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The History of Mural Paintings

Updated on April 1, 2013

Prehistoric and Ancient

Ancient mural painting (Egyptian)
Ancient mural painting (Egyptian) | Source

The earliest mural paintings, along with engravings and low-reliefs, were part of paleolithic rock art, made deep inside caves in southern France and northern Spain between 30,000 and 10,000 B.C. The painting, with dry or water-mixed pigments, was done with fingers, hand prints, or brushes. Figures of wild animals, hunters, and ritual personages usually were outlined but occasionally were filled in with flat color or shaded. Fine examples are at Lascaux and Altamira.

Murals appeared in Egyptian tombs as early as 3000 B.C. and later also in the houses of nobles. They were painted in tempera on mud-surfaced walls washed with plaster or on shallow stone reliefs. The still, flat figures of gods and men were first colored in and then outlined. They formed symbolic scenes of daily life or life in the underworld. Mud-brick Mesopotamian palaces and temples were adorned with mosaic murals of glazed brick or with tempera murals on plaster, depicting gods, ceremonies, or hunting.

The palaces at Knossos and other Cretan cities about 1750 to 1400 B.C. were brilliant with vigorous, naturalistic murals in fresco secco or in buon fresco, depicting flowers, animals, and courtiers. The mural tradition continued in Greek public buildings. In the 5th century B.C., idealized figures of gods and heroes were painted, probably in tempera, directly on plaster and later in encaustic on wall panels, such as those of Polygnotus in the Propylaea in Athens. In the Hellenistic period, murals were painted on houses and tombs throughout the Greek world.

Etruscan temples and tombs were enriched with lively naturalistic murals, especially of aristocratic life in the underworld, carried out in fresco secco and buon fresco. Mural art, in buon fresco with a wax coating, reached a high point in Rome. Public buildings and private houses, notably at Ostia and Pompeii, were decorated with naturalistic scenes incorporating landscape, figures, still life, and architectural elements. Religious murals were painted in family tombs and catacombs. Gradually mural painting was replaced by mosaics.

Islamic, Asian, and Pre-Columbian

The caves at Ajanta.
The caves at Ajanta. | Source

Islamic love of decoration was reflected in a rich variety of interior and exterior mural art throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Tile mosaic and low-relief carving in wood or plaster were common. There also were paintings on plaster walls and domes, as in the 9th-century palace at Samarra (in modern Iraq) and the 17th-century Sultan Ahmet mosque in Istanbul; and painted tiles, especially in Turkey and Persia. Motifs were occasionally human figures but more often arabesques, geometric interlacing, and verses from the Koran.

Mural painting in India is best exemplified by the caves at Ajanta (100–700), hewn out of rock for Buddhist monasteries and temples. The graceful, bejeweled divinities were executed in tempera on lime-coated plaster. Murals also were painted in Central Asia and China, notably the Buddhist cave temples of Ten-huang in Kansu (4th–10th centuries). Chinese mural painting in tempera on palaces and tombs dates from about 1700 B.C. Figures, usually from the Buddhist pantheon, are depicted in flat color wash and strong calligraphic line. Chinese styles influenced murals in Korean tombs and Japanese temples, especially the 18th-century Horyuji in Nara. Murals in Japanese palaces later took the form of large painted movable screens with scenes of daily life or decorative birds and flowers.

Mural painting adorned some stucco-covered Pre-Columbian temples and palaces in Mesoamerica. Especially fine is the cycle of richly colored, realistic ceremonial and battle scenes done in buon fresco before 800 at the Maya center of Bonampak. Murals in buon fresco at Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico of about the same period displayed divinities in a flat, highly stylized manner. Less fine murals appear in Toltec and Mixtec buildings and tombs.

San Clemente Church.
San Clemente Church. | Source

Mural painting in tempera and buon fresco was revived in Europe in the early Middle Ages. Church interiors were covered with stiff, hieratic figures from the Bible or Christian tradition, as in San Clemente, Rome (9th–12th centuries) and Romanesque Catalan churches in Spain. In the Gothic churches of northern Europe, mural art was usually in the form of stained-glass windows set in walls painted in decorative patterns and colors. Castle walls generally were hung with tapestry or other fabric.

In southern Europe, mural painting reached new heights in the buon fresco decoration of Italian Renaissance churches and palaces. From Giotto's 13th-century Arena Chapel, Padua, to Michelangelo's 16th-century Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican, mural painting, religious and secular, became more realistic and complex. Dramatic baroque murals, by masters such as Rubens, often in oil, sought to suggest infinite space. Although mural painting was continued in the 18th and 19th centuries by artists such as Tiepolo, Goya, and Puvis de Chavanne, private houses increasingly tended to have printed wallpaper.

Twentieth-century murals, in various techniques, ranged from realistic scenes on social themes by Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry in U.S. neoclassical public buildings to surrealist or nonobjective motifs by Miró and Matisse in avant-garde settings. Especially significant were stylized murals on revolutionary subjects by the Mexicans Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

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    • CherylsArt profile image

      Cheryl Paton 

      3 years ago from West Virginia

      I love murals, and finding out some of the techniques of the early muralists.

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