas and Values of Robert Pirsig as influenced by Eastern Thought with an emphasis on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  • Course: ENGL384 Writing Creative Non-Fiction
  1. Essay: Photographic Memory Fish
  2. Essay: Irish Letters: Kate Armstrong Overin
  3. Essay: Close Reading of “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee”
  4. Essay: English Bay: The Tide Always Returns
  5. Essay: Letter regarding: Paris Exposition 1900
  • Course: ENGL353 Intermediate Composition
  1. Essay: Cutting Gizmo's Hair
  2. Essay: Judging a Book by its Cover
  3. Essay: Variability of Weather in Alberta and Vancouver
  4. Essay: Learn Communication Skills with Toastmaster International
  5. Essay: George Orwell’s Writing: a Criticism of Language
  • Course: HERM301 Heritage Resources Management
  1. Essay: Totem Pole Art: Changing Perceptions with comments on Collection, Preservation and Renovation

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Essay: Totem Pole Art: Changing Perceptions with comments on Collection, Preservation and Renovation

Much of my time in 2008 to 2010 was spent taking some university courses. It might be of some general interest if I convert a few of my essay assignments into blogs. One of my courses was titled ‘Introduction to Heritage Resources Management’. I wrote an essay on the following topic:
Discuss how Northwest Coast native art has been collected, restored and preserved.  Give emphasis to the totem poles found in villages of the upper Skeena River valley.  Include a discussion of how they were viewed by earlier visitors and how that view has changed.
The following is an edited version of my student submission:
The native peoples of the northwest coast of North America created monuments – especially totem poles – from the Western Red Cedar which grows abundantly in local forests.  This is a wonderful carving material, but in the wet coastal climate anything created in wood requires care, preservation and restoration if it is to survive.  The practices and policies that promote totemic preservation and renewal have changed several times in the last century.  These changes have brought conflict between the Canadian government and local Native[1] nations.
Changing times have brought new respect for totem art.  To illustrate changes in attitudes and practices, it is useful to include a history of a representative sample of the many totem poles that were carved in a few small villages near British Columbia’s upper Skeena River.  This small area contains perhaps the best preserved collection of totem poles still found in the same original locations where they were first raised.  It is an area that the author has known from both readings and personal experience.
While it is uncertain when free-standing totem poles were first created, it is certain that the Natives were making fine carvings with metal tools before they were ‘discovered’ by English, Spanish and Russian explorers.  When Captain Cook visited Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island in 1778, he observed that the local people’’’s “great dexterity in works of wood, may, in some measure be ascribed to the assistance that they receive from iron tools, for, as far as we know, they use not other; at least we saw only one chisel of bone.”[2] Apparently, iron tools were in common use before the coming of the white man.  Some were received in trade with other tribes who had European contact. Other iron had drifted ashore in wreckage, so much so that Haidas believed these “iron logs” to be the original source of the metal.[3]
Edward Keithahn notes that other Europeans, visiting before 1800, described large communal houses with big vertical support poles.  Some of these poles were carved and painted.  Free standing poles were seen in front of a few houses but they appeared to be rare.  Their carved surfaces were commonly painted red, green and black.  Shorter mortuary poles were erected with wooden boxes at the top where the remains of chiefs were placed.  He concludes that “interior house posts were in general use throughout the region before the coming of the white man; that the mortuary pole was common in Tlingit and Haida villages; that the exterior house post is Haida in origin.”[4] Exterior poles became more common and became known as “totem poles”.
The heyday of totem pole creation started about 1830 with the acquisition of new wealth from the fur trade and new steel tools.  By the 1880s the art was already in slow decline. The Native population was devastated by smallpox and other disease, Canadian policy discouraged the carving of totem poles, and perhaps most importantly, government policy discouraged the ceremonies required to raise new poles as replacements for the old ones which had fallen.
On the subject of Totem Restoration[5], Edward Keithahn says that the act of moving, repainting, altering or replacing a pole would require a potlatch and the same ceremony as though he were erecting a new pole.  It required great expense and brought no prestige to the owner.  “Wind and weather, fungi, insects and plant life all contribute to the decay of a totem pole… once fallen it is generally left to return to the earth”.  To raise it again requires a new potlatch ceremony.  “A contemporary pole raising may include traditional elements such as a full-blown potlatch that involves the feeding of many hundreds of people at a lavish sit-down dinner.”[6] In the wet coastal climate a wooden totem pole could barely be expected to outlive the lifetime of its creators, yet the traditional cycle which created new copies to replace the old eventually became almost completely broken.
Totem poles were collected by the great museums of the world.  Museums sent collectors to gather as many ethnographic objects as they could persuade the Natives to part with.  Between the 1870s and the 1920s hundreds of poles were purchased or simply removed without permission.  When a village was empty for a few years – or even just for a season of fishing and harvesting – the totems became fair game for removal by unscrupulous collectors.  Museums from Chicago to Stockholm to New Zealand treasure their totem collections.  In Canada, one finds prime examples in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.[7]
In the 1890s, parks were created in Alaska near Sitka and Wrangell.  Many totem poles were moved there for restoration and preservation.[8] In the illustrations of a 1905 Worlds Fair guide book one finds a photo labelled “Totem Poles – The finest collection in existence, arranged in a semi-circle in front of Alaskan wing of Government Building.  Made by Indians from the Prince of Wales Island. ...  Vary rare and valuable curiosities.”[9] These totems appeared to be well appreciated by their American audience, but perhaps the appreciation was quaint curiosity in a dying art more than it was any artistic appreciation.  The same guide book has a photo depicting a sculpture of four roughrider cowboys mounted on horses. The cowboys appear to be drunk and shooting pistols in the air.  The description reads “A striking group of sculpture, characteristic of early days in the great Northwest.  The sculptor has certainly caught the right spirit in his interpretation of the daring cowboys of the plains—a type that is rapidly disappearing and giving place to the onward march of civilization.”[10]
Between 1920 and 1945, more than 50 American totem poles were restored and moved to locations that ranged from Seattle to Ketchikan.  Keithahn uses the term “purloined” to refer to the 1899 totem in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.  The restoration and removal was a joint effort of the US Forest Service, the U.S. Indian Service, the Governor’s Office and many other public agencies.[11]
In Canada restoration projects were carried on “to a certain extent” ever since 1900. Up until 1925, the official policy was to acquire totem poles from deserted villages and then bring them to Victoria and Vancouver where they would be restored, placed in museums or displayed in public parks.[12]
In 1925 an extensive restoration project was started in British Columbia along the Skeena River.  Keithahn mentions Barbeau writing about the difficulty in getting Native permission to restore the poles.  “’Why,’ they asked, ‘do you wish to preserve totempoles which only a few years ago you forbid us to erect?’”[13]
