30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World

Course No. 7820
Professor Diana K. McDonald, Ph.D.
Boston College
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Course No. 7820
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Course Overview

When people think of the masterpieces of art, painters such as Gauguin or Picasso might spring to mind. But thousands of years before these modern masters put brush to canvas, artists from all over the ancient world, from France to Egypt to South America, created a trove of masterpieces—artwork stunning for its opulence, its realism, its utility, and its visual drama.

Art is one of the highest forms of human expression, and studying the history of ancient art, as with studying later works, gives us a way to more fully understand ourselves today. A comparative look at the masterpieces of the ancient world reveals a marvelous diversity of styles, themes, subjects, and media, but it also offers us a glimpse of the universal truths and values of humanity across the ages. Even among radically different cultures, you still see common themes—including expressions of rulership, fertility, and religion and spirituality.

30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World offers you what few art history courses do, even in our top universities—a broad and comprehensive survey of art in the ancient world. Over the course of 36 fascinating lectures, Professor Diana Krumholz McDonald, an expert in ancient art history and an esteemed lecturer and scholar, takes you on a grand journey around the world to see some of the greatest works of art ever created and to explore the cultures that made them. Whether it’s a textbook standard or a little-known gem, this is art with a purpose, created not for art’s sake, but with a clear function in mind. You’ll delight in learning about such works as

  • the realistic paintings inside the caves of Chauvet, France;
  • the Uruk Vase and the development of narrative art in Mesopotamia;
  • the erotic and terrifying “Queen of the Night” relief from ancient Babylon;
  • the treasures from King Tut’s tomb and other Egyptian wonders;
  • the mesmerizing and expressive sculpture “Laocoön”;
  • the ancient relics and monuments to the Buddha in India and Java; and
  • the colossal Olmec heads with their extraordinary emotional power.

Along the way, Professor McDonald is an able guide who brings these masterpieces to life with stories, insights, and interpretations that will open an entire new world for you.

Many Cultures, Universal Truths>/h3>

The beauty of 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World is that it takes you all around the globe, from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Americas. You’ll revisit familiar cultural touchstones, such as the Greek Olympic Games or the Roman Republic, and you’ll encounter unfamiliar—even terrifying—rituals such as human sacrifice in the mysterious Aztec and Moche societies. The artwork these cultures produced ranges from decorative earspools to massive architectural wonders, from skillfully woven textiles and masterfully wrought pottery to stunningly expressive sculptures and paintings.

For all this variety, though, common themes emerge and connect us in our shared humanity—not merely among ancient societies, but between the ancients and our world today. In this extraordinary journey, you’ll encounter breathtaking paintings, sculptures, reliefs, textiles, and architectural triumphs from around the globe and created across thousands of years, and you’ll study what binds them together—and the lessons they offer us today.

Survival & Fertility: Nothing else matters if our basic needs are not met. It makes sense, then, that so much artistic expression in the ancient world focuses on our security. Masterpieces such as these highlight the importance of this theme throughout the ancient world:

  • “Ram Caught in a Thicket,” from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, highlights fertility of the land, which is necessary for human survival.
  • Aphrodite of Knidos, the first female nude sculpture, shows reverence for the goddess of sexual love and fertility in ancient Greece.
  • Chinese bronze vessels were used for ritual sacrifices to communicate with ancestral spirits and secure their protection and generosity.

Dominance, Rulership, & Warfare: How does a king control his kingdom? Visual propaganda is a nearly universal way for rulers to inspire devotion and intimidate potential threats, both from within and without. For example:

  • In Mesopotamia, the Standard of Ur shows two complementary sides of kingship—warrior and provider. Rulers must defend and provide for their people.
  • In Persia, the Achaemenid kings built grand cities such as Persepolis as expressions of their power.
  • In Rome, the Column of Trajan tells a story of Roman warfare, with Trajan as the towering conqueror.

