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The Human Form
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The Museum abounds with images of the human body created at various times and places across history.As the objects on the following pages show, the ways the human body is represented and its ideal form have often differed between cultures and even within a single culture. Michelangelo’s famous image of Adam, from the scene showing God creating mankind painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome, has often been seen in Western art as an idealized image of the masculine body. One of the drawings the artist made as a study for the ceiling is shown in this chapter. This image of Adam, which has inspired many artists since its creation 500 years ago, stands in striking contrast to another way of seeing the human form, represented in the eye idols made in the Middle East some 3000 years earlier.

The idealized human form is a common element of many of the images of humans, or gods in human form, throughout this book. In this chapter, the Strangford Apollo embodies the ideal of the perfect human body in Greek culture of about 500 вс, stressing symmetry, beauty and athleticism. This can be compared and contrasted with another image of classical bodily perfection made only a few decades later: the famous image of Discobolos. This not only shows how quickly ideas about the ideal human form could change, it also demonstrates how a single vision of perfection, like Michelangelo’s Adam, could become a source of inspiration lasting for centuries. The Discobolos may be the most famous sculpture of an athlete ever created. Not only was this ideal of bodily perfection and athleticism copied from the original Greek bronze by a much later Roman sculptor, who produced the elements of the marble figure we know today, but its image continues to be constantly reproduced in books, posters, stamps, films and other media around the world.

The Human Form


Discobolos, the discus-thrower


The human images included in this chapter and elsewhere in this book were created for many different purposes, although it may be difficult for us now to understand the exact function of some of them. Michelangelo’s drawing is a study for a painting illustrating the act of creation, while the eye idols may have been made as offerings or petitions to a deity. Many of the images were created as portraits, to act as reminders of a particular person. Examples in this chapter include a face on a Roman mummy case from Egypt, Rubens’ portrait of a woman and the depiction of a Korean scholar. Most of the portraits across this book, however, are idealized representations, including those that may look like realistic portraits, such as the limestone sculpture of the 18th Dynasty Egyptian couple. Images created for funerary monuments may show what the deceased might have looked like at some point during their life. Equally, as seen in an earlier chapter, images of rulers have rarely been intended as true portraits in the modern sense, but instead aim to show an individual looking as a ruler ought to appear.

Many human images - from masks and statues to drawings and images on objects - have thus been created in order to illustrate the essence of their subject, sometimes using characteristics specific to that person but often emphasizing those which a person is supposed to possess in order to be recognized as the ruler, priest or character in a play or ritual.

The Human Form


No mask




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