Leslie Dawn writes of the international appreciation of Canada’s Native art in the 1920s.  In Europe this art sometimes received a more favourable reception than did the works of artists who were far more respected back home in Canada.  For example, in 1927 the Canadian government sponsored an Exposition d’art canadien at the prestigious Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris.  There were several rooms of fine landscapes painted by all the great Canadian painters including the complete Group of Seven.  There was also one small table with eleven small Native pieces; mainly Haida works carved in black argillite slate.  A prestigious French reviewer wrote that the works of the Canadian landscape painters were rugged and had potential.  He then described the Native carvings as having “a rare perfection of execution, a remarkable character and a styling that had nothing of the banal.”[14]  He noted a direct dependence of the modern painters on Native traditions.  Such a dependency would have been rejected almost immediately in Canadian art circles.
Back in Canada, the general consensus was that the natives were dying off, that their culture was dying with them, and that Native “tribes” such as the Gitxsan had already given up any claim to control of their ancestral lands.  For each of these ideas, Dawn provides much evidence to the contrary.  He writes of the absurd situation in Alberta where government bureaucrats did everything they could to stop native dances and ceremonies at the same time that the CPR tourism department, and the organizers of the Calgary Stampede, encouraged photogenic Native gatherings in Banff and Calgary.  In Northern British Columbia the CNR was encouraging the restoration of totem poles in their original locations while civic boosters in Vancouver, Victoria and Prince Rupert vied to get the best specimens for their public parks.[15]
The history of some individual totem poles can be readily tracked.  One pole was purchased from Alert Bay, British Columbia in 1928 and shipped to Stanley Park in Vancouver for display.  This pole was photographed in its original location and was painted there by Emily Carr.  By the 1980s it was so deteriorated that the original was shipped to the Northwest Coast exhibit of Ottawa’s Museum of Civilization.  A replica was carved in Vancouver and erected there in 1987.  A raising ceremony was conducted by the Native peoples of Alert Bay.[16]  The Stanley Park totem pole group is the most photographed and visited tourist spot in B.C.[17]
Canadians finally started to appreciate their Native arts.  Starting in 1935 more than a dozen poles were moved from Massett and Skidegate to various public locations in Prince Rupert.  In 1940 a Thunderbird Park was established in Victoria.  Keithahn predicted that in the future the totem will be considered as significant as the pyramids of Egypt or the ruins of Rome.[18]
Marius Barbeau relates trying to purchase a pole at Kincolith on the upper coast. The chief / owner was on his death bed and refused to sell. The chief said that selling his totem would be like selling the gravestone of BC’s first governor.  Barbeau says that “The figures carved on it were not pagan divinities, as is often supposed, but the heraldic emblems of the clan; they were like the coats of arms of our nobles.”  He then relates his efforts to buy that same pole from the old chief’s sons after his death.  Barbeau is proud that it “stands now in a better place for its preservation. Lost to all notice in the northern jungle, it would soon have tumbled to the ground and decayed, whereas it is now on display for everyone to see and may last forever.”[19]
In 1957 a group of carvers including Bill Reid went to Ninstints on Anthony Island in the Queen Charlottes.  They found a fine house frontal pole on the ground: “We turned it over,” Bill Reid said, “expecting to find total decay, but to our delight the carving was intact except for some rot and a long crack.”  The original was cut in half for transportation to UBC. It is on display at the UBC Anthropology museum.  A 2/3 size copy was made by Bill Reid and others. It is now on display outside that museum.[20]
The villages of Gitwangak[21], Gitanyow, Gitsegukla and Kispiox have had a quite different history than many other Native sites in Canada.  Their Skeena River locations were far enough from the coast that they were little visited before the arrival of the Grand Truck Railway.  There was a good supply of local food and plenty of wood for carving.  The local people were just warlike enough that government agents were willing to try a little negotiation before using the full force of the law.[22]  New Histories for Old provides a background on the early relations between Natives and white people in the Skeena Valley.  The native villages operated their own form of government. When there were conflicts between them and white intruders – usually missionaries, prospectors or fur traders – they insisted on operating according to their own rules and their own sense of morality.[23]
Writing in 1940, Barbeau reports that the best collection of totem poles, still fairly complete, was found that area. There were more than a hundred poles or carvings in scattered groups found in “eight tribal villages of the Gitskan nation. (The Gitskans are one of the three nations of the Tsimsyans.)”[24] [His commentary uses both the words nation and art.]  “Their own alien and bizarre appearance was enhanced by the striking background of darkly wooded and mist-shrouded, ice-capped peaks.”[25]
George F. MacDonald writes a lot about the totem poles at Gitwangak. He notes that Gitwangak is the best-documented totem village in the Northwest.  The National Museum of Man’s files in Ottawa contain more than 500 photographs of the Gitwangak poles.  He states that with the exception of nearby Kitwancool, Gitwangak has the most extensive collection of old totem poles of any village in British Columbia.[26]
In 1958 the village elders of Gitanyow allowed several old poles to be moved for museum preservation as long as they were replaced with carved replicas.  In 1960, master Kwakiutl-style carvers made a replica of an original that is now seen in the Great Hall of UBC’s Museum of Anthropology.  This replica pole is now displayed at Thunderbird Park in Victoria.[27] In this case, native carvers from a distinctly different artistic tradition carved a Gitxsan design for public display in Victoria.
Leslie Dawn’s book has several chapters about the complicated relationships between the Gitxsan Natives, various Canadian governmental agencies, ethnographers – such as Marius Barbeau – and a variety of visiting artists.  The Gitxsan nation has never signed a Land Treaty with Canada.  Ever since the Grand Trunk (now the CNR) railway was built through this area, the government has been anxious to pretend that the “dying race” had abandoned their land and their culture was almost gone.  Efforts were made to collect, record and preserve the remnants before all traces were gone.[28]
Barbeau writes that the totem poles of BC and Alaska are “known all over the world.  The excellence of their decorative style at its best is nowhere surpassed by any other form of aboriginal art”.[29]  “The art of carving poles belongs to the past.  Racial customs and stamina are on the wane everywhere, even in their former strongholds.”[30]
A.Y. Jackson, W. Langdon Kihn and Emily Carr all sketched and painted extensively in Kitwanga and the other Gitxsan villages.  They were encouraged by the authorities as long as they recorded a land nearly empty of people.  The government – and its ethnographer Marius Barbeau – preferred a land of scenic mountains, some mighty rivers, a few ancient cultural monuments and perhaps a handful of Christianized locals.[31]
Gitwangak village, also known as Kitwanga, still has a dozen standing poles.[32]  Most of the totems were originally erected facing the bank of the Skeena River.  As the river banks eroded the poles were moved inland.  Most now face the gravel road through the lower town.  The CNR tracks are a hundred yards away but the train station is gone and passenger trains rarely stop.  A bridge across the Skeena was built at Kitwanga in 1974 so access from the highway is now easy.  The setting is quite spectacular.  The mountain range known as the Seven Sisters can be easily seen from the totems.  That is one of the most spectacular mountain scenes viewable from any paved road in BC.
It is interesting to speculate that while Natives following the buffalo would mark their flat prairie with simple stones circles; here in the midst of dense forests and steep mountains these more-settled Native peoples carved bright monumental poles to compete with their surroundings.
These individual totem pole histories illustrate how government policy, international interest and Native attention have all modified the care, preservation and restoration of Gitwangak totem poles.  Illustrations from national and international sources have shown how appreciation has changed for these and other Monuments in Cedar.  Wooden objects will never remain erect without care and attention in the harsh weather of the Northwest coast.  If totem pole carving is to remain a vibrant living art, then future training, preservation and government support will be required.

