Imagine your client handing you a hunk of stone and saying: here, convince humanity to buy my service.
That’s pretty much how the conversation went between the creative types of yore and their clients, the heads of religion. Once handed that hunk of stone, the artist would somehow not only have to reproduce a seminal religious event, but also convey the feelings, motivations, individual ranks and roles involved in said event. All while respecting religious dogma.
Granted, the competition for eyeballs was far less intense back then.
But the artist wasn’t just asking the consumer of his art to hand over a chunk of change–he was demanding nothing less than his soul.
How did the artist rise to the challenge? He was helped by a sort of visual shorthand that had evolved over the centuries from cultural practice.
Certain hand gestures conveyed certain emotions. Certain physical traits–long earlobes, cranial protrusion–signalled greatness.
These artistic conventions were so widely known that by using them the artist could communicate with the viewer unequivocally.
And unequivocal communication was the objective of such art, making it the precursor not to today’s arty art (where meaning is typically obscured) but to today’s commercial art.