History And Human Body

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Modern Body, Medieval Body, Postmodern Body: What Historians Say

Modern Body, Medieval Body, Postmodern Body: What Historians Say


The role and meaning of the human body incorporates a diverse range of cultural forces, including but not limited to art and religion. Different cultures and eras interpret the meaning and value of the human body in distinctive ways. The various interconnections of ideas, especially concepts related to art and religion, reflect more than aesthetic or devotional applications. As a historical and cultural category, the human body undergoes numerous transformations as prevailing social, political, and economic forces change. Fadwa (1999) mentions race, gender, and class, as well as religious and cultural values, have been imprinted on depictions of the human body and sanctioned throughout history. Representations of the human body in art, whether identified as religious or secular, raise questions concerning structures of power, ideology, and identity. Artistic renderings and religious interpretations of the human body privilege it as a symbolic value and a political agent, especially during periods of protest against societal norms and definitions of gender as sexual identification (Fadwa, 1999).

The broader history of changing attitudes toward corporeality, or the bodily dimension of human existence, raises a question: Can art be identified as religious if it is non-figural; that is, if it omits the human figure? The human body is the pivotal organizing principle for the expression and comprehension of humanity's position within society and the universe (Featherstone, Hepworth & Bryan, 1991). Traditionally, artistic presentations of bodily proportions, physical motions, and facial or manual gestures were visual signifiers of the internal movements of the soul. For many cultures, including Renaissance Europe, the presentation of the human body was a visual means of classifying knowledge about the world.

Modern Body, Medieval Body, Postmodern Body: What Historians Say

The depicting of human bodies draws connections between theology and artistic styles, including presentations of asceticism, the cult of chastity, and the family. Typically, depictions of the human body are predicated on theological and cultural interpretations. For example, in religious cultures like the Christian West, in which the human body is seen as shameful, fallen, and in need of discipline against sin, representations of the human body have emphasized physical weakness through unnatural but symbolic caricatures of such specific body parts as arms, hands, and torsos (Featherstone, Hepworth & Bryan, 1991). In contrast, those religious cultures in which the human was seen as a mirror of the divine, such as classical Greece or Hindu India, emphasized the beauty and balance of the human form. These cultures interpreted the human body as the locus and signifier of internal modes of religious life and thought.

Discrete systems for naming and presenting identical objects evolved naturally within world cultures. The human body was one individual object that possessed both singular and communal identities. Interwoven within the cultural fabric of each distinctive work of art was a simultaneous recognition of both the universality and the uniqueness of the human body. The implicit recognition of the human body, cultural matrix, and ...
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