Visual Arts: The Medium of Travesty and Glory In Equal Measure

The visual arts, since a time long forgotten, have been our greatest means of interpreting a time of war in a light of great glory and strategic detail, or in a darkness of chaos and disgust. Indeed, many works have been dedicated to showing us the beauty and the ugliness, the order and the disorder, the kleos and the lack thereof, in war. The visual arts are a dynamic interpretation of an event, the artifactualization of a perspective unique to the piece and to the event in a way that words can sometimes fail to do. Such is the case with the Sacking of Magdeburg, a historical event during the thirty years war that many pieces of glory and chaos pertain to in such a manner that even the mayor of Magdeburg could not do as he watched flames and soldiers alike engulf his city. The visual arts are the most adept tools at our disposal for understanding different perspectives of war, as seen with the Sacking of Magdeburg.

The Visual Arts can often provide insight to an event that can “encapsulate” the feelings and ideas behind that event in a way much different then just the written work (Izenburg). Indeed, a visual art depicting war shows not just an image, but an entire range of perspectives that are being conveyed to a viewer to relate a message. The work, “The Sacking of Magdeburg”, provides the viewer one such an example where the true destruction and violence are depicted, capturing the graphic nature of this horrifying event in such a way that it was claimed how “words alone cannot adequately describe these acts nor tears adequately bemoan them” (Guericke). This is not only an image of a town burning to the ground, of an act of violence across a shaded background, but the very encapsulation of the horror being expressed in a way that can only be described as heart wrenching. Smoke filling the air, people being razed down by cannon fire, endless destruction and ruin all in an image meant to show just how horrifying this tragic nightmare is in a manner to show the underside of war. This depiction is Merian’s way of describing to the audience how a war truly is: monstrous.

“The Sack of Magdeburg” by Matthaus Merian (1632) Created a short time after the event depicted.

That is not to say, however, that all depictions of war are these grisly scenes of dismay and disorder. Many a depiction look at war in a manner to show that there is glory and triumph to be found in war and the fight. These depictions in the visual arts will often look down upon a battle, making the viewer seem almost godlike as they watch all of the finer pieces of war. For the same event described above, another work was made with the same title by the student of the above artist. This work shows a more graceful and majestic side to a war that many look upon with a feeling of pride. These Visual pieces work to encapsulate this idea of war as a maker of the kleos, the undying glory of a hero.

“The Sack of Magdeburg” by Johann Philipp Abelin. The image was created twenty-seven years after the actual siege.

Thus, we have our perspectives detailing to us how the visual arts conceptualize the different perspectives of war. These pieces, such radically different views of the same event, only prove that the arts are a means to understand different viewpoints of war and what a war stands for, or what it stands to gain. The purpose of these images, their “ekphrasis”, is to define an event to a viewer in such a manner to capture these virtually opposing views. The visual arts, then, are our gateway into what can be either a graceful ordeal of miniature men walking into each other and the world around them gently accepting their scuffle, or a tormented hell where the only respite for the living is often death as chaos paints the air with a miasma of horror.

Works Cited

Izenburg, Oren. “The Ends of the Iliad.” Humanities Core. HIB 100, Irvine. 13
Oct. 2015. Lecture.

Merian, Matthaus. The Sacking of Magdeburg. 1632. Illustration.

Abelin, Johann Philipp. The Sacking of Magdeburg. Apr. 1659. Illustration.

Von Guericke, Otto. “A Local Apocalypse – The Sack of Magdeburg.” 1631. German
History in Documents and Image. German History in Documents and Image. Web.
27 Oct. 2015. <

The Identity in War: The Weapon, The Warrior, The Artifactualization

A warrior on the battlefield is simply a mindless drone without the very artifactualization of his glory and the wellspring of his courage: his identity. Countless heroes, such as Achilles and Hector themselves, fight for the Kleos, the honor to their name that will live on well past their inevitable death. Undoubtedly, the reasoning behind the importance of the warrior’s identity must be the effort they put towards their search for their glory: the key piece of society for our legendary Greek heroes in Homer’s Iliad. Even the weapon of the hero in question becomes a piece of the warrior’s identity on his quest for furthering his identity.

Weapons are, in fact, especially important to the identity of the hero as they slay the hordes of opponents before them. Many great weapons, such as the axes of the vikings, were named after the fury and the glory that they earned in the face of harsh combat. Weapons are essentially a key piece of the identity of a great hero because they are an extension of the hero in the midst of his quest for riches and glory. A weapon is essentially the artifactualization of the warrior’s sole agency allotted to them on the battlefield.(Celtic Warriors in the midst of offering up a weapon to a great leader.)

