Art and Religious Expression
The various groups of people that have existed throughout history (both groups that no longer exist, and groups that are still in existence today) have a number of things in common, as well as a multitude of differences. Two important aspects of the cultures of the ancient and currently existing cultures and populations that are seemingly intertwined are religion and art. These two aspects are closely related and, from a purely cultural standpoint, are practically synonymous because, in cultures such as African, Native American, and Ancient Egyptian culture, works of art that the people of these cultures created are used to express the people’s religious beliefs and preferences. One can easily argue that, without these works of art and the different media used to create them, religion and religious practice would not exist in such cultures.
The Yoruba culture of Nigeria is a good example of a culture whose people express their beliefs through art. Starting in the 12th century A.D., up to the 15th century, the Yoruba people created a number of copper alloy head sculptures and other similar terracotta sculptures of a style known as Ife. In addition to these head sculptures, there exist a number of full-body sculptures, or standing Oni statues, of about 18 inches in height. The proportions of these standing Oni statues are such that the head of the sculpture is much larger in proportion to the body. This is because, in Yoruba culture, there is a large emphasis in the importance of the head and that which lies within it. The Yoruba people believe that the inside of one’s head is where his mind lies, which determines his destiny and future. Yoruba art and the presence of many pieces and sculptures highlighting the human head is a reflection of this belief alone. The Yoruba people also believe that twins are sacred beings. This belief is also reflected in their art. The birth of twins is something that is associated with much celebration and festivity in Yoruba culture. However, when a twin dies, the mother must replace the twin with an Ibeji Twin Figure. This is because, according to the Yoruba people, the spirit of twin still exists and must be cared for just as the remaining twin continues to be cared for. The mother typically purchases the twin doll from a market and, through ritual process, the deceased twin’s spirit is placed into the doll.
In Native American culture, the people also expressed their beliefs in artistic ways. The use of Kachina dolls in Native American rituals, for example, is one such instance in which art was used for religious purposes. Kachina dolls, common among the Hopi people of the southwest United States, were constructed of various media such as wood, leather, feathers, and paint. They were constructed by the fathers of young girls of Hopi tribes and were given to the girls to be taken care of and treated as though they were animate beings. The Hopi people also believed that each Kachina doll was related to some real-world aspect, such as weather, crops, the sun, the moon, etc. Therefore, it was believed that, if the Kachina dolls were taken good care of by their owners, they would bring good fortune related to the real-world aspect that they represented. Another example of Native American art that played an important role in religious practice is the mounds of the Eastern Woodland, particularly, the Serpent Mound. While little is known about this mound, one can argue that it played an important part in religious practices of the people who created it because of its intricate design, as well as the existence of numerous native American artifacts located around the mound, which may have been given as religious offerings.
Because many primitive cultures that express their religious beliefs through art still exist today, one can easily gain an understanding of their religious practices firsthand. However, because Ancient Egyptian culture no longer exists, its religious practices and rituals are no longer displayed. Art that has survived several thousand years is the only evidence of religious practice, and because this art still exists, one can still obtain a relatively accurate understanding of how religious and ceremonial practices were performed. Many paintings and wall sculptures, which explicitly show how specific traditions were carried out, and how significant events in Ancient Egyptian history occurred. A wall carving, dated from 1353-1336 BC, depicting the mourning and burial of the Royal Princess Meketaten, for example, shows ample details of the burial, such as how many people were present, and what sorts of items were left in Meketaten’s tomb. Without this single wall carving, there would be little or no evidence of the mourning and burial of the Royal Princess. This wall carving also shows the members of the royal family in order of importance. The King Akhenaten is the largest figure in the craving, followed by the Queen Nefertiti, the second largest figure on the carving. This correlates with the religious beliefs of the King Akhenaten at this time. Because he established his monotheistic religion, he is the most important, and therefore, the largest figure in all carvings or paintings in which he is depicted. This is also seen in another sandstone wall carving of the king and his family, also dated from 1353-1336 BC. This elaborate craving shows the royal family offering lotus flowers to the sun god Aten. Akhenaten is at the front of the family and is the largest figure, followed by the Queen Nefertiti. The smallest figures are, of course the daughters of the king and queen. The lotus flowers that the family is offering to the sun god symbolize creation and prosperity. The royal family offers these flowers to the sun god so that he will return their gifts with life, which is represented in many stone carvings and paintings as an anch.
The works mentioned above are clearly crucial to the religious practices their respective cultures perform. However, one is forced to ask whether or not the people of their cultures actually view these objects as works of art, or simply as things necessary for religious practice. Unlike modern-day work of art, which are most commonly observed and displayed, the work created by the above cultures are actually used, rather than displayed or left for observation. The fact that such works are intricate and took copious amounts of skill and experience to make is undeniable, but whether or not their people viewed these works as art is highly debatable.