Looking at the varied histories of a few notable Gitwangak poles illustrates the how policies and practices have changed:
(Gitwangak Totem Pole No. 5) Pole of the Mountain Lion.[33]
This was carved and erected as a house pole about 1865.  It was reinforced with back support pole about 1885.  It was reinforced or moved in 1926, 1942 and 1967.  After more than 140 years it has significant rot.  It is still standing within a hundred metres of its original location and the original figures are still easy to distinguish.
1. A separately carved mountain lion.
2. Wolf, head down. The mountain lion is impaled on its tail.
3. Ensnared bear.
4. Wolf.
5. Ensnared bear around doorway.

 (Gitwangak Totem Pole No. 9) Bear's-Den-Person
This pole was erected about 1840 and destroyed in 1969.  It had an interesting story.  It was one of the earliest erected after the local people moved from the Kitwanga Hill Fort.  Barbeau described it as “one of the most valuable relics of the kind on the Skeena.”[34]  It was photographed standing to the west of the village in 1899.  It fell in 1912. By 1924 it was lying on the ground split in two.  It was then moved and later fell again.
“Disaster struck in the summer of 1969 during the totem pole restoration project when one of the workers decided on his own to that the pole was beyond repair and burned it in a bonfire ‘to clean up the site’… The loss of this monument of national heritage value is a sobering reminder of the destruction that can accompany restoration projects.”
1. Eagle.
2. Bear's-Den-Person.
3. Bear's-Den-Person.
4. Split Eagle.

 (Gitwangak Totem Pole No. 10) Dog Salmon
This one was erected about 1860. It was leaning badly by 1925. Reinforced and re-erected the next year. It was threatened by a 1936 flood. Re-erected and repainted in 1940's. Fell down about 1960. A copy was made with rubber and fibreglass moulds in 1969 and shipped to Ottawa. The original remained in Kitwanga and a replica was made in Ottawa. The replica was shipped back and eventually erected in Kitwanga. The fibreglass version went to Ksan village in Hazelton and the original went to Ottawa.
1. Person-with-the-Fish-Spear stand on tail of dog salmon with salmon's tail behind person's head.
2. Dog salmon.
3. Split-Person hanging onto the fin of a second dog salmon with head in mouth of first.
4. Dog salmon with two dorsal fins.
5. Split-Person in the mouth of the second salmon.

