30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World

30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World
Course Trailer
Where Do We Come From?
1: Where Do We Come From?

What are the common themes of ancient art? Why is ancient art relevant today? What makes a masterpiece? Before you begin your journey through the world of ancient art, consider why ancient art matters, what it tells us about different cultures, and its impact on and similarity to our world today.

34 min
Ancient Cave Art-Chauvet, France
2: Ancient Cave Art-Chauvet, France

What are the common themes of ancient art? Why is ancient art relevant today? What makes a masterpiece? Before you begin your journey through the world of ancient art, consider why ancient art matters, what it tells us about different cultures, and its impact on and similarity to our world today.

32 min
The Uruk Vase-Vision of an Ordered World
3: The Uruk Vase-Vision of an Ordered World

In Mesopotamia, writing was developed 5,000 years ago, alongside the first narrative art, which set the stage for everything that followed in the Western art historical tradition. The registers on the Uruk Vase tell the story of civilization and reveal a hierarchical world as seen by one of the most complex societies of the era....

28 min
The Standard of Ur-Role of the King
4: The Standard of Ur-Role of the King

Turn to the masterpieces of the ancient Sumerians in the city of Ur, the "Cradle of Civilization." No one knows whether the mysterious Royal Standard of Ur is actually a standard-or even royal-but it tells us a great deal about the technology, social structure, and the dazzling riches of this society....

31 min
"Ram Caught in a Thicket"
5: "Ram Caught in a Thicket"

Explore the fertility theme in the first 3-D sculpture of the course. "Ram Caught in a Thicket" was excavated from the Great Death Pit at Ur. In addition to telling us about royal burials, the sculpture tells us about the society's wealth, its relationship with animals, and the religious role of the rulers and lords....

29 min
Great Ziggurat at Ur-Ancient Architecture
6: Great Ziggurat at Ur-Ancient Architecture

With the magnificent ziggurats, ancient people reached for the sky, which was the domain of the deities. Learn about Nanna, the Sumerian moon god, and experience the architectural grandeur at the heart of Sumerian daily life. While wars, climate, and looting have wrought their damage on the ziggurat at Ur, enough remains to tell a fascinating story....

32 min
Victory Stela of Naram-Sin of Akkad
7: Victory Stela of Naram-Sin of Akkad

What makes a king a god? Ponder the visual propaganda behind Naram-Sin's victory stela. After learning the story of this Akkadian king, you'll study this monument's artistic innovation-its realism, its unified composition, and its new approach to narrative. Additional Akkadian art provides perspective on this era's radical artistic changes....

31 min
Neo-Assyrian Palace Reliefs
8: Neo-Assyrian Palace Reliefs

Jump to the 1st millennium B.C. and the mighty Assyrian Empire. The palace reliefs reveal a warlike society in which the king reinforces order, as revealed in the famous Lion Hunt scenes. As he battles the lions, the king proves he is greater in power than the threatening beast and all that it represents. The reliefs demonstrate the apogee of artistic skill in the Assyrian court....

29 min
"Queen of the Night"-Babylonian Goddess
9: "Queen of the Night"-Babylonian Goddess

Cursed in the Bible as "the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth," Babylon is much more fascinating and strange than you might think. Examine the "Queen of the Night," a nude woman who is part animal and part human. This curious mixture of the erotic and the terrifying creates a mesmerizing masterpiece filled with mystery....

29 min
Ishtar Gate and Processional Way
10: Ishtar Gate and Processional Way

Continue your study of ancient Babylon by reflecting on Nebuchadnezzar's city gates and processional way. These impressive feats of architecture and engineering inspire awe through their sheer size. The animals on the gate-lions, bulls, and the snake-dragon-were meant to protect the city by intimidating those who would bring harm to the community....

30 min
The Ancient City of Persepolis
11: The Ancient City of Persepolis

Turn to the Persian Empire, one of the grandest civilizations in the ancient world. Survey the history of Persia from King Cyrus to Alexander the Great, then study the city of Persepolis. Its construction, its palaces, and its many relief sculptures all showed the breadth and power of the king....

33 min
Palette of Narmer-The Conquering King
12: Palette of Narmer-The Conquering King

To maintain social cohesion, ancient kings had to justify their power through ideological control, and no culture was better than Egypt at creating art to establish the underpinnings of kingship. This first lecture on Egypt considers the Palette of Narmer, a superb carving that embodies the unification of the state and established an ideology of kingship for the next 3,000 years....

33 min
Statue of Khafre-Rebirth of a King
13: Statue of Khafre-Rebirth of a King

Why did the Egyptians go to such great lengths to prepare bodies after death? They loved life, and the grand tombs and sculptures were a way to capture the soul for eternal life. Reflect on the statue of King Khafre, which communicates strength and power-and signifies so much more than what is first evident....