Religion & Spirituality: So much art through the ages has focused on the soul and the afterlife, and ancient societies were the first to develop and cultivate this spiritual approach. Not only does ancient artwork affirm our common humanity, but masterpieces such as these provide an important glimpse into the cultures that created them:

  • The grand Egyptian tombs and funerary rites were a way for kings—including the famous Tutankhamun—to achieve immortality.
  • The Great Stupa at Sanchi supposedly houses some of the ashes of the Buddha. Pilgrims came from far and wide to pay their respects and, in the process, learned the path toward an enlightened life.
  • On his sarcophagus, the Maya king Pakal the Great was portrayed as the reborn maize god, an important key to understanding the myths and religion of the Maya.

What Makes a Masterpiece?

Size. Technique. Beauty. Complexity. Whatever your criteria, the objects you’ll study in this course are some of the world’s truly great masterpieces. Professor McDonald gives you an overview of the cultural context of these works and explains what makes each piece important, outstanding, and beautiful. Each masterpiece has a story to tell, and this course is your key for uncovering these stories. How did each piece function in its culture? What can it tell us about the people of its time and place? Why does the piece matter to us today?

Some of the works you’ll study are easily recognizable—for instance, King Tut’s mask, the Parthenon, and the Aztec calendar stone. But others are strange and enigmatic. For each masterpiece, Professor McDonald provides you with the necessary context and unlocks the hidden story behind each object. She also delves into the techniques employed by some of the greatest artists of all time to help you understand the art’s creation and to enhance your appreciation. Among other things, you’ll learn about

  • verisimilitude in 30,000-year-old cave paintings, which challenges us to rethink our notion of “primitive” art;
  • the optical illusions built into the architecture of the Mesopotamian ziggurats;
  • contrapposto, torsion, and the development of motion in Greek sculpture; and
  • the astounding skill and labor behind the Andean textiles.

One of the most interesting features you’ll discover about ancient art is the development of abstraction in ancient Andean art. Today we think of abstraction as modern, as a 20th-century phenomenon, but in the early centuries of the Common Era, the Andean civilizations painted abstract designs on their pottery and wove abstract geometric shapes in their textiles.

The Perfect Guide for a Comparative Course

Perhaps no other course offers you such a wide and deep survey of ancient art. And Professor McDonald is the ideal art historian to take us on this journey around the world. As a specialist in ancient art history and as one who lived in Southeast Asia and has traveled around the world, she has personally seen the objects she describes, and she is able to pepper her stories with personal examples that bring the material to life. What’s more, she draws surprising connections between objects created independently by cultures on opposite sides of the world. And the stunning works of art in the course, along with 3-D reconstructions and the professor’s demonstrations, enhance your aesthetic appreciation.

This course is such a rare treat—the chance to reflect on such questions as, How did ancient people live and survive? What drives our impulse to create art? Why do these objects resonate so strongly with us over thousands of years? With striking visuals and a sense of excitement in every lecture, 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World is a powerful testament to the power of art in the human experience.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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. x
  • 2
    Ancient Cave Art—Chauvet, France
    Step back more than 30,000 years as you view some of the earliest known art in the world— a fabulous gallery of animals painted on the cave walls at Chauvet. These paintings tell us something profound about the Paleolithic mind and force us to reconsider our own ideas about “primitive” art. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 21
    Laocoön—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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 28
    Carved Stone Lintels of Yaxchilán
    Blood sacrifices. Sacred visions. Poisonous animals. Artwork from the Maya kingdom of Yaxchilán 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. x
  • 29
    Teotihuacán—Temple of the Feathered Serpent
    Venture north to the city of Teotihuacán, 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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Your professor

