Carved limestone panel showing the Buddha’s conception and birth

A history of storytelling through pictures

Publication date: 24 July 2019

Our current major exhibition explores Japanese manga and the variety of stories they tell. But storytelling through art is nothing new. Humans have long used pictures to communicate their greatest tales. Here we discover the stories told through nine different objects from around the world and throughout human history.

African rock art

Rock art is the practice of engraving, drawing, or painting images onto immovable rock surfaces, and is one of the oldest material forms of human expression in the world, dating back 30,000 years in Africa.

Rock art researchers grapple with questions of what rock art means, what stories the images tell and how we can interpret and understand them. In some cases the meaning behind these enigmatic images is hard to interpret but sometimes they convey clear narratives and messages about people’s social lives.

Painting on a rock surface showing a group of people preparing for a wedding. Several people are washing their hair.
This scene has been variously interpreted as showing preparations for a wedding. Note the hairwashing scene top right. © TARA/David Coulson.

The image below comes from the Acacus Mountains in Libya and shows an intimate moment between two people, an individual with an ornate hairstyle washing or attending to another's hair. It is part of a larger scene interpreted as preparations for a wedding. This beautifully painted image depicts a personal and familiar moment that resonates.

Painting on rock surface of a figure with an ornate hairstyle attending to the washing or preparation of another's hair
Figure on the left wears an ornate hairstyle and attends to the washing or preparation of another’s hair. © TARA/David Coulson.

Another example from Game Pass Shelter in the Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa, depicts an eland antelope with its face turned towards the viewer, depicted as if stumbling forwards. Grasping the eland’s tail is a therianthrope (a mythological part-human, part-animal figure).

Painting on a rock surface showing an eland antelope with crossed legs and a therianthrope figure grasping its tail
Panel showing an eland antelope with crossed legs and a therianthrope figure grasping its tail. ©TARA/David Coulson

For many years this image was difficult to interpret until rock art researcher David Lewis-Williams used the oral narratives of the San|Bushman people of southern Africa to make sense of the image. Rather than simply being illustrative, images of eland and therianthropes convey metaphorical stories about shamans interacting with the spirit world.

You can discover more African rock art through our major research project.

Assyrian palace reliefs

Ancient Assyria was one of the great civilisations of the ancient world, the heartland of which was located in the northern region of present-day Iraq. The Assyrian kings built on a lavish scale. Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC) was the first Assyrian king to extensively decorate his palace with carved stone panels.

The majority depict magical protective figures, such as winged genies, that protected the king from harmful supernatural forces. Some palace rooms were also decorated with narrative scenes. Major themes include the royal hunt, military campaigns and state rituals. The wall panels were painted in vibrant colours, but few traces of pigment survive today.

The narrative scenes depicted on Ashurnasirpal's palace sculptures convey the political and ideological basis of the Assyrian empire. As the divinely appointed protector of Assyria, it was the king’s duty to maintain order in the world by defeating the forces of chaos. Ashurnasirpal shows his ability to protect the realm by slaying dangerous animals and defeating Assyria’s enemies.

The wall panels are typically divided into registers, much like a modern cartoon strip, that can be read from left to right, or from right to left. Events that occurred at different moments in time are often depicted within the same narrative space so the viewer can follow each stage of the story in the right order.

Chinese bronze mirror

In China, narrative scenes featuring historical figures started to be used from the Han dynasty (202–220 BC) for decoration on mirrors. With four groups of figures, this mirror tells the story of a decisive episode during the years of epic war between two powerful states in southeast China – Wu and Yue in the period between 770–476 BC.

Circular bronze mirror depicting scenes from a war
Chinese bronze mirror telling the story of a decisive episode during an epic war between the states of Wu and Yue.

The figure on the left that seems to be in both deep grief and indignation (with his wide open eyes and mouth and flying beard) is Wu Zixu, a heroic general of the Wu state. He is shown holding a blade committing suicide and the reason why is revealed in the other three quarters of the mirror.

Wu Zixu commits suicide with a sword
Detail showing Wu Zixu committing suicide.

After years of conflict, king of the Yue state and his minister (the two figures to the left of Wu Zixu) come up with an idea to compromise the Wu state, by sending beautiful women to the king of Wu. The beautiful Yue girls were accepted by the Wu king, who sits in his throne flanked and backed with finely decorated panels, while shaking his hands to decline Wu Zixu's advice to reject the Yue girls. As Wu Zixu protests, he was given a sword by the Wu king and ordered to commit suicide for offending his king.