 (Gitwangak Totem Pole No. 12) Halibut
Erected around 1880, blown down 1925 and re-erected in 1926. This pole was moved in 1928 without owner's permission to the side of HBC store. There it remains long after the store building was removed in the 1980s.  Barbeau lists it as "among the best at Kitwanga."  It faces train tracks and road crossing; therefore is the only one easily seen from the railway.
1. Person-with-Drum.
2. Split-Person or Half-Man merging with Bear's-Den-Person.
3. Person holding halibut.
4. Two halibut; one held in each hand of person.
5. Split eagle.  Possibly borrowing on Russian eagle concept.
6. Person-with-Drum holding a crest or mask in his hands.

(Gitwangak Totem Pole No. 16) Whereon-Climb-Frogs.
Carved about 1900 to 1905.  It has a distinctive appearance with a canoe containing three figures.  It was featured in paintings by Emily Carr.  It can be easily traced in photos from 1926, 1974 and 2007.
1. Eagle with a frog facing upwards on body.
2. Copper-Smell-Person in shape of a human being holding two animals that might be white groundhogs.
3. Climbing frog.
4. Canoe with three figures: Kewok on top, his son Nekt attached by tongue and bottom Lutraisu, Nekt's mother.
5. Climbing frog.
6. Half-Bear.

Bibliography and references used in this Essay
Barbeau, Marius Totem Poles (2 vols)
Ottawa, Ontario: Department of the Secretary of State,
National Museum of Canada, 1940
Binnema, Ted and Susan Neylan (editors) New Histories for Old: Changing Perspectives on Canada's Native Pasts.
Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2007.
Dawn, Leslie National Visions, National Blindness: Canadian Art and Identities in the 1920s
Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2006.
Keithahn, Edward L. Monuments in Cedar
Ketchikan, Alaska: Roy Anderson, 1945
Lee, William H. Glimpses of the Lewis and Clark Exposition and the Golden West
Chicago, Illinois: Laird & Lee, 1905
MacDonald, George F. The Totem Poles of Gitwangak village: Studies in Archaeology, Architecture and History Ottawa, Ontario: Environment Canada, 1984
Stewart, Hilary Looking at Totem Poles
Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. 1993
Tippett, Maria Emily Carr, a Biography
Toronto, Ontario: Stoddart Publishing Co., 1979

[1] To signify aboriginal people in general this author has chosen to use the same capitalized ‘Native’ terminology as seen in Leslie Dawn’s recent book.  While ‘First Nations’ is common Canadian modern terminology, the Canadian nation is still trying to sign treaties with the Native Skeena River peoples.  Therefore, the exact demarcations between what defines a family, a band, a tribe and a first nation are still controversial and under review.
[2] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 24
[3] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 24
[4] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 25
[5] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[6] Hilary Stewart Looking at Totem Poles p. 29
[7] Hilary Stewart Looking at Totem Poles p. 21
[8] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[9] William H. Lee Glimpses of the Lewis & Clark Exposition [The pages are not numbered in book but this is approximately p. 17; the photo shows seven totem poles; apparently brightly painted. In front is a great dugout canoe.]
[10] William H. Lee Approximately p. 37 the photo is labelled “Hitting the Trail”
[11] Paragraph based on Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[12] Paragraph based on Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[13] Paragraph based on Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[14] Quote from Thiebault-Sission, “Une exposition d’art Canadian au Jeu-de-Paume”, in Le Temps March 25 1927 as referenced in Leslie Dawn’s National Visions, National Blindness p. 101.
This entire paragraph is based on Dawn’s chapter Canadian Primitives in Paris.
[15] This section is based on several chapters of Leslie Dawn’s book, including Chapter 5 Barbeau and Kihn with the Stoney in Alberta, Chapter 6 Barbeau and Kihn with the Gitxsan in British Columbia, Chapter 7 Giving Gitxsan Totem poles a New Slant and Chapter 8 Representing and Repossessing the Picturesque Skeena Valley.
[16] Hilary Stewart Looking at Totem Poles p. 89
[17] Vancouver Sun newspaper’s online edition of Aug 02, 2008 Totem poles most-visited site in B.C.
[18] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[19] Marius Barbeau Totem Poles p. 32
[20] Hilary Stewart Looking at Totem Poles p. 54
[21] A note on naming terminology: Every explorer, ethnographer and writer seems to have used a different spelling system.  I chose to use Gitwangak, Gitanyow and Gitsegukla for the Native villages.  (These groups themselves commonly use this particular spelling).  The Gitxsan tribal nation is also spelled as Gitskan.  I refer to Kitwanga (Gitwangak), Kitwancool (Gitanyow) and Kitsegukla (Gitsegukla) where appropriate for the actual physical locations.  These are the most common spellings seen on modern maps.
[22] This paragraph is somewhat based on personal observation.  Regarding militancy, it is interesting to visit the Kitwanga Fort National Historic Site.  It is the only such Native fortification in Canada.
[23] Ted Binnema and Susan Neylan (ed.) New Histories for Old. Skeena native govt. is mentioned in several chapters; especially “Gitxsan Law and Settler Disorder: The Skeena ‘Uprising’ of 1888” by R.M. Galois
[24] Marius Barbeau Totem Poles Introduction p. 4
[25] Marius Barbeau Totem Poles Introduction p. 4
[26] George F. MacDonald The Totem Poles of Gitwangak Village Preface. The National Museum of Man is now known as the Museum of Civilization.
[27] Hilary Stewart Looking at Totem Poles p. 107
[28] See note 12 regarding Leslie Dawn’s book
[29] Marius Barbeau Totem Poles Introduction p. 1
[30] Marius Barbeau Totem Poles Introduction p. 1
[31] See note 12 regarding Leslie Dawn’s book
[32] The comments on the current state of Gitxsan art is based on a tourist visit by this essay writer to the area in July 2007.  Many photos were taken.  This writer also spent most of 1974 working in Kitwanga.  Scenery comments are also based on personal experience.
[33] The pole numbering, pole naming, figuring numbering and figure descriptions used in this section are from George F. MacDonald’s book.  MacDonald based his descriptions on the research of Marius Barbeau.  The figures described are seen from top to bottom.
[34] As quoted in MacDonald p. 75.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Essay: Characteristics and Development of Middle Period Byzantine Art

