Metamorphoses of the Hero
While the artist became a new kind of culture hero, the hero as a principal theme vanished from painting as an image of man. The process of dethronement of the hero from the dominating position in art he had occupied since antiquity was gradual. And it was intimately related to the artist's problem in finding imagery meaningful to the people of his time.
Painters had to decide not only what kind of characters and actions to portray, but also where in space and time the scene should be laid. In antiquity artists had depicted celebrities, particularly athletes and military heroes who were close to the observer's immediate experience, and this practice was partially revived in sculpture in the fifteenth century. But during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance it was customary for painters to place gods and devils, priests, kings and knights in some imaginary setting or to show personages who had been dead for centuries in contemporary dress and locales. Authenticity of detail or historical accuracy did not matter when the picture was considered to be true because of the generally accepted universal truth of its content. In the strongly stratified societies of the past, the greatness of these heroic or superhuman figures was not usually questioned.
As a greater sense of history developed, it revealed the relative value of epochs of time and of human worth, and instilled a confidence in progress. The idea of progress gradually developed into a belief in the perfectibility of man. 1 As high strata in the social hierarchy became more widely attainable, the old images of types that seemed great by virtue of their remoteness in time or social accessibility were undermined. With the shift of belief from a fixed supernatural sphere to a secular world involved in the flux of history, the stability and standards of greatness -- in themes and characters as well as in the techniques of the work of art -- became increasingly problematic. In the seventeenth century, the