The dreadful death of this loyal general also signals the inevitable fate of the Wu state. With its king and other offices being corrupted, the state was finally annexed by the Yue in 473 BC, just nine years after the death of Wu Zixu.

Carved limestone panel from the Great Shrine of Amaravati

Among the most important works of ancient Buddhist literature are the stories of 550 previous lives of the Buddha, known as the jātakas.

In these stories, the Buddha takes various forms such as selfless kings, dutiful sons and in some cases animals such as elephants, monkeys and goats. With parallels to the fables of Aesop, the jātakas offered moral guidance to the masses, whilst illustrating Buddhist teachings in compelling and dramatic ways. The culmination of the jātakas was the Buddha’s final existence as Prince Siddhartha Gautama, which preceded his eventual enlightenment.

Carved limestone panel showing the Buddha’s conception and birth
Carved limestone panel showing the Buddha’s conception and birth.

One example of the Buddha’s final jātaka is a carved limestone panel from the Great Shrine of Amaravati, which was one of the oldest, largest and most important Buddhist monuments in ancient India, founded around 200 BC in what is now the state of Andhra Pradesh in the south east of India.

The panel dates to the first century AD, when depictions of the Buddha remained ‘aniconic’ (not portrayable in human form). It presents a narrative of his conception and birth with scenes or ‘cells’ that can be read like a comic from upper-right to lower-left.

The Buddha’s mother, Queen Māyā, lying down, asleep, her bed surrounded by attendants
Detail showing the Buddha’s mother, Queen Māyā dreaming of a white elephant, representing the Buddha’s conception.

The first scene on the upper-right depicts the Buddha’s mother, Queen Māyā, blissfully dreaming of a white elephant entering her side, representing the Buddha’s conception. When hearing of this, the king demands the dream to be interpreted by the court sage, who predicts the child will grow up either to become a great emperor or a great spiritual leader. This can be seen in the cell on the upper-left.

Moving chronologically to the lower-right, Prince Siddhartha; the Buddha to-be, is born immaculately from Queen Māyā's side as she holds the branch of a tree, in the presence of the four Dikpāla (guardian figures) who each hold a cloth on which the tiny footprints can be seen – a subtle but clear aniconic depiction of the Buddha’s first steps. (The tiny footprints of the Buddha are visible only when viewed very close up, so try and find them when you next visit the Museum.)

Queen Maya gives birth to the Buddha to-be through the side of her body, surrounded by attendants
Scene showing the Buddha to-be, being born immaculately from Queen Māyā’s side.

In the final scene on the lower-left, the cloth is presented by Queen Māyā to a tutelary deity who pays tribute to it with the gesture of Anjali Mudra, his head bowed reverentially with palms pressed together in respect.

Casket showing the Passion cycle

These four ivory panels once formed sides of a square box, probably made in Rome in the first half of the fifth century AD. A condensed story of seven separate events unfolded on its surface. Each plaque formed part of a Passion cycle, focused on the last days of Christ.

Four scenes from the life of Jesus Christ carved from ivory
The four panels, which originally made up the casket, depicting scenes of the passion of Christ: The Judgement and Denial of St Peter; the Incredulity of Thomas; the Maries at the Sepulchre; the Death of Judas and Crucifixion.

The narrative begins with Pilate washing his hands (top left) and culminates with Christ’s appearance to the disciples after the Resurrection (bottom right). Jesus is the protagonist of every scene. On rotating the box, the setting would change almost like a film shot. Christ would first be seen carrying the cross, then hanging on it. After that, the tone of the narrative alters as compositions become simpler. We see women standing before Jesus's empty tomb and then apostles surrounding Jesus in the Incredulity of Thomas.

Artistic rendering allowed the story to be enriched with additional meanings. Placed at the opposite edges of the box, the images formed visual echoes and references – the actions of the disciple Thomas, ready to put his fingers into the wounds of Christ, replicate those of Longinus piercing the ribs of Jesus at the Crucifixion. In the latter scene, Christ is portrayed alive and with his eyes wide open, while the figure of Judas is hanging lifeless on a tree. The tree itself forms a visual parallel to the wooden bars of the represented cross. This attention to detail allows viewers even today to experience anew the well-known accounts of the Gospels.

