Arts of the Siege: Volume I
An annotated link post
Historians are supposed to look for their own niche interest that no one has covered before, or at least not covered in their way. Academics call this sort of opportunity a lacuna. Only after looking through old term papers last fall did I realize that such a lacuna existed on the topic of siege art. Whereas there is plenty of it, and no shortage of it in books on siege warfare, I have not found a specialized tome on artwork which portrays the attack and defense of cities.
Taking a step back into prehistory, we find that wars over cities are as old as the city itself. Defensive walls appear early and often in the archaeology, though of course they will vary according to geography and resources.
The first siege in archaeology also happens to be the earliest evidence of organized violence in Mesopotamia — older than the first battle recorded as text or image in that region. To a student of siege history, that is not a surprise.
Grand sweeping battles get all the glory, but in fact military history features far more sieges than battles. Moreover, a military culture which did not value siege technology also did not succeed for very long in a world full of cities. Exhibit A for this maxim is the most infamous steppe army of the previous millennium.
Turning to Europe again, we find the first visual stirrings of the Renaissance in a siege painting. What I suggest is that these two things are inseparable: the motif of siege warfare has always produced revolutions in human socio-political organization, and these great historical shifts are visible in art.
Things get exciting when siege art is contemporaneous to a military revolution. Some of our best sources for understanding the early transition to gunpowder artillery are illustrations from medieval manuscripts.
It’s only when we get to the dull, peaceful 19th Century, when snobs were setting rules for what ‘real art’ is, that we find the real duds of the subgenre. Now in charge of the world, Europeans made siege art into allegorical justification for their imperial hubris.
If you ask me, the happening art scene of 19th Century poliorcetics was photography. And because gunpowder artillery had not substantially changed for a long time, we can glean hints of what siege lines looked like in the past.
Pushed to explore abstraction by the new technology of photography, the painters of the 19th Century invented impressionism. The mind of the painter became more visible than ever, producing scenes of the human mind under siege.
After the grief of loss in the Franco-Prussian war had faded and the nation picked itself up again, French artists used siege as a motif to comment on war itself. They went in two directions. Some patriots wanted stalwart unity and preparation for the next war with Germany, which they thought was inevitable.
Then another French artist turned to the very roots of his national narrative in pursuit of a very different agenda. Rather than exult in resistance, one man decided his commission for a poliorcetic sculpture should be a universal plea for peace.
Suffering is always present in war, but the suffering of siege is always an order of magnitude greater than battles. This is because civilizations are made of populated cities, not battlefields. Civilization itself is what suffers in siege, therefore all scenes of siege tell us something about humanity at its best and worst moments. A single work of siege art can contain multitudes.