I took some university courses a few years ago. One course was titled ‘A Survey of Western Art I’.
I thought that it might be interesting to convert a few of my essays into blogs. The following is one of my early efforts. The given assignment was:
Discuss the main characteristics and development of Byzantine art of the middle period (from the time of the Iconoclastic Controversy until the beginning of the 13th Century). Include an explanation of when the Iconoclastic Controversy occurred, what it was and how it affected secular and religious art.

The Byzantine Empire is the conventional name of a medieval Christian and Greek-speaking state.  The Byzantine people themselves referred to their state as the Roman Empire and Byzantium was just the city name of Constantinople. (Hollingsworth, "Byzantium" The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium)  This essay refers to the middle period of Byzantine Art that started with the Iconoclast Controversy and ended with the Fourth Crusade sacking of Constantinople.
This is era is commonly known as the Dark Ages; but most of the art created was quite luminous and anything but dark.  In fact, many[1] refer to this as a Second Golden Age.
To appreciate the developments of the Middle period it is necessary to consider what came before.  Under Emperor Justinian, the monuments of Constantinople justify the claim of a First Golden Age.  Byzantine culture and art gradually came under more Christian and Greek influence.  (Davies et al, Janson’s History of Art  p. 253)
The early and middle periods of Byzantine Art are divided by the Iconoclast Controversy.  This was a religious and political conflict that raged over the interpretation of a few biblical words.  It was seen as vitally important to prevent worship of images as idols.

