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What is Sculpture?

Updated on February 11, 2012

To make solid forms out of clay, wood or stone is an art as old as painting. It is so old that sometimes the sculptured relics of an ancient people are the only proof of their existence. Thus on Easter Island there are strange stone statues carved by people who have left no other trace.

Every primitive tribe has its tribal gods, and it has been the task of the sculptor to fashion them in weird forms which would strike terror into those seeing them. Among such people the witchdoctors and ceremonial dancers put on carved and painted masks in order to make themselves look terrifying.

Sculpture takes such primitive forms as the wooden totem-poles of the Red Indians, the carved prows of the Maori war canoes, and the idols of natives in the Congo. The idea that a boat needed some good-luck emblem or "spirit" of its own has lasted a very long time, in fact until the days of the steamship. Some such idea is seen in the figure-heads of our old sailing ships.

Great sculptors of the ancient world were the Egyptians. There was nothing they did not fashion beautifully, from the smallest trinket to huge statues carved from the solid rock.

The sculptor was a craftsman who worked to the orders of the kings and priests; and many Egyptian sculptures are images of their gods-a lion with a human head or the figure of a man with the head of an eagle-or else the portrait of one of the royal house.

The dry, sunny climate of Egypt encouraged the Egyptians to carve on the walls of palaces and temples in low relief, the sun making a sharp shadow which clearly outlined the carvings.

There is a family likeness between the sculpture of Egypt and that of other ancient lands. In ancient Assyria, too, the sculpture glorified the king destroying his enemies in battle or engaged in lion hunting. Human-headed bulls were set at the gates of palaces and temples to ward off evil spirits.

When we turn to the New World and look at the art of the Maya, the people who lived in Mexico before the Spanish conquerors arrived, we are struck by the great pyramid temples and the carvings of strange gods as in Egypt and Assyria. But an enormous change came in sculpture with the ancient Greeks.

The Greeks had no liking for the weird, cruel or horrible figures which had been made in sculpture by other peoples. They wanted to show a perfect beauty in human beings. They were great athletes and their Olympic games made them familiar with the figure in every pose, running, jumping, throwing the discus. Because they loved physical exercise they made statues of perfect men and women. There were many famous Greek sculptors, but Pheidias was the greatest and his masterpieces were the sculptures for the Parthenon at Athens. Some of these were taken down when Greece was still under Turkish rule and brought to London, where they can still be seen in the British Museum. Sculptors in Europe have usually followed the ancient Greek idea of beauty, even to the present day.

The sculptor uses many different materials and works sometimes on a very small scale and sometimes on a very large one. Many beautiful things have been made, just as our everyday pottery is made, of clay baked in an oven, by the Greeks and the Chinese. The ancient Peruvians modeled comic faces on their water jugs. Wood has been popular for carving from the earliest times to our own, and has been much used for decorating the insides of houses and churches. Gold and ivory have been used. Some artists prefer to carve in stone; others use a modelling clay, and this is necessary when a statue has to be cast in metal: a hollow mold is made having the shape inside of the statue, and molten metal is poured into it.

One of the biggest of modern undertakings in sculpture was the gigantic bronze statue of Liberty which stands in New York harbor and towers to a height of 220 feet. It was first modeled in sections and took two years to get into position.

Some of the greatest works of sculpture have been part of a building, like those wonderful sculptures which are part of the fabric of the Gothic churches in Britain and France, such as Chartres Cathedral ; or those gates to the Baptistry in Florence designed by Ghiberti (who spent fifty years on them), so beautiful that they were known as "the Gates of Paradise"; or the tombs designed for the Medici family by Michelangelo. Nowadays when buildings are simpler and plainer there is less scope for the sculptor in decorating them, but sculpture still has a place of importance in the city square or public park, where some of the famous people of recent or far-distant times stand in stone or bronze.

Thus, as we look upon them we are linked with the past, and our memory of those to whom the present owes much is kept fresh.


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    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Well-written and informative essay on sculpture. Quite wonderful. Thanks. SHARING

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      So very interesting ;thanks for sharing.

      Take care and enjoy your day.


    • sligobay profile image


      7 years ago from east of the equator

      I have been blessed with the opportunity to view the sculpture of Michaelangelo and Rodin and so many others. This is a great write.


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