Art's Layered Meanings



Some of the earliest surviving “art” is located in caves.  Why are they there?  This simple question is not so easy to answer:  “Ten thousand years or so divide the last European cave art from the rise of textual traditions telling us what ancient people felt and thought when they visited caves. Is it prudent to make use of these sources to help us imagine our way back in time, across the gap of millennia?”*

Any answer will always be speculative, though we can be sure that this art is more than just “pictures.” Created possibly for shamanistic uses, sympathetic magic for hunting, fertility purposes,  spiritual contact, or in some other way we cannot even imagine, we don't know.  But for us seeing them today is to marvel at their artistic skill -- for their art.

*"What Cave Art Means" By Justin E.H. Smith , September 1, 2018


“A Romanesque crucifix was not regarded by its contemporaries as a work of sculpture; nor Cimabue’s Madonna as a picture.”


This is the opening sentence of a nearly 700 page tome by Andre Malraux, The Voices of Silence: Man and His Art.  This extended tour through art history begins with a simple statement about meanings.  It is a reminder that what we call “art” is in continuous flux.  And that if we try to trace art back, as with cave art, we find that as the generations pass, meanings are  constantly redefined, with previous contexts effectively lost.  At some point, Cimabue’s Madonna (Maesta) was removed from Santa Trinita church, where it was an object of intense devotion among worshippers who were mainly illiterate, and taken to the Uffizi, where it can be seen (if not worshipped) to this day and appreciated as a great work of art by all of us.



Ancestor worship may be related to the idea that the spirit of ancestors were in a position to help or harm the living, specifically one's descendants. This belief was found in Africa, and also other places, like Indonesia and Melanesia.   “In some areas it was believed that at least a certain portion of the innate spiritual power and energy released from the body at death could be ritually persuaded to take up its abode in a carving provided for that purpose.”* 

This mask was used by the Ibibio people (in modern Nigeria) for a variety of sacred and religious purposes.  Again, like the cave art or depictions of the Madonna, the original meaning and use of these objects is lost as we, like Picasso and his generation, appreciate it as art.

*Primitive Art by Paul S. Wingert, p. 20.





Stephen Gerstman Art Gallery

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