The agency of a warrior, in itself, comes into question with the relation of agency and weapon, particularly in that a warrior’s only agency is the weapon he holds. A weapon is an expression of a warrior and, by definition, a tool of battle meant to serve its master’s ends. The weapon a warrior brings into battle allows a warrior agency, in that he is the master of the weapon, keeping the power of commanding something in a hierarchy of chaos that is the battlefield.

About Me

Autobio: My name is John Paul Reed, and I am a freshman taking the Human Core Honors course, alongside many of my peers who might stumble across this blog. My hobbies include watching anime, writing poetry, playing video games, wrestling, and listening to music. I enjoy writing frequently, though I often prefer philosophical topics to express myself rather than more physical topics. I originally graduated from Sierra Pacific, one of the three high schools in my hometown of Hanford, with distinction. I greatly enjoy the idea of expressing my thoughts on war and the idea of humanities in general, and appreciate input from all of my fellow peers.

Generally, the focuses of my posts will drift toward an artistic theme and what the humanities have to say on the artifacts of war and the such. The arts of war often provide a view unlike the other disciplines of the humanities, in that we are provided a physical representation of the event we are interpreting. As such, many of my thoughts will concern more physical representations of various interests of study. My personal favorite amongst many items of war are weaponry, and some may notice this fondness throughout this blog numerous times.

The Agency of a Soldier: Slave or Savior?

No war was ever won with leaders alone, but the simple soldier who is commanded by a bureaucracy of superiors in order to best a similarly arranged order of men, if not several arranged orders. A standing army can almost be related to a machine rather than a group of individuals trying to reach the same point. This relation, however, brings about important questions about the individuality of the soldier. If a soldier is just a cog in a machine of unspeakable atrocities and death, then are they even human, to the same extent as they once were? Do they have the agency that people outside of the war have? Do the small acts of heroism a soldier fights to perform even attest to the morality of a man or some slave of the orders that come from above? In essence, not only is a soldier not actually a human at all, they are little better than a tool or a weapon to use as a means to break other, similar tools.

The United States military enlists roughly 180,000 new soldiers every year, and every soldier is either proud to serve their country or glad to receive the benefits their service brings. The moment, however, that these young men and women enlist themselves to the cause of their nation, they are immediately little more than objects that slowly lose the personality they once held while giving themselves up to the wills of their commanders. A soldier is, literally, trained to lose their sense of individuality through the harsh training that they are subjected to, where the intent of the instructors is to “break” them. In a sense, A soldier willingly submits his free will to become a slave for however long they signed on for.

Now, addressing the acts of heroism of soldiers, little is done without the consent of a commanding officer. A soldier is not a hero, a soldier is a weapon meant only to break away at other weapons, though we do hear about the occasional act of heroism from the battlefield. One has to remember that these acts of heroism, few as they are, are almost never done individually by a soldier, and is instead inadvertently caused by soldiers following orders. The agency of a soldier is slim to none, and they cannot simply break away from their command to do what they believe is right without any repercussions.

Thersites in the presence of other soldiers, mocking Agamemnon

Take Thersites’s relentless verbal assault (Iliad 2. 245-281) for example. Not only has he laid claim to agency he does not have, but he defies the very meaning of a soldier by showing his disdain for his commanders. Because of his inability to act like a soldier, he is punished severely by Odysseus by having a scepter cracked across his back and being shamed in front of his fellow warriors (Iliad 2. 309-324). While the nature of Theristes’s comments were vulgar and ill-intended, this is a prime example of how agency belongs out of a soldier’s hands entirely according to his superiors. Any act of showing an individuality beyond what is allowed is grounds for the punishment Theristes received.

The will and capability of a soldier to act on that will is severely limited, if not prohibited, by the nature of their occupation as a simple machine of war. They lack the agency they once held, and instead must bow to external forces that see to rule every action and word with an iron vice. It can even be said that this deprives a soldier of what it means to be human, to be free thinking and capable of expressing their thoughts through words and actions. The acts they perform, however heroic, is not a result of their own agency, but in fact a lack thereof.

Works Cited:

Homer, and Bernard Knox. Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics Deluxe
     ed. N.p.: Penguin Classics, 1998. Print.

Annillo, John. “Basic Training Breakdown: What to Expect When You Join the
     Military.” Breaking Muscle. Breaking Muscle, n.d. Web. 2 Oct. 2015.