In his earlier book The Art of Wonder – A History of Seeing (winner of the Sir Banister Fletcher Prize, 2006), former museums director, Julian Spalding demonstrated how art has always been the product of our attempt to make sense of the mysteries around us.
Throughout Realisation, Spalding offers many totally new thought-provoking explanations of iconic works of art. Just a few examples are that:
• Stonehenge wasn’t used at ground level, but supported a raised, circular, wooden platform (now lost) on top of which worshippers performed ceremonies to the rotating heavens;
• Pyramids were not primarily tombs or support structures for temples, but realisations of the massive forces that were believed to bind the flat world together;
• Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling was not primarily a display of superhuman genius but a triumphant re- assertion that heaven still stood above us though the earth was a sphere; and that
• Munch’s The Scream caught the world’s imagination not just as an image of human angst but because it was also a depiction of the last symbolic sunset, for everyone now knew that the sun didn’t set. The veil of beauty that had enchanted creation till then had been torn asunder by the scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment.

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  A short interview about REALISATION on BBC Radio 4  | 16th March 2015
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  An article about REALISATION in The Guardian  | 16th March 2015
by Julian Spalding

My suggestion that Stonehenge was probably neither a temple nor a calendar but most likely a raised, ceremonial altar used by hundreds of people has attracted considerable attention and some criticism from archaeologists. I’ve nothing against archaeology, but let me make clear that my idea didn’t come from digging into the ground. It came, instead, from looking up at the stars and wondering what our ancestors thought about them when they thought the earth was flat.
When Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuolo explored the Altamira cave in 1879 he dug in the floor. It never occurred to him to look up. It was his young daughter, Maria, who pointed to the ceiling and shouted: “Look Papa, oxen!” So the first cave paintings were discovered. It’s my contention that we’ve been looking in the wrong direction when we’ve interpreted many of the great monuments and works of art of the past.
We still think the pyramids are mysterious, but actually they were products of common sense. They are virtually identical in Mexico, Egypt and China – not because one civilisation learned how to build them from another but because they thought alike. Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition was a product of the European enlightenment’s belief in progressive learning. Disparate peoples built identical pyramids because they didn’t know others existed. Each thought they were living in the centre of a flat world.
Piles of stones or earth naturally form cones but there are no massive cones in ancient history. The reason is simple: cones form circles and, therefore, couldn’t be on the ground. A circle was the shape of heaven. The flat earth had to be square because it had four directions – north, south, east and west. That’s why all pyramids are four-sided, and, incidentally, extremely difficult to build.
The reason for pyramid building was simple: they harnessed the mysterious forces that we believed held the world together – the sea’s flat horizon that ran through the earth, the invisible force of gravity that dragged us down to our graves and the spirit of life which, like flames that always rise, lifted us to our eternal, future home among the stars. The bigger and heavier we could build them, the more pyramids concentrated the powers of the universe against the ceaseless changes on earth that brought so many calamities. They weren’t symbols of celestial bodies but forces for permanence on earth. That’s why pyramids looked alike.
Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel is another instance of us looking in the wrong direction. We see it as the extraordinary achievement of an isolated genius. It was, but it was also a product of its times. When it was painted, Columbus had just sailed over the edge of the world and come back. The world was a sphere. No one could doubt it any more.
But that caused tremendous problems for the pope. If the world was a sphere, albeit fixed in the centre of the universe, and the stars went round it, where, then, was heaven? It couldn’t be all round us too, because that would mean heaven was under our feet. In 1506, Pope Julius had the old, rectilinear St Peter’s pulled down and a new one built that would be all curves, with its famous colonnade embracing the round world. And he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling to show that heaven was still in place, above us.
The Vatican didn’t formally accept Galileo’s theory that the world was a sphere spinning around the sun until 1992. Old world views can linger in our minds long after science has shown them to be untrue. In my book Realisation I’ve shown how our world view morphed from a body into a tree into a pyramid, then an altar and lastly a veil until science tore them all asunder. But shadows of these old world pictures still linger in our minds, and prevent us seeing where we truly are.
• This article was amended on 20 March 2015. It is the Altamira cave, not the Altimira cave as we had it.

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