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The human race has been making art for thousands of years. Here, in chronological order,
critic Martin Gayford chooses his 50 artistic wonders of the world.
1. Sculpture of Khafre (Chephren) (c2800 BC) Cairo Museum
The painter Francis Bacon concluded that the ancient Egyptians were the greatest artists of
all. No work supports that judgment better than this sculpture of the Pharaoh Khafre, in
black diorite with white veins, his head embraced by the hawk god Horus. It has a
concentrated force and presence unequalled over 5,000 years.
2. The Hunts of Ashurbanipal - Relief sculptures from Nineveh, northern Iraq (c645 BC)
Narrative art achieved a fresh level of naturalism in the decorations of Assyrian royal
palaces, none more so than those depicting the hunts by the ruler Ashurbanipal. They
portray the triumph of the king over beasts such as the lion. But, paradoxically, the dying
animals are represented with such delicate observation that it is hard not to see them as
3. Riace Warriors (mid-5th century BC) Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia, Reggio di
These two bronze figures, discovered on the seabed in 1972 by an Italian scuba diver, are
among the noblest works to survive from ancient Greece. Even more so than the Parthenon
Marbles, they embody the Greek conception of humanity - anatomically accurate, but more
vigorous and poised than flesh-and-blood mankind. They seem both calm and charged with
force. As images of an idealised human race, they are unsurpassed.
4. Terracotta Army (c220-210 BC) near Xi’an, China
Terracotta Army Neither photographs, nor the British Museum exhibition can prepare you
for the full army. The dead seem to have marched out of the ground, and are awaiting their
next command, rank after rank, all subtly different. Some have been left as they were
discovered - toppled, fragmentary, like old photographs from the trenches of 1916. This is a
direct encounter with a distant, but still formidable antiquity.
5. Altar of Zeus from Pergamon (c175-150 BC) Pergamon Museum, Berlin
The great Altar of Zeus at Pergamon, on the western coast of modern Turkey, was built by
Eumenes II to commemorate his father’s victory over the Gauls. The reliefs, now in Berlin,
depict the battle of the gods against giants: a combat of order against chaos. They
represent, on a spectacularly grand scale, a tragic yet heroic struggle.
6. Nasca Earthworks (100 BC to 500 AD) Nasca Desert, Peru
Discovered in the 1920s by aerial reconnaissance, these ancient marks were made by
moving the darker pebbles of this arid region to reveal the lighter soil beneath. Too large to
be seen in their entirety by those who made them, these are testimony to a belief in the
cosmic significance of human acts.
7. Murals, Villa of the Mysteries (c60-50 BC), Pompeii
These are the most complete and best preserved set of mural paintings to have come down
from classical antiquity, with life-sized figures against a deep red background. The subject
matter includes nudity, pagan rites, torture - in fact in these images the Roman era seems
quite New Age.
8. Ajanta murals (2nd century BC-7th century AD), Ajanta Caves, India
The wall paintings depict scenes from the previous lives of the Lord Buddha. Apart from
their religious purpose, they present a panoply of ancient Indian life: ascetics, birds,
elephants, kings, dancers, queens and their curvaceous and near-naked handmaidens. A
supreme example of the power of art to tell a story.
9. Obelisk of King Ezana (4th century), Axum, Ethiopia
Of uncertain purpose, the great obelisks of Aksum in Ethiopia remain compelling objects.
The tallest, that of King Ezana, is 24 metres high and is carved with blank doors and
windows. The obelisks, set up by the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, are towering
examples of how monumental art can endow a place with power.
10. Arjuna’s Penance, relief sculpture (7th century) Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India
This multitudinous carving is on a whale-backed boulder 100 feet long by 45 feet high. In
the centre is a natural cleft in the rock, down which water was originally poured to simulate
the descent of the River Ganges. No work so evokes a universe inhabited by gods,
elephants, spiritual beings and mankind.
11. Mosaics, Great Mosque (715 AD) Damascus
This decoration depicts architectural vistas, palaces, villages, landscape, orchards and
naturalistic, spreading trees. The subject has been claimed both to be the city of Damascus
itself and of paradise. The mosaics have been much damaged by fires and disasters, but the
remaining sections are one of the glories of Islamic art.
12. The Incarnation Initial, Book of Kells (early 9th century) Trinity College Library, Dublin
Here Celtic culture fused with that of the Mediterranean in a spectacular firework display of
decoration. The result is “so delicate and subtle, so concise and compact, so full of knots
and links”, wrote a 12th-century admirer, “that you might think it the work of an angel”.
13. Sculptures, Temple of Borobudur (9th century) Java
This building is a model in stone of the Buddhist view of human existence. The visitor
slowly climbs a square pyramid, passing friezes that illustrate the consequences of living in
a world of desire, and, in 1,300 panels, the life of the Buddha. Then the pilgrim reaches an
undecorated zone where stone Buddhas sit meditating in bliss. The graceful reliefs were a
source of inspiration to Gauguin.
