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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Year One

Throughout the world different systems have been used to mark the passage of time, but it has been common for cultures to count the passing of years from a specific event in their past. For example, the ancient Greeks counted years from the first Olympic Games (which correlates to 776 B.C.), while the Romans based their calendar on the founding year of Rome (traditionally 753 B.C.). The Jewish calendar starts from their idea of when the world was created (3760 B.C.), while the Muslim calendar begins with the Hijra, the migration of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D. A monk called Dionysius Exiguus (early sixth century A.D.) invented the dating system most widely used in the Western world. For Dionysius, the birth of Christ represented Year One. He believed that this occurred 753 years after the foundation of Rome. Although this is almost certainly wrong, since the Gospels state that Christ was born under Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C., the system was adopted with years expressed as either B.C. (Before Christ) or A.D. (Anno Domini— “The Year of Our Lord”). The abbreviations BCE (before the common era) and CE (common era) are sometimes used.

A look at the art created across the world in the years around Year One of the Western calendar reveals an incredible richness and variety of cultures. It was a time of great cultural interaction, with vast areas crisscrossed by traders and adventurers who journeyed both east and west to bring back coveted goods and tantalizing scraps of information about exotic lands. Some relationships were established through the extension of Roman power under the rule of Augustus, the first Roman emperor (27 B.C.–14 A.D.). Others evolved through the overland and maritime trade routes that provided the East and West with tantalizing glimpses of each other and that also linked many Asian cultures in an unprecedented fashion. Artistic traditions and religious beliefs were exchanged along these global networks, as were luxury goods such as Roman glass, Chinese silk, and East Indian pepper.

In Europe, Celtic peoples excelled in intricate metalwork, and in Egypt a fascinating hybrid combining Greco-Roman and age-old Egyptian styles predominated. East of the Mediterranean, such wealthy centers as Palmyra, Petra, the kingdoms of southern Arabia, and the mighty Parthian empire produced a wide range of sculpture, ceramics, and precious-metal objects that served both religious and luxury purposes as well as everyday uses. Continuing eastward from Parthia to what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India, a traveler in the Year One would have discovered the Kushan empire, where a distinctive early Buddhist art sometimes incorporated influences from Greece and Rome. In East Asia, China’s great empire under the Han dynasty was home to sophisticated arts in every medium; semi-nomadic peoples in northern China made metalwork, often to adorn the gear for their horses; and characteristic arts had begun to develop in Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, in cultures across the Pacific Ocean, people such as the Nazca in South America and the Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica were creating powerful and expressive objects made of stone, ceramic, and gold.