The Stories Behind Dayton’s Masterpieces
In the Dayton Art Institute, the historical treasures hanging for all to see not only display the artists masterwork, but reveal a glimpse of that era’s contribution towards the growth and prosperity of the human race; stories that, if attempted to be written down, could not carry the magnitude of the human spirit as mightily as the tapestries, paintings and other works we art historians study today.
The Dayton Art Institute displays one of those particularly important stories for the growth of mankind (the birth of humanism) with realistic sculpture studies of the human form created by Greek peoples during the 4th century Classical Era (198).
Portrait Head of a Man, found in room 220- Ancient Art, number 1952.34 is a great example of this achievement. Estimated to have been created circa 300 B.C.E., Portrait Head of a Man not only exemplifies the change in perspective towards the power of the human being, but also the growth of Greek sculptors’ skills and adroitness with their works during this time period. The Artisan(s) responsible for bringing this piece to life creatively carved the head out of slightly translucent marble, mimicking the properties of very smooth human flesh. Interestingly enough, Portrait Head of a Man’s surface appears to shimmer slightly, accentuating the highlighted planes under the spotlight above.
If the medium wasn’t human enough, the realism found in this piece really makes the works come to life. Detailed with careful strokes, the life size sculpture expresses accurate Greek facial features (large nose, prominent jaw line) while experimenting with nearly-there proportions. The eyes, protruding from the face and lacking detail, are slightly larger than real life, demonstrating the Greek importance of them as vital communication tools.
And, I’d like to point out, that it was quite difficult not to touch and accidentally yellow the surface of the marble with skin oils just because it holds such lifelike qualities. The sculpture could be described resonating a social and emotional aura as a living human being would, striving to communicate with members of the audience who hold the ability to listen.
While the Dayton Art Institute holds Portrait Head of a Man responsible for telling the story of humanistic growth, the DAI reveals a plethora of works telling stories of the western Christianity movement and religious achievements, created by artisans to please their god and their god’s peoples. These pieces not only use religious symbolism to tell anecdotes of religious happenings, but also express the passion mankind has for it’s idea of the afterlife.
One of the religious icons “The Archangel Michael Slaying the Dragon” sculpture depicts the heroic battles of“[the] Protector of the Chosen, who defends his people from Satan and conducts their souls to God” (334). Found in room 220- Mid-evil, number 1973.88, the Archangel thunders the glory of the protector and symbolically proclaims the victory of the church’s eternal struggle with evil (Michael) over the devil (the dragon) (334). Estimated to have been created circa 1510-30 C.E., the Archangel is a wall-hanging piece with a flat back, constructed of marble with traces of paint, mostly chipped off.
What really expresses the emotional movement of the piece is the portrayal of the hero and his nemesis, taking into account his stance, wardrobe, and a blatant sense of hierarchical scale. Michael, once heroically yielding a sword to slay the monster, is fully armored in Gothic-style shields and declares his power by standing much taller than the dragon, towering at it’s mercy. The Dragon, surrealistically depicted, has webbed hands, a very bony spine with vertebrae sticking out, dramatic horns atop it’s forehead, and a large, unrealistic mouth threatening attack towards the Protector of the Chosen.
One of the most vital religious aspects of this piece is the ability to reach humanity on an spiritual level; to “speak to those who almost intuitively understand their suggestive form of communicating” (334). In other words, this piece could be used as a communication tool between the peoples and their god. The Archangel, with it’s bold, easily understandable message of victory could be used by the people of the church to communicate jubilance and exultation to their god.
When these two pieces and their stories are studied side by side, the differences between the two are most easily observable; stylistically, context-wise, intended purpose of the piece, how the works stands on it’s own, and other variants between the two are blatantly obvious. For example, the full human figure/form of The Archangel contrasts the bust-only cranial quality of Portrait Head of a man, while the bust is intended to sit on a flat surface and The Archangel is to be hung on a wall. The contrast between use of space also differentiates the pieces from each other: the Head lacking grounds as a bust and The Archangel expressing a horizon line, hierarchical scale, and an overall grand scheme that captures the eye and systematically moves it about the piece.
The difference between the humanistic significance of Portrait Head of a Man and the religious importance behind The Archangel Michael Slaying a Dragon also have conflicting purposes: Portrait Head ultimately glorifying the discoveries of western man and serving as a study tool of human anatomy, versus The Archangel displaying upbeat religious propaganda to the people of the church while symbolically being religious icon in which man can use the piece as a communication tool for themselves and their god. Also, not to mention the pieces were created over two millenia apart from each other.
But, as all great art historians know, the stories behind each piece in a western historical collection of works can all be connected in some shape or form. In The Portrait Head and The Archangel’s case, similarity of the portrayal of beauty, sculpting material, and the overall triumphant attitude of the work compares these two differing stories in time. While The Portrait Head exclaims yet another achievement of the human race (the ability to mimic the realism of their own appearance), The Archangel roars the church victorious over evil in the same reverberating human spirit.
The most interesting connection between Portrait Head of a Man and The Archangel Michael Slaying a Dragon is the influence of the Greek style: curly, stylized hair, the armor draping off the body in Greek elegance, The Archangel portrayed as young, physically fit and muscular, I.E. the Greek’s attitude toward strength and human perfection (lecture notes). These pieces are not only connected with their physical similarities, but connected through the history of western civilization itself.
While the two differentiating pieces contrast in purpose, repose and era, they both hold the power to tell the history behind the beauty, for a painting without a story is simply a piece of décor.
Stokstad, Marilyn. “Art History” second edition volume one. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ. 1999.