From the Birth of Culture to the Age of Enlightenment
In anthropological terms, this period spans millennia, from when early humans emerged at the beginning of the Palaeolithic Period right up until the mid-fifteenth century AD. With regards to illustration – or more broadly, visual communication – how prevalent was it across this epoch and what significance did it have? What was being communicated, why was it being communicated and to whom? And did common ground prevail across this vast period of time regarding a method for transmitting messages?
THE DAWN OF ILUSTRATION
All forms of ‘artistic’ creation from the primitive symbolism and hieroglyphics of ancient times, the sculptures and murals of the classical period right up to sophisticated medieval manuscripts of church and state could only be accessed and ‘read’ in their original handcrafted form. The birth of media such as printing for mass distribution and broadcast had not been invented: audiences would be drawn to view and digest messages imbued in the ‘art’ at site-specific locations. Initially these locations would be caves and natural stone monuments and more latterly galleries, public institutions and religious buildings. It is also worth considering that the vast majority could not read or decipher any textual inscriptions, but because of the unambiguity of visual language and subject matter, practically all could understand the directives, information and propaganda emanating from the imagery on display.
The earliest form of illustration so far known to humankind appeared as simple geometric shapes; the oldest is a red dot dating 40,000 years ago and found in the cave of El Castillo, Spain. As time progressed, the images produced by these Palaeolithic people became more complex and pictorially representational in nature, the most common subjects being animals. Contemporary zoologists are astounded by the accuracy of these ancient illustrators, enabling them to identify very specific creatures. Human representation was rare amongst these paintings, and when human figures did appear they were abstracted and symbolic in style rather than pictorial and realistic. However, as time progressed, imagery became more complex and metaphorical in nature, depicting defined and systematic pattern work, scenes of specific human interactions and cultural practices, scenes of childbirth and astronomical interpretations. The visual language became more symbolic and developed a semiotic code with certain images prevailing across a wide geographic range, establishing what may have been the earliest form of writing: hieroglyphics.
But, what was the rationale behind the production of all this imagery? It is estimated many ‘artists’ created it, perhaps over a period of tens of thousands of years. The context for these ‘artworks’ seemingly never changed; according to the latest research, Palaeolithic people did not live in caves, and therefore it is likely that they were specific places to go and acquire information or receive religious or cultural instruction. The caves, other natural features and more latterly, built constructions adorned with images, were akin to libraries or cultural centres. However, one thing is certain: the production of all of this imagery was driven by the need to communicate, and when people are being communicated to, they are susceptible to influence, reaction and endeavour. The birth of contextualized illustration had begun.
THE CLASSICAL PERIOD
It is clear that the advent of illustration was a contributing factor in the story of the development of human consciousness. From prehistory to the initial centuries of the first millennium, the development of society and its increasingly sophisticated command of language and communication was infused with drawings, pictures, symbols and diagrams –many produced with a clear objective to fulfil a contextualized function. But what were the key themes being communicated, and what was the impact and significance of these messages?
One such theme, particularly as societies became more organized and ‘politicized’, was that of command and instruction: imagery served as ways in which those who ruled or led, such as chieftains, pharaohs, kings and more latterly the emperors of Rome, could broadcast to their fellow citizens or subjects a tangible legitimacy for them to reign and govern. During the Classical period and before, the great empires of Ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome expanded and dominated vast areas throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. In order to sustain credibility, authority and in some instances, approval from the people, much propaganda and jingoistic pride was needed to impress and suppress, and illustration played no small part in ensuring these precepts were adhered to. Great commemorative edifices were designed and constructed, laden and imbued with sculptural reliefs, murals and cartoons, reminding all who was in charge and how grateful they might be to belong to such a society. A typical example is the oldest surviving papyrus document, dating from 1980 BC. The Ramesseum Papyrus, 7 feet long (a little over 2 metres) and 10 inches deep (26 centimetres), dramatically conveys a celebratory narrative sequence regarding the ascension and absolute authority of an early Egyptian pharaoh.
The acquisition of knowledge was seen as an important aspect of societal life in prehistoric, post-prehistoric and Classical periods. Mathematics, astronomy and cultural mores were all subjected to illustrative treatment. The Greek Socratic philosopher and polymath Euclid of Megara published Elements in approximately 100 BC, a work that conveys geometric and algebraic formulations and contains the oldest and most complete diagram. However, from Classical times through to the Medieval period, illustration was dominated throughout the known world by religious patronage, which sometimes had a significant effect on the thrust and nature of knowledge transmitted. Monitored by religious order, scholars and authors were subjected to the diktats of the church as new knowledge and invention could be seen as ‘revolutionary’ and a threat to the clergy’s supremacy and authority.
However, new approaches to philosophy, research and discovery, greatly facilitated by the polymaths of the time such as Leonardo da Vinci and Copernicus, meant that commissioned illustration was not just confined to religious order:
The period from about 1400 AD onwards bore witness to a considerable revolution in cultural and social sensibilities, giving rise to original and forward thinking developments in science, technology, architecture, literature, music, visual art and philosophy. A rebirth of traditions gone before, many of these learned disciplines spread throughout Europe with great influence, and illustration provided a visual substructure and underpinning for much new learning and knowledge acquisition. (Alan Male, Illustration: Meeting the Brief, Bloomsbury 2014)
This era also witnessed the advent of many well-known universities, for example Edinburgh, Oxford, Salamanca, Bologna, Paris, Perugia and Cambridge, which in part brought about the need for published learning resources and a trade in books that in Europe began outside of monasteries. Typically these were encyclopaedias, atlases and codexes, all generously imbued with illustration. The cultural and intellectual underpinning for all of this was the Renaissance and its vast yield of original scholarship, information and accomplishment. The great polymaths of the time were regarded as the leading visual arts figures of the day and as such were able to externalize and describe their propositions, inventions and research by superb drawings and paintings. This work still holds considerable resonance and influence, its power, prestige and gravitas truly groundbreaking in human anatomy, biology, the natural world, architecture, humanities, technology and astronomy – and all of this vast wealth of new knowledge and discovery facilitated by illustration.
THE START OF THE MODERN PERIOD
In 1439, a German named Johannes Gutenberg (1398–1468) brought about what is widely regarded as one of the most significant events of the second millennium: the Printing Revolution. He invented a process known as printing with mechanical movable type, a circumstance that historically, ushered in the start of the Modern Period. This coincided with other ‘seismic’ events such as the Protestant Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. In England, by the late fifteenth century, the old warlord kings were swept away and replaced by the Tudors, who in turn brought about a new politics. The feudal system faded, introducing a more fluid and upwardly mobile social structure. All of this was greatly facilitated by the printing revolution: the mass production and continent-wide distribution of books, pamphlets and posters which then laid the foundation for what was to become the modern knowledge-based economy. As in earlier times, the greater population could not read, b...