Sunday, October 11, 2020

The revolutionary Orientalizing Period in Mediterranean art

These gold plaques depicting a winged goddess flanked by lions were created on the island of Rhodes during the so-called "orientalizing period."  This reference in art history is used to describe a development in western art beginning in the latter part of the 8th century BCE when there was a heavy influence from the art of the eastern Mediterranean including Assyria, Phoenicia, and Egypt.  During this time Greek motifs began to shift from geometric designs to the depiction of deities, animals, and mythological creatures. 

Two schools of thought exist regarding the question of whether or not Geometric art itself was indebted to eastern models. In Attic pottery, the distinctive Orientalizing style known as "proto-Attic" was marked by floral and animal motifs. It was the first time discernibly Greek religious and mythological themes were represented in vase painting. The bodies of men and animals were depicted in silhouette, though their heads were drawn in outline. Women were drawn completely in outline. In Corinth, the orientalizing influence started earlier, though the tendency there was to produce smaller, highly detailed vases in the "proto-Corinthian" style that prefigured the black-figure technique.

These changes were triggered by population shifts brought about by both conquest and colonization.  During this period, the Assyrians advanced along the Mediterranean coast, accompanied by Greek and Carian mercenaries, who were also active in the armies of Psamtik I in Egypt.  Phoenicians settled in Cyprus and in western regions of Greece, Greeks established trading colonies at Al Mina, Syria, and in Ischia (Pithecusae) off the Tyrrhenian coast of Campania in southern Italy. The new groups started to compete with established Mediterranean merchants.

The period from roughly 750 to 580 BCE also saw a comparable Orientalizing phase of Etruscan art, as a rising economy encouraged Etruscan families to acquire foreign luxury products incorporating Eastern-derived motifs. Similarly, areas of Italy—such as Magna Grecia, Sicily, the Picenum, Latium vetus, Ager Faliscus, the Venetic region, the Nuragic civilization of Sardinia, and the Iberian peninsula, in particular in the city-state of Tartessos, also experienced an Orientalizing phase at this time. 

Classicist Walter Burkert described the new movement in Greek art as a revolution: "With bronze reliefs, textiles, seals, and other products, a whole world of eastern images was opened up which the Greeks were only too eager to adopt and adapt in the course of an 'orientalizing revolution."

Image: Gold plaques with winged goddesses flanked by lions and dangling pomegranates, a fruit originating within a region from Iran to northern India, Greek from Kamiros, Rhodes, Orientalizing Period 700-600 BCE probably worn as a collar around the neck of clothing, that I photographed at the British Museum in 2016.

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