Strict prohibition of idolatry is one of the most distinctive features of Israelite religion: Yahweh, the God of Israel, could not be represented in physical form and would not tolerate the idols of any other gods.  This aniconic principle is articulated in the Ten Commandments. (Metzger et al: The Oxford Companion to the Bible  p. 297)
In the Byzantine early period the rules on idolic images were less strict.  In 695 CE, Emperor Justinian II put a full-face image of Christ on the obverse of his gold coins. (Hollingsworth, "Justinian II")  On the other hand, much of the empire was being lost to the new Muslim religion and the new rulers of those lands were hardly as tolerant about such imagery.  Some have said that this Muslim push sparked the Emperor Leo III and the image destroyers, who were known as Iconoclasts; but the origins of their actions are obscure. (Hollingsworth, "Leo III")
In 726 CE Leo III ordered the removal of an image of Jesus from over the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople. Some of those assigned to the task were murdered by a band of image lovers who were known as Iconophiles. (Hollingsworth, "Leo III")
The Iconoclasts insisted on a literal interpretation of the biblical ban.  “They wanted to restrict religious art to abstract symbols and plant or animal forms.”  Their opponents, the Iconophiles, were lead by the monks.  “The strongest argument in favour of the icons was Neo-Platonic.  Because Christ and his image are inseparable, the honor given to the image is transferred to him.” (Davies et al, pp. 264-265)
Besides being a theological controversy over “the relationship of the human and the divine in the person of Christ … the conflict was a power struggle between Church and State, which in theory were united in the figure of the emperor.” (Davies et al, p. 265)
Political affairs reached a low point after iconophile Irene—the wife of Emperor Leo IV and the mother of Constantine VI—ordered iconoclast writings destroyed and the icons restored.  She was in such conflict with her iconoclast son that in 797 CE she had him blinded and ruled herself as Emperor for 5 years. (Hollingsworth, "Irene")
A synod in 809 declared that the Emperor was above the law of the church and excommunicated anyone who disagreed. (Hollingsworth, "Moechian Controversy")  One emperor would declare himself devoted to icons while his successor would fight for iconoclasm.  Finally in March 843, Patriarch John the Grammarian was replaced when he refused to preside over a church council to rehabilitate icon worship. (Hollingsworth, "John VII Grammatikos")
The edict barring images had not been enforced throughout the Empire.  It was far less strict in Greece and Bulgaria.  “It did succeed in greatly reducing the production of sacred images, but it failed to wipe it out entirely, so there was a fairly rapid recovery after the victory of the Iconophiles.” (Davies et al, p. 265)
Icons were now produced to be “venerated” but not “worshipped”.  As sacred objects they had to conform to strict rules, with fixed patterns repeated over and over again.  Most icons are therefore noteworthy more for their exacting craftsmanship than artistic inventiveness. (Davies et al, p. 273)
Iconoclasm brought about a renewed interest in secular art, which was not affected by the edicts. (Davies et al, p. 265)  In the Middle Byzantine period Islamic and classical themes were apparent in the secular art of emperors and in many aspects of material culture. (Hollingsworth, "Islamic Influence On Byzantine Art")   There was a revival of Byzantine artistic traditions, as well as classical learning and literature. (Davies et al, p. 266) 
The Joshua Roll of ca. 950 CE showed its classical style in the form of a scroll, an archaic type of manuscript which had been replaced by the codex a full eight centuries earlier. (Davies et al, p. 266)
The Paris Psalter of the same era had a free-flowing consciously classical style.  Despite that, its style qualities, such as the crowded composition of space-consuming figures indicate its later date. (Davies et al, p. 266)
While large scale statuary had died out, small-scale objects especially made in ivory and metal, were made in large numbers “with a variety of content, style, and purpose.” (Davies et al, p. 268)
In The Harbaville Triptych it appears that there is a continuation of the style “whereby different figure types require different representational modes.” Figures have an attitude of refinement and control. (Davies et al, p. 268)  
Religious construction after the Iconoclastic Controversy was initially monastic and modest in scale.  Later, much larger monasteries were erected in Constantinople under imperial patronage.  They served social purposes such as schools and hospitals. (Davies et al, p. 269)
The interiors of later churches were emblazoned with mosaics such as had been done in the early period; but now, as seen at the church at Daphni (Davies et al, fig. 8.44), they showed a “classicism that merges harmoniously with the spiritualized ideal of human beauty that we encountered in Justinian’s reign.” (Davies et al, pp. 269 - 270)   Creating a realistic spatial setting was not important, but the compositions had a monumental balance and clarity. (Davies et al, p. 270)
Just as in Early Byzantine architecture, the material structure was less important than “the creation of immaterial space … the glitter of the mosaics must have completed the illusion of unreality, fitting the spirit of these interiors to perfection.” (Davies et al, p. 259)
In a similar way, exact human physical depiction was less important than emotional depiction.  Scenes of the Passion of Christ became common.  (Davies et al, p. 270) 
To have introduced this compassionate view of Christ into sacred depiction was perhaps the greatest achievement of Middle Byzantine art.  Early Christian art lacked this quality entirely. … Early Christian artists depicted the Crucifixion only rarely and without pathos, though with a similar simplicity. (Davies et al, p. 270)
The Second Golden Age also gave emphasis to Christ the Pantocrator.  This is a depiction of Christ as both Judge and Ruler of the Universe, the All-Holder who contains everything.  The bearded images of Christ resembled those of a Roman Zeus. (Davies et al, p. 270)
Middle period Byzantine churches have been described as having a depiction of cosmos in the great domes, with the Holy Land seen in the vaults and in the squinches.  The earthly world is depicted in the walls and supports below. (Davies et al, p. 270)  As the viewer moves around the building to witness the events of Christ’s life, the viewer becomes a symbolic pilgrim to the Holy Land.  This is combined with a virtual vertical journey heavenward. (Davies et al, p. 271)
Conflicts between the Eastern Byzantine and Western Catholic churches lead to a split known as the Great Schism.  On the surface the dispute was over a single Latin word, filioque,  meaning “and from the Son,” as inserted into the creed of Nicaea-Constantinople.  This was a short brief exposition of the principles of Christian belief expressing the hierarchy between the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  (Hollingsworth, "Filioque")  The dispute was also about determining the more earthly power hierarchy of the Pope, the Eastern patriarch and the Byzantine Emperors.
Finally in July 1054, Cardinal Humbert of the Papal delegation lost patience, and laid a excommunication edict against Patriarch Michael.  Michael and his synod retaliated by doing the same against Humbert.  (Hollingsworth, "Schism")
After the schism Venice was brought forcefully back to the Western camp, but when the Venetians started on a new St. Mark’s church they looked to the culture and art of Byzantium, and Constantinople for inspiration. (Davies et al, p. 272)   The church’s Greek-cross plan is emphasized with a separate dome on each arm of the cross.  The spacious interior was decorated by visiting Byzantine artists and locals trained by them.
“Oriental influence may be attributed the taste for costly and many-coloured stones and woven fabrics, for goldsmith-work, and enamel.”  The “church of the eleventh century was transformed into a veritable treasure-house.” (Gietmann, Gerhard.  The Catholic Encyclopedia)
The Byzantine manner was also popular in Sicily after that island was taken from the Muslims and united with southern Italy in 1091.  The mosaics of the Cathedral of Monreale cover vast wall surfaces. The Pantocrator of a Byzantine domed church now controls the space of the apse. (Davies et al, pp. 272-273)
Within a structure displaying Romanesque characteristics, the nave at Monreale flaunts a Byzantine trademark—an interior as elegant and as costly as the throne room of an emperor.  The art of the eastern empire traveled to every corner of Christendom—in textiles and mosaics, in paintings, in objects of gold, silver, and carved ivory.  (People and Places of the Past p.168)
The Christian Crusades, which started in 1095, changed Byzantine art by bringing Western influences. (Davies et al, p. 273)  The soldiers of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204.  This led to the establishment of the Latin Empire throughout the Greek Byzantine Empire. (Hollingsworth, "Latin Empire")  This signalled the end of Byzantine art’s Middle period.

