The following works of ancient art can all be considered to function in part as propaganda: the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (Mesopotamia, 2254-2218 BCE), the Lapith and Centaur metopes in the Parthenon (Classical Greece, 447-438 BCE), and Athena battling Alkyoneos at the Altar of Zeus (Hellenistic Greece, 175 BCE). These pieces function as propaganda in various ways, all of which use literal or symbolic interpretations related to concepts including political power and struggle.
Propaganda in art can be defined as art which is meant to push or spread a certain statement, often politically-based. The Mesopotamian Victory Stele of Naram-Sin certainly serves to make a statement. This ancient stele is meant to depict a war victory: Naram-Sin, great great grandson of Sargon, has defeated a population of mountain people in Mesopotamia. Interestingly, this work of art does not use the traditional registers common to art of the time. Instead, we see Naram-Sin’s soldiers lining mountains, creating a sense of “levels” similar to registers, as well as some depth. These soldiers all look upward to Naram-Sin, who is atop the mountains. He is larger than everyone else – hierarchal scale in the works – and a bit more detailed in his body and weaponry. He is also idealized, along with his warriors: would all of these men realistically look so stoic and well-kept during battle? The answer is certainly not. Naram-Sin is at the top in every sense, portrayed through these symbolisms and by literally being at the top. He wears his horns, a symbol of divinity. The suns, godly representations, are above, guiding Naram-Sin: he is victorious and is rising into the divine realm because of it. We can also see that the fallen mountain people are all below the soldiers (again, in every sense.) They are defeated, falling in all sorts of painful, distorted motions, still cowering and pleading to Naram-Sin. All the while, Naram-Sin’s army remains in perfect tact. The imagery and smaller-scale details together lead us to a conclusion: King Naram-Sin is to be feared and followed. This art sends a bolds message.
On the exterior of the Parthenon in Classical Greece, the marble metopes had high relief depictions of Lapith people and centaurs battling. We learned of the Greek tale in our course work: the Lapith people generously invite beastly, half-horse half-human centaurs to a huge wedding celebration they are thrilled to be having. The centaurs end up trying to take off with the Lapith women of course, and the Lapith men battle the centaurs, depicted in the metopes. The detail of the centaurs and Lapith men, particularly in their frames and stances, is incredible and gives us a sense of the tension between the two parties. In the metope we focused on in class, the centaur appears victorious against his fallen Lapith. In other metopes, we see both Lapiths and centaurs struggle. We believe these metopes to ultimately project Greek strength and superiority. The centaurs are the “monsters,” said to be alike to the Greeks’ enemies the Persians, who they also saw as barbarians and associated with chaos. These metopes both represent scenes from historical Greek myths (which were important to everyday life), and most importantly, highlight the struggles of Greeks but the ultimate control they possess in battle – that is, their ultimate power of reason that defeats the barbaric animals. Limited democracy had just began, and Greeks continuously represented their triumphs of logic and order against the chaos in art.
The Altar of Zeus in Pergamon featured a large relief of Athena battling Alkyoneos, now displayed in Berlin. We see Athena disempowering one of the Giants, Alkyoneos, by just the grasp of his head. He looks up in defeat, completely controlled – his hand making an ineffective, seemingly powerless attempt to stop her – as his mother, on the other side of Athena, watches in agony. Athena is mighty, high above all with control, battling the Giants with other Olympian figures. This is a large mythological war depicted throughout the altar. We see many figures, some of which are winged – all in different corners, all in complex body poses. This creates a huge sense of motion: it is a literal swirl of chaos, in which Athena and the other gods are exerting their power successfully once again. The Gods of Mount Olympus reigned control over the Greeks. Their power was to be known, respected, and honored, for without the gods, the Greeks believed they could not live good, proper lives.
Propaganda in art is more than just war depiction. It can spread more subtle or complicated messages, which should we not explore, we miss history. We see both literal and symbolic interpretations of power and struggle evolve throughout ancient art history, as well as increasing detail which allows us to feel the messages being portrayed on more complex levels.