33 min
Tutankhamun's Mask
14: Tutankhamun's Mask

You've no doubt seen images of King Tut's mask, but what does it represent? Why is it such a magnificent work of art? Unpack the secrets of Egypt's famous boy king and find out why the treasures of his tomb survived....

31 min
Tomb Painting of Nefertari
15: Tomb Painting of Nefertari

Look at a masterpiece of painting that lay hidden for more than 3,000 years and was never meant to be seen by human eyes again. Queen Nefertari was one of the most loved and celebrated women in the history of Egypt, and this lecture takes you on a tour through the chambers of her grand tomb....

33 min
Kritios Boy-Idealized Athletic Youth
16: Kritios Boy-Idealized Athletic Youth

Travel to ancient Greece and trace the development of realism in sculpture through the Archaic period. The "Kritios Boy" represents a leap forward and seems more "alive" than Egyptian sculptures, partly because of the development of contrapposto and partly due to cultural differences in artistic taste between the Greeks and the Egyptians....

28 min
Discobolus-Motion in Sculpture
17: Discobolus-Motion in Sculpture

Go back to a time when the Olympic Games were a sacred event. The famous discus thrower represents a new development in the history of sculpture because of the way it shows motion. This lecture delves into the sports culture of ancient Greece and reveals the technique behind the drama of Myron's sculpture....

31 min
Parthenon Marbles-Metopes and Frieze
18: Parthenon Marbles-Metopes and Frieze

Plunge into the mythological battles of the Parthenon in Athens. The metopes, pediment sculptures, and frieze dramatize Greek myths, narrate battles, and are sublimely beautiful examples of Greek sculpture. Professor McDonald explains the context for these works and offers insight into the glory and pride of ancient Greece....

31 min
Greek Vase Painting-"Death of Sarpedon"
19: Greek Vase Painting-"Death of Sarpedon"

Visit the fields of Troy as phalanxes of Greeks advance upon the Trojans. There, according to the Iliad, Sarpedon was killed by Patroclus, a scene memorialized in Euphronios's red-figure vase painting. Learn how artists represented death and what techniques artists used to tell a coherent story on a round vase....

28 min
Aphrodite of Knidos
20: Aphrodite of Knidos

The Greeks offered more than just action and warfare in their art. This lecture examines the first female nude in the tradition, a sculpture of Aphrodite, the femme fatale of Mount Olympus. Whereas Greeks would have considered it unseemly to represent a nude woman, Aphrodite was a goddess and could be portrayed as sensuous, beautiful, and alluring....

27 min
Laocoon-Three-Dimensional Narrative
21: Laocoon-Three-Dimensional Narrative

Contemplate one of the most mesmerizing sculptures in the world. Beyond the emotional expressiveness, the writhing snakes, and the doomed children, "Laocoön" has a complicated history that reflects its importance and its genius. As a hallmark of Hellenistic art, the beauty of this piece lies not only in its composition, but in its many interpretations....

32 min
Column of Trajan
22: Column of Trajan

This stunning 125-foot-high monument is truly a marvel, combining a feat of engineering with the skill of sculptors who crafted a 650-foot-long story that spirals upward from the base. The column commemorates the successful military campaigns of the Roman emperor Trajan and offers a wealth of information about Roman warfare, religious rites, and even building techniques....

32 min
Bronzes of Ancient China
23: Bronzes of Ancient China

Move east to the Shang and Chou dynasties in ancient China, where bronze vessels cast with astonishing technical skill and artistry are the defining artifact. Excavated in 1976, the royal tomb of Fu Hao revealed a trove of precious bronze vessels, which would have been used in ancestor worship, for ceremonial meals, and to support the authority of kings....

32 min
Great Stupa at Sanchi
24: Great Stupa at Sanchi

Delve into the world of Buddhism and the Great Stupa at Sanchi, the most ancient stone structure in India and the only one that supposedly houses the ashes of Buddha. Take a tour of a spiritual monument, protected by impressive gates, and see how the sculptural reliefs and pilgrimage instruct visitors in the teachings of the Buddha....

32 min
Borobudur-Ancient Buddhist Stupa
25: Borobudur-Ancient Buddhist Stupa

Continue your investigation of Buddhism by turning to the largest Buddhist monument in the world, Borobudur. As you study the terraces of this "cosmic mountain," you'll see superb carved reliefs that tell stories about the Buddha's life, humanity's place in the cosmos, and the path to nirvana....

30 min
Colossal Olmec Heads
26: Colossal Olmec Heads

Next, your journey takes you halfway around the world to Mesoamerica to explore the unusual Olmec culture. Here in the low-lying Gulf Coast of Mexico, 17 colossal heads offer a startling look at a fascinating and intricate culture-what anthropologists call a "pristine civilization" for its emergence in isolation from the rest of the world....

