A Very Brief History of Sculpture

Posted by Jhan Dudley on

The Löwenmensch Statuette

An ivory statuette from the Paleolithic period, dating back to around 35,000 BC, is one of the oldest sculptures ever discovered. Discovered in a cave in Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany in 1939, it was carved out of mammoth tusk. Called Löwenmensch (German for 'lion human'), it is about 12” tall, and depicts a human figure with a feline face. It has been estimated that the carving, using primitive flint tools, likely took more than 350 hours to complete. Because tribes of the time lived on the edge of subsistence, spending such an extended amount of time in making this statuette suggests it must have been an extremely important artifact. It may have, perhaps, been intended for use in a shamanistic ritual, to curry protection for the tribe, or ensure a 'good hunt'.

Egyptian Sculpture

The Great Sphinx in Egypt is probably one of the world's most famous sculptures. In opposite fashion to the Lowenmensch statuette, the Sphinx features, instead, the head of a human on the body of a lion. Originally carved out of the limestone bedrock, the Sphinx measures 65’ high and 240’ long. It has since been restored using stone blocks. Some historians believe the head is that of the pharaoh, Khafra. Though generally thought to date back to about 2500 BC, evidence of water erosion suggests it might possibly be much older.

Greek Sculpture

In ancient Greek art, there's little distinction between the sacred and the secular. The Greek gods were thought to have human form, thus, the human form was considered to be the most important subject in Greek art. In sculpture, the early Greeks followed the Egyptian format very closely, carving very stiff, blocky figures in stone. During the Early Classical period of the 4th and 5th centuries BC, and transitioning into the Hellenistic period, sculptors began to break away from the rigid, Egyptian influenced model. Sculpture began to take on a much more realistic, natural look, with marble or bronze, not stone, the favored medium. And the subject matter, though depicting a greater sense of power and energy, became much less restricted to gods and nobles. For example, the Kritios Boy, carved in marble, is one of the earliest surviving examples of Greek sculpture from this period. Because bronze had 'scrap' value, few bronze examples of this period have survived. Using a technique that involves ultraviolet light, it has also just recently become known that most Greek sculpture was, apparently, typically painted in bright colors.

The Rise Of Christianity

Until 325 AD, the Roman Empire was largely polytheistic. Sculptured works were generally intended to honour a variety of different Gods or members of nobility. Then, in 325 AD, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion, and we start to see a shift in the subject matter of popular sculpture. Giant statues became less common, and portraiture began to dominate the field of Roman sculpture.

Gothic Sculpture

The Gothic era expanded on the religious sculptures of the early medieval period and the figures on churches became more elaborate. Prominent Biblical figures were shown in very high relief sculptures, which were often situated, free-standing, around the church.

Renaissance sculptures

By the beginning of the 15th century, the Renaissance ushered in an eclectic study of the humanities, including science, astronomy, and mathematics. Artists began to revisit the thoughtful and dignified perfection of Classical times. The invention of the printing press propagated these ideas, and artists began to show more interest in a scientific approach to reality.

The Renaissance masters, including Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci, were figureheads of the times. Donatello was an Italian sculptor who worked in Florence in the mid 15th century. Leonardo da Vinci was a student of Donatello. And one of the most famous artists of all time, Michelangelo, was born in 1475. A genius and true 'Renaissance Man', one of Michelangelo's first sculptures was 'Madonna and Child', completed when he was only 16.

In 1497, he was commissioned to carve a Pietà. Showing the Virgin Mary grieving over the body of her deceased son. Completed when he was only 24 years old. This is the only work of art that Michelangelo ever signed. After it was unveiled, he heard spectators giving credit to others. So he snuck into the church in the middle of the night to make one last addition to his masterpiece. Carved into the ribbon across the Virgin’s chest, it reads, “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this."

The 19th And 20th Centuries

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the art world reflected the rapid-fire changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Instead of focusing on perfect anatomy, details, and storytelling, artists began to pay more attention to what they perceived 'below the surface'. Personal expression and style took on greater importance in creating a truer rendition of reality.

Auguste Rodin is one of the more famous of the sculptors of the time, and is considered the father of modern sculpture.


A variety of art movements occurred during the modernist movement of the early 20th century. Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Pop Art, Minimalism, and Futurism all came about during this period.

Marcel Duchamp was one artist of the time who challenged the notion of what art really is. Duchamp was part of the Dada movement, a reaction to WWI that was basically 'anti-everything'. Duchamp’s 1917 exhibit, entitled 'Fountain', illustrates perfectly the pessimism, exasperation, and absurdity of the movement.

Although most famous as a painter, Pablo Picasso did also produce some sculptural pieces. In fact, his mixed media sculptures were especially influential in the beginning of the 20th century. These early sculpture creations employed a variety of unlikely objects, including cardboard, bike seats, plywood, tree branches, etc.

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