For much of history religion has been a dominant theme in the visual arts. Individuals wishing to earn the favors of a deity might commission a statue of the god (or even of themselves praying to that god). Others might themselves create images of their gods as acts of devotion. Whole villages, cities, and countries might commission works to declare their allegiance to a god. In this section, we will examine a range of spectacular works created to express religious beliefs, please gods, and influence human affairs through supernatural forces.
The natural world appears as a major theme in the visual arts from the very earliest images. However, there is no way to merely present the natural world “as it really is,” without this being influenced by the culture in which it was produced. Even a photograph of a landscape is based on ideas the photographer brings to that landscape. In this chapter, we will look at a range of images depicting nature, with an emphasis on image of the land, and its flora and fauna. Some celebrate the glories of nature, but others present the natural world as a place of danger and strife.
How is power depicted in art, and, conversely, can an image represent an attack on power? The focus of this section is on the interpretation of images involving power and will feature works of art used by kings and emperors to establish, declare and maintain their power, as well as works created to protest such — works used to fight against oppression and injustice.
Art is designed for a great many purposes, but much art is also, if not exclusively, designed to provide and reflect a sense of pleasure. We will consider and compare several gardens, which are spaces designed to provide pleasing, immersive environments. Wealthy patrons often commissioned prominent artists and architects to design their gardens. Contemplative monks worked on their own gardens as part of their worship. Governments designed gardens to mark and celebrate their presence. All the gardens presented here constitute microcosms of a desirable world—whether real or imagined.
All artists are influenced by the styles and media of others, even those who stridently claim otherwise. Early Greek art influences later Greek art. Early Chinese painting influences later Chinese painting. We will look at some straightforward examples of these sorts of borrowings, but will also look at more unexpected moments of influence, where artists look to unusual or unexpected sources as inspiration for their work, or manipulate their sources in interesting and nuanced ways.