32 min
Sarcophagus Cover of Pakal at Palenque
27: Sarcophagus Cover of Pakal at Palenque

Nestled in the foothills of southern Mexico is one of the most magical and hauntingly beautiful archaeological sites in the world. Here, one of the richest tombs in the New World was discovered, and its marvelous artifacts-particularly King Pakal's sarcophagus cover-provide insights into the myths and religion of the ancient Maya....

34 min
Carved Stone Lintels of Yaxchilan
28: Carved Stone Lintels of Yaxchilan

Blood sacrifices. Sacred visions. Poisonous animals. Artwork from the Maya kingdom of Yaxchilan may shock us, but the visceral and expressive detail carved into these stones is unlike anything in Western art. This riveting lecture takes you into a truly different world of self-sacrifice and hallucinogenic trances, but a world that has important lessons for our own....

32 min
Teotihuacan-Temple of the Feathered Serpent
29: Teotihuacan-Temple of the Feathered Serpent

Venture north to the city of Teotihuacan, the "place of the gods." Here, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent is a mysterious pyramid that may contain a royal grave. You'll analyze the pyramid's repeating carved serpents and investigate one of the most enigmatic cultures in the Americas....

30 min
Colossal Stone Statue of Coatlicue
30: Colossal Stone Statue of Coatlicue

Aztec art has some of the most skilled, complex stone carvings in the world, yet it is difficult to understand. Professor McDonald explains the significance of the colossal sculpture of Coatlicue, the goddess known as Serpent Skirt. Find out what art historians think this terrifying sculpture means and how it fits into the myths of Aztec civilization....

31 min
Aztec Calendar Stone
31: Aztec Calendar Stone

Many people are familiar with the iconic Aztec calendar stone, but few understand what it means. Discover the story of one of the most famous excavated objects from the ancient world. Why is it a masterpiece? What does it tell us about the Aztecs? What cataclysms does it portray?...

32 min
Moche Earspools-Miniature Masterpieces
32: Moche Earspools-Miniature Masterpieces

Go inside the Moche society in ancient Peru and marvel at the beautiful metal jewelry discovered in the Sipan tombs. Beyond the beauty and the sophisticated metalwork of the Moche earspools, the tomb of Sipan gives us a window into Moche society-including sacrificial ceremonies once believed to be purely mythical....

30 min
Ancient Andean Ceramics
33: Ancient Andean Ceramics

Many societies in this course have used art to communicate ideas, especially state propaganda. But Andean elites took a different approach. Rather than creating massive stone sculptures, artists made usable, practical objects. This lecture shows you some of the beautiful pots created in a culture isolated from the Western tradition....

31 min
Ancient Andean Textiles
34: Ancient Andean Textiles

Shift your attention to Andean textiles. These masterpieces combined amazing technical virtuosity with supreme aesthetic taste. You'll be amazed by the labor that went into these luxurious pieces, yet what's most striking here is that abstract art-a modern innovation in Western art-was developed in the Andes more than 1,000 years ago....

33 min
What Can We Learn from Ancient Art?
35: What Can We Learn from Ancient Art?

What can ancient art teach us about our place in the cosmos? What do we find so beautiful about ancient art? And how does it compare to contemporary art? Does art need to have a function? Ponder these questions and more as you reflect on your journey through the world of ancient art....

31 min
How Ancient Art Reverberates
36: How Ancient Art Reverberates

Revisit some of the masterpieces you have seen in this course, compare them to contemporary works that draw from ancient sources, and review some of the universal themes you have explored-especially animals, fertility, death, and rulership. These themes bind humans in nearly every civilization, and the themes are reflected in its art....

34 min
Diana K. McDonald

Many, if not most, of our great works of art from classical, modern, and contemporary times have roots in the earliest art that was created.

ALMA MATER

Columbia University

INSTITUTION

Boston College

About Diana K. McDonald

Dr. Diana Krumholz McDonald is an art historian and lecturer at Boston College. She earned her B.A. in Fine Arts from Harvard University and Ph.D. from Columbia University, where she concentrated in ancient Near Eastern and Pre-Columbian art. At Boston College, she teaches courses on the art of ancient America (Pre-Columbian) and of the ancient Mediterranean. She frequently lectures at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and she worked at The Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Indonesian National Museum in Jakarta, and other preeminent organizations. She wrote nine essays in the book The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia in 2005, and she is the author of numerous articles and reviews. Professor McDonald was a Henry Luce Scholar in Indonesia and a Presidential Scholar at Columbia University, and she received a Fulbright Scholarship, which she declined in order to go to Asia. While completing her dissertation, she was a Visiting Scholar at Harvard. She is on the Visiting Committee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in the Art of the Ancient World Department; and the Collections Committee of the Harvard Art Museums. She has visited the museums and archaeological sites of over 40 countries.

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