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