Over the course of human history, the depiction of the human figure has changed significantly. Even over a fairly short time span, such as from the early days of the first Egyptians to the later classical Greek paintings and sculptures, we can spot major differences in how the human form is shown. Of course, of the nature of the cultures and societies involved, their geographic location, the resources they had available, their religious beliefs and the instructions of their patrons or rulers all had an impact on how artists chose to represent human beings. All of these factors can help to explain the differences and commonalities in how each of these societies chose to depict humans in their art.
In one of the earliest depictions of the human figure, the people of the Paleolithic period created an exaggerated and massively overweight sculptured female figure known as the Venus of Willendorf. Scholars presume that this figure is meant to represent fertility, prosperity and beauty. With regard to the prosperity aspect of the sculpture, it may be that these ancient people thought that the apparent prosperity of the figure would magically translate into actual prosperity for them. By contrast, during the much later Cycladic period, the Keros-Syros culture created statues such as the Statuette of a Woman (currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). In this representation of the female form, she is much thinner, while still being highly stylized. While most of the figure is roughly correct proportionally, the arms are much too thin and short for the body. Like the Venus of Willendorf, this statuette is considered a fertility figure. Interestingly, both of these figures also lack any facial features.
Because of their geographical location and the abundance of resources they enjoyed, the Akkad Civilization was able to build both architecture and sculpture on a much larger scale than many of their neighbors. For instance, it was during this period that they created the one sided stone slab known as the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin. This Stele is a carved slab intended to celebrate the victory of a ruler named Narmer over his enemies, the Lullubi, who were a people who lived in the central Zagros region. The sculpture shows the gods at the top, the victorious soldiers below them and the defeated and slain enemy soldiers near the bottom. While the sculpture may actually represent a real historical event, the representation of the human figures in the sculpture is very generalized. There are no specific faces, which leaves everyone looking very much alike.
The later Assyrians often created sculptures that were freestanding, meaning that they could be examined from all sides. A wonderful example of this kind of freestanding sculpture is the "Gate Monster," which was a human headed winged lion or bull. These were constructed out of limestone and were over 10 feet high. They generally had a human head, wings and (somewhat oddly) five legs. As their...