Yaxchilan lintels

These relief sculptures, known as the Yaxchilan lintels, are from the ancient Maya site of Yaxchilán in the south west of Mexico. The sculptures were placed above doorways that led into a single space in a court building. They tell a short story about Lady K'abal Xook, who was a leader in the Maya community in the 7th–8th century AD.

The first lintel shows Lady Xook pulling a studded rope through her tongue and her blood falling into a bark-paper lined bowl by her knees as part of a bloodletting ritual. Lady Xook's partner, Iztaamnaj B'ahlam, stands nearby with a torch. Bloodletting was a common ritual among Maya elites to honour the gods. The glyphs (writing) carved into the image tell us that this scene took place in AD 709.

The next lintel shows the result of burning the blood-soaked paper. A serpent grows from the smoke and Lady Xook communicates with an ancestor, perhaps as part of a vision. However, despite seeming to follow on from the story in the previous lintel carving, this vision is dated back in time, to AD 681. The last lintel shows Lady Xook handing her partner a jaguar helmet, symbolising his endorsed rulership. The scene dates to AD 724.

To a contemporary non-Maya audience, this sequence will seem unfamiliar. However, their play on time in this narrative is moving. The sequences reminds us of the power of a repeated gesture and the timelessness of important cultural stories. The artist who devised this narrative made the works with a sense of the role ancestors play in our experience of the present and our imagination of the future.

Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most instantly recognised masterpieces of medieval art and an important historical source for the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, but neither is a tapestry or (in all probability) was it made in Bayeux!

It is in fact embroidery work, constructed of different coloured woollen threads sewn onto eight strips of linen. It is uncertain where the Bayeux Tapestry was made, but it may have been commissioned by William of Normandy’s half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, for the consecration of his cathedral in 1077. It was known to be in Bayeux in 1476, though forgotten from history until its rediscovery in the 1690s. Because of parallels with late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from Canterbury, it is thought that the embroidery was made there.

Soldiers on horseback, some carrying shields, galloping along during battle
Part of the Bayeux Tapestry showing the battle field at Hastings. Wikimedia

The embroidery, if designed by Norman men, is likely to have been worked by Anglo-Saxon women. It tells the story of the Norman Conquest from about 1064 – when Harold goes on expedition to northern France, joining William on a military campaign against a rebellious Breton lord. It then depicts how Harold claims the crown himself in 1066, leading his army to a bloody defeat at the place now known as Battle. Although sometimes seen as a work of Norman propaganda, it is fairly impartial – perhaps reflecting a time when the Normans were hoping to integrate with their Anglo-Saxon foes.

The cartoon-esque style of the Bayeux Tapestry resonates with the modern viewer. Although its depictions appear naïve, it tells a lively and entertaining history – with sex scenes, blood and gore. No wonder it has been imitated by cartoonists in recent history, especially by political satirists. Near on 1,000 years old, it is as sharp today as it was then.

The Bayeux Tapestry is not in the British Museum collection but the Museum does have a series of casts of the embroidery. Visit the Bayeux Museum to find out more about the Bayeux Tapestry.

Japanese handscrolls

Many people are familiar with modern manga, but the art form – with its expressive lines and images – is much older than you might think. Manga’s roots can be traced back almost a thousand years to painted Japanese handscrolls.

Monkeys acting out serious and comical human situations, some speaking or dressed in human costumes
The Tale of the Monkeys

Around the year AD 1200, a humorous, anonymous artist produced a set of painted handscrolls that show rabbits and monkeys bathing in a river, frogs and rabbits wrestling, and other scenes where animals behave like humans. Known as the Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals (Chōjū giga), this work is considered by some to be the foundation of modern manga. The Tale of the Monkeys made in the late 1500s shows monkeys acting out serious and comical human situations. It includes early examples of speech bubbles (fukidashi), and other techniques essential to modern manga – figures appearing multiple times within a single illustration, a strong sense of visual progression, funny details within a larger scene, and the dominance of visual action over text.

Discover more about narrative art in the Citi exhibition Manga, until 26 August 2019.

Supported by Citi.

Logistics partner IAG Cargo.