Diana K. McDonald

About Your Professor

Diana K. McDonald, Ph.D.
Boston College
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...
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30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World is rated 3.9 out of 5 by 62.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Why do you address me as FATS? Why do you address me as FATS? Because I'm sitting around so much watching my new courses? Anyway, I've watched 3 lectures so far, and am enjoying this course very much. Learning a lot, and the professor is very engaging and knowledgeable.
Date published: 2020-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really interesting and well-presented Really enjoying this course and the knowledge/expertise/enthusiasm of the presenter. Thank you!
Date published: 2020-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A favorite! The course started out a bit rough, but soon became riveting. The professor beautifully integrated ancient art with the historical context that made it so memorable! Typically the professor showed in detail how to read/interpret the key text/symbolism.
Date published: 2020-05-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ancient World Masterpieces Excellent expression of Dr McDonald's enthusiasm for the art and history behind it. Excellent visuals of places and pieces of art and their meaning. Better than reading a history book.
Date published: 2020-05-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Painful to watch I returned this course after watching two lectures. The speaker is far too animated, presumably attempting to inject some excitement into her presentation, and her speaking style is almost painful to listen to (as though she is speaking to children). The illustrations are repetitive throughout the lecture (a little like watching something on the History Channel!) and become frustrating to watch. I suggest glancing at the other negative reviews before purchasing the course - there is a common thread of criticism that runs through them all.
Date published: 2020-03-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from In-depth and fascinating! I bought this for my husband for Christmas and we both really like it! My husband is amazed by the advances in research and updates to knowledge, which is incorporated into the lectures. The presenter is lively, and the lectures are interspersed with lots of images.
Date published: 2019-12-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More courses by Diana K. McDonald, please! Professor Diana K. McDonald Ph.D provides an excellent overview of a selection of ancient works over 6 3-hour DVDs which I found consistently compelling and informative. I easily watched a DVD in one sitting. I have around 20 courses from The Teaching Company and accept that the user's response to a lecturer's style is subjective. What annoys one user will not be even noticed by another. I found Diana McDonald wonderful and wish she presented more titles in The Great Courses series. She has clear diction and speaks in an easy and engaging manner. McDonald is a mistress of her subject and teaches with enthusiam. I used this course in conjunction with two by Bob Briers, 'The Great Pharaohs' and 'The Egyptian Empire', as well as Jeremy McInerny's 'Ancient Greek Culture'. I had some small acquaintance with Mesopotamia through 'The Epic of Gilgamesh', having read a couple of translations. In other words this was a newish area of study for me. Having completed the courses mentioned above I have a greater understanding of some areas of early history and culture. I recall a trip to the British Museum some years ago and the Assyrian Reliefs on show there - at the time I didn't pay too much attention to them, but now I can't wait to revisit the museum to have another, better informed look at them. The remit of the course is quite wide: 35,000 year old cave paintings, the earliest exemplars of narrative art, funerary artefacts and wall paintings, architechture, statuary, vase painting, Chinese bronzes, Moche jewelry, and textiles from South America. If you are at all interested in our ancient predecessors and their cultures you will find this course both profitable and enjoyable.
Date published: 2019-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Equal Parts Art and History I appreciate that I learned far more from this course than just particulars of 30 works of art. Professor Diana K. McDonald shared a great deal of historical context about the eras and the cultures from which these masterpieces came, and she discussed as well the expressive genres that her featured works either characterized or revised afresh. The amount of informational content provided in this wide-ranging course was impressive. Accompanying visuals, enhanced by helpful colour-coding and highlighting, were beautiful, in synch with the lectures, and amounted to another real strength of the course. A minor personal dissatisfaction was that text sometimes projected on-screen “assembled” itself in an unsettling, swimming-into-view fashion, apparently via a computerized technique that I felt amounted to a distraction. The professor’s manner of presentation, while certainly very good, might have been even more engaging given a bit more spontaneity. I know that I particularly enjoyed the few occasions on which it seemed that she digressed from her precisely worded script to make a comment that sounded more like a personal aside. I also would have liked a number of “gaps” filled in better, such was when we students were provided with extensive details about depictions on the contrasting “war” and “peace” long panels of The Standard of Ur, were told further that there were also mosaics on its shorter end panels, but were then neither told about nor shown those end panels. I will give just one more example of what I am calling a “gap.” In a lecture about ancient Greek vase painting, two pots were displayed without discussion of what was depicted upon them, apparently simply to make the point that special techniques had been required to shape images to curved pottery surfaces; but what were some of those special techniques or optical tricks by the artists, and why were the puzzling scenes on those particular pots given no explication while the images on other pottery received thorough discussion in the same lecture? My points of critique are minor ones, however, and I would welcome studying further courses by Dr. McDonald. I give her credit for being one of those professors who has “walked the talk,” having done her own field research in several parts of the world. Her style does “grow on one;” her 35th lecture on “What Can We Learn From Ancient Art?” was particularly insightful; and after the following lecture #36, I was sorry the course had ended.
Date published: 2019-04-04
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