14. Fan Kuan, Travellers by Streams & Mountains (c1000), National Palace Museum, Taipei
The painters of Song dynasty of China were profound exponents of landscape and Fan Kuan,
a Daoist dweller in remote mountains, was among of the greatest of them. This, his only
remaining work, represents a gnarled, majestic mountain rising out of the misty void of a
valley. It is not only a natural scene, but a visualisation of the fundamental processes of the
15. Head with Crown (11th to 15th centuries) Ife Museum, Nigeria
The ancient bronze and terracotta heads and figures discovered at Ife - the ancient ritual
centre of the Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria - are among the most naturalistic
products of African art. They are thought to be idealised portraits of the kings, or Oni, of
Ife. Few works give so powerful a sense of dignity.
16. Carvings, Santo Domingo de los Silos (11th century) Santo Domingo de los Silos, Spain
Why, St Bernard of Clairvaux famously asked, were these “filthy apes”, these “fierce lions”
“these monstrous centaurs” carved in a monastery? It’s a good question. Romanesque
cloisters, of which this is a magnificent example, present not only sacred stories, but also a
phantasmagoria of the imagination. It’s an aspect of art that continues through
Hieronymous Bosch down to the Surrealists.
17. Christ Pantocrator (mid-12th century) Cefalù Cathedral, Sicily
Of all the images of Christ Pantocrator - that is, “almighty” - created in the Byzantine idiom,
this is the most regal. Christ is silhouetted against the golden mosaic of the apse of Cefalù
Cathedral. The building was founded by Roger II, a Norman king of Sicily. But the mosaics
were possibly created by craftsmen from Constantinople. So, as well as being a
masterpiece, this is an emblem of the complex fusion of Mediterranean culture.
18. Stained glass, Chartres (12th -13th centuries) Chartres Cathedral, France
The artists of medieval France perfected the skill of making pictures out of translucent
pieces of coloured glass. None are richer than those of Chartres - especially the earliest,
dating from the mid-12th century. Their power comes not so much from the images drawn
on the windows of the church as from the colours of the panes. This is making art out of
coloured light, a modern idea and a powerful one.
19. Moai (1250 to 1500) Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
The Moai are gigantic stone figures whose heads take up 60 per cent of their length. Nearly
900 have been found on this tiny island in the Pacific. They have elongated noses and
lengthy oblong ears, which help to give them their extraordinary sense of watchful force. It
is believed they represent deified ancestors, in which case the Moai are one of the most
remarkable examples of art’s power to overcome time, and make the past present.
20. Giotto, frescoes (c 1304-13) Cappella Scrovegni or Arena Chapel, Padua
Giotto brought into painting a sense of weight and mass that had never been achieved
before and has never been surpassed. You feel you could guess the weight of his figures,
even put your arm around them. Together with a simple directness of storytelling, this adds
tremendous force to his narrative scenes.
21. Duccio di Buoninsegna, Maestà (1308-11) Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, Siena
22. Jan van Eyck, Ghent altarpiece (c1425-1433) St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent
24. Piero della Francesca, ‘The Legend of the True Cross’ (1454-5 Frescoes, San
Francesco, Arezzo, Italy
25. Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Lady with an Ermine’ (c. 1490) Czartorski Collection, Krakow
26. Zen garden, Ryoan-ji Temple (late 15th century) Kyoto, Japan
27. Michelangelo Buonarroti, ‘David’ (1504) Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence
28. Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim altarpiece (1515) Colmar, France
29. Ardabil carpet, Iran (1539-40) V&A, London
30. Titian, ‘Diana and Actaeon’ (1556-9) Duke of Sutherland, on long-term loan to the
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
31. Jacopo Tintoretto, Crucifixion (1565-87) Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice
32. Pieter Breugel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (1565) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
33. Caravaggio, ‘Scenes from the Life of St Matthew’ (1598-1602) Contarelli Chapel, San
Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
34. Bernini, ‘The Ecstasy of St Teresa’, Cornaro Chapel (1647-52) Santa Maria della Vittoria,
35. Diego Velázquez, ‘Las Meninas’ (c1656) Prado, Madrid
Diego Velázquez Las Meninas
36. Vermeer, ‘View of Delft’ (1660-61) Mauritshuis, The Hague
37. Rembrandt van Rijn, ‘The Jewish Bride: Isaac and Rebecca’ (c1662) Rijksmuseum,
38. Giambattista Tiepolo, ‘Apollo and the Four Continents’ (1753) Residenz, Wurzburg
39. Francisco Goya, ‘The Third of May 1808' (1814) Prado, Madrid
40. Theodore Géricault, ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ (1819) Louvre, Paris
Theodore Géricault The Raft of the Medusa
41. John Constable, ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ (1831) Private collection, on
long-term loan to the National Gallery, London
42. Vincent van Gogh, ‘Vincent’s Chair’ (1888) National Gallery, London
43. Pablo Picasso, ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907), Museum of Modern Art, New York
44. Henri Matisse, ‘La Danse (II)’ (1910) Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (currently on
show at the Royal Academy)
45. Claude Monet, ‘Waterlilies’ (completed 1926) Orangerie, Paris
46. Constantin Brancusi, ‘Endless Column’ (1937) Targu Jiu, Romania
47. Jackson Pollock, ‘One: No 31' (1950) Museum of Modern art, New York
48. Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Whaam!’ (1963) Tate, London
49. Robert Smithson, ‘Spiral Jetty’ (1970) Salt Lake, Utah, USA
50. Donald Judd, ‘Untitled’ Installation of 100 mill-aluminium boxes (1982-6), Chinati
Foundation, Marfa, Texas