References used in this Essay
Davies, Penelope J.E. et al. Janson's History of Art: The Western Tradition, 7th edition.
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., 2007.
Gietmann, Gerhard. "Byzantine Art." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3.
New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.
(Available online at
Hollingsworth, Paul A. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium.
Oxford, England: Oxford University Press 1991.
Metzger, Bruce M. and Michael D. Coogan (editors) The Oxford Companion to the Bible.
Oxford, England: Oxford University Press 1993
People and Places of the Past / The National Geographic Illustrated Cultural Atlas of the Ancient World
Washington, DC: National Geographic Society 1983

Monday, May 02, 2011

Essay: Influence of Concrete on the Development of Roman Architecture

Just a few years ago I took some university courses. One course was titled ‘A Survey of Western Art’. I thought that it might be of interest if I converted some of my assignment essays into blog posts. This early example was  ‘A Discussion of the Influence of Concrete in Roman Architecture as contrasted to previous builders’:
The use of concrete by Roman builders defined much of what made Roman architecture distinctive and familiar to us today.
In a sense, the history of Roman architecture is a dialogue between the traditional rectilinear forms of the Greek and early Italic post-and-lintel traditions on the one hand, and the freedoms afforded by this malleable material on the other.
(Davies et al: Janson’s History of Art  p. 182)
Concrete allowed the Romans to create great spanning arches, vaults and domes that often remain standing 2000 years afterwards.
The Romans borrowed many architectural concepts from their earlier neighbours such as the Greeks, the Etruscans and the Egyptians.  Those previous builders never attempted to roof over spaces as high or as wide as the Romans did.  While the best attempts of the earlier builders looked wonderful on the outside, their interiors often depended upon a thick forest of supporting columns.  Much of roofs and ceilings were built of wood.  Therefore, most of their best interior spaces have long since collapsed into the soil of history.

Earlier Builders and Building Methods
Earlier builders did create public buildings that projected a powerful image.  By looking at three representative ancient buildings – the Great Ziggurat at Ur (2100 BCE), the Temple of Amun-Ra (ca 1290 – 1224 BCE) and the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos (ca 359 – 351 BCE) – we can see how pre-Roman builders tried to create durable exteriors and great interior spaces.  Their efforts would have dazzled with their exterior splendour; but few visitors would have been allowed to enter the small interior rooms which were more like reception rooms than large gathering spaces.  These building used massive amounts of material in a manner that was quite inefficient when compared to the use of concrete and the arch.
The Ziggurat of Ur was 190 feet long by 130 feet wide and 50 feet high.  This is only one third as long, one third as high and one quarter as wide as the Colosseum in Rome.  Its construction required massive quantities of mud and baked brick which created an impressive exterior yet the only interior space was some long lost temple set upon its summit. (Janson’s  p. 31–32)
A visitor to the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak walked up great sculpture-guarded avenues and through impressive open courtyards.  The most impressive interior space was the Hypostyle Hall.  Massive amounts of stone spanned relatively small aisle ways.  Its roof is long gone.  According to Janson’s:
Here, a visitor would be awed by a forest of columns, their sheer mass rendering the human form almost insignificant.  Unlike wooden lintels, these had to be kept short to prevent them from breaking under their own weight. (Janson’s  p. 65)
The Mausoleum at Halikarnassos in some ways was a combination of the ziggurat and the Egyptian temple.  Its base was nearly as big as the Great Ziggurat of Ur while its roof rose three times higher to about 140 feet.  Its outside decoration was so spectacular that the word Mausoleum was been applied to any great monumental tomb.  It was basically a solid artificial hill with a relatively small interior space enclosed in the upper temple structure.  Eventually an earthquake knocked most it to the ground.

What is concrete?
Concrete is made by mixing mortar and pieces of aggregate stone.  When pozzolana sand was added Roman builders found the key to a durable building material.  It could be poured into temporary wooden forms assembled into a wide variety of shapes.
The advantages of concrete were quickly evident: It was strong and cheap, and could be worked by relatively unskilled labourers.  It was also extraordinarily adaptable… builders could mould it to shapes that would have been prohibitively time-consuming, if not outright impossible to make using cut stone, wood, or mud brick. (Janson’s  p. 181)

How did the Romans use concrete?

The Romans used concrete in ways that were both mundane and sublime.  They used it to create great public warehouses such as the Porticus Aemelia (Janson’s  p. 182), aqueducts such as in Segovia (Janson’s  p. 209) and public theatres such as the Theatre Complex of Pompey (Janson’s  p. 184).  Concrete was even used in domestic architecture and enabled the builders to create insulae having “many features of a present-day apartment block…. Some were as many as five stories, with balconies above the first floor.” (Janson’s  p. 214)
Writing about the vast Theatre Complex of Pompey the textbook notes that:
It was not, for instance, nestled into a pre-existing hillside.  Instead the architect created an artificial slope out of the concrete, rising on radially disposed barrel vaults, which buttressed one another for a strong structure.  Concrete, in other words, gave the designer freedom to build independent of the landscape.  (Janson’s  p. 184)
Two of the greatest examples of Roman architecture – The Colosseum and the Parthenon – are both available for us to view today.  Neither would have been imaginable without the use of concrete.  The Colosseum was constructed as a colossal permanent amphitheatre.  It was ordered by Vespasian for gladiatorial games and completed by his son Titus in 80 CE.  It was far larger and more massive than more ancient theatres, mausoleums or temples.  Yet its archways were honey-combed with open spaces for crowd movements and storage of animals.  “Concrete faced with travertine, was the secret of its success…. Each barrel vault buttressed the next, making the ring remarkably stable.” (Janson’s  p. 205)
“Of all the masterpieces Roman architects accomplished with concrete, the Pantheon is perhaps the most remarkable.” (Janson’s  p. 205)  The Pantheon has a vast domed roof set on an upright drum.  Inside it is 143 feet tall and just as wide.  (That might have been enough to completely house the fabled tomb at Halikarnassos).  Its building materials are used in for durability and efficiency:
The Pantheon is the extraordinary result of a developed confidence in the potential and strength of concrete.  The architect carefully calibrated the aggregate as the building rose, from travertine to tufa, then brick, and finally pumice, to reduce its weight.  (Janson’s  p. 208-209)
 Late Roman builders
Caracalla’s baths, built in 211 to 216 CE, must have been quite astounding in both size and opulence:
By the time of the late Empire, architects in Rome had more or less abandoned the straightforward use of post-and-lintel construction….  Column, architrave, and pediment took on decorative roles, superimposed on vaulted brick-and-concrete cores.  Imperial bath buildings demonstrate this well.  (Janson’s  p. 223)
The builders of the Great Hagia Sophia church that was ordered by Emperor Constantine in the year 532 demonstrated that there was more than one way to cover an immense interior space.  The great dome was built on pendentives and rose 40 feet higher than the Pantheon.  New technique including “thin bricks embedded in mortar, permits the construction of taller, lighter, and more economical domes”.  Once we are inside Hagia Sophia all sense of weight disappears.  (Janson’s  p. 258)

For more than 500 years there would be few attempts to span such a vast space and none would be as successful as the Hagia Sophia or the Pantheon.  “Byzantine architecture never produced another structure to match the Hagia Sophia.”  (Janson’s  p. 268)

It is probably fair to say that Roman architecture has had a more lasting impact on western building through the ages than any other ancient tradition. (Janson’s  p. 179)
Much of what that impact endurance was due to the use of concrete.  The Romans architects created on a massive scale using an efficient use of materials that would not be rivalled for many centuries afterwards.   One can only speculate what heights the builders of Greek temples, Persian palaces or medieval cathedrals might have attempted if they had known the secrets of concrete construction.

References used in this Essay
Davies, Penelope J.E. et al. Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition, 7th edition.
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., 2007.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Essay: A description of the Minoan Snake Goddess

A few years ago I took a university course titled ‘A Survey of Western Art I’. This was my first essay assignment for that course and I thought that it might be interesting to convert it into a blog. I was trying to write succinctly since the assignment was for just 500 words. The instructor was apparently not impressed with my basic premise, the level of detail provided nor my essay writing ability. (Oh well). Here is my essay:
The First Assignment was to describe the Minoan statue commonly known as the Snake Goddess.  The meaning of this art object is open to interpretation.  Since the statue is almost – but not quite – unique we must go with the evidence of our eyes and some reasonable speculation.  There were no inscriptions and similar figures were not recorded in Minoan frescoes.  Some imagination is required to give it meaning.
My description is based on illustration 4.15 in Janson’s History of Art and the accompanying text.  Viewing her there we see a foot high statue holding two live snakes in her upraised arms.  She has a fierce expression in her eyes.  Her head is topped with a hat and a cat.  Her breasts are bare and she is an obvious fertility symbol.  The label says Snake Goddess so we can categorize her as such and continue on to the next exhibit.  Upon further research and reflection though, these conclusions seem far less certain.[1]
Context is important to both archaeology and art history.  This object was found broken into pottery pieces.  One arm, the head and parts of the skirt were missing.[2]  The missing pieces were reconstructed according to the discoverer’s imagination and the whole piece was reassembled.  In the illustration we can clearly see the small crack lines delineating the reconstructed and original parts. It is uncertain whether the feline creature belongs with this statue at all.
It is a familial size.  This was not some grand Athenai for great temple worship.  This was a small personal object to be viewed up close; perhaps even to hold clenched in one’s own hand just as the figure itself grasps the snakes.  The height is shown as 29.5 cm high, but since much is a reconstruction the exactness of this measurement seems doubtful.
This is made of faience.  That is technical sophisticated tin-glazed pottery.  The flesh is white.  The clothing patina has a variety of browns and smoky yellows.
Female figures similarly dressed in flounced skirts appear in frescoes.  This particular example of clothing has a half-dozen overlapping layers extending to the floor.  The layers consist of panels decorated with black vertical lines.  The waist is cinched with a tight belt over a short overskirt that curves down in front.  The upper bodice is open to expose and accentuate the breasts.
While the open breasts and tight waist certainly suggested female fertility to the Victorian era male mind; they might just as well have simply been a fashionable and comfortable way to dress in the Mediterranean heat.
So when we view an art object – especially one reconstructed with missing pieces – we must be aware of our cultural interpretations.  In popular imagination this is a fierce Snake Goddess created for veneration.  It might just as easily have been a doll illustrating bravery like the leaping dancers of the Toreador Fresco.  Whether this is a magic deity or entertaining decoration is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

References used in this Essay
Davies, Penelope J.E. et al. Janson's History of Art: The Western Tradition, 7th edition.
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., 2007.
Benne, Melissa  Breathing New Life Into Old Art: The Minoan Snake Goddess Meets the InternetSpringfield, MO: Drury University
Whitcombe, Christopher L.C.E.  Images of Women in Ancient ArtSweet Briar, VA: Sweet Briar College

[1] According to a Drury University student paper:
“She may be a snake charmer, a priestess, a Goddess, a festival attendee, a dancing girl, all of the above or nothing that has ever been encountered before. However, it is her appointment of ‘Minoan Snake Goddess’ that is intriguing. This label has caused the biggest response among scholars, feminists, earth-based religious followers, and others today.” (Benne)
[2] My description of the reconstruction process was influenced by the writing of Professor Witcombe, Department of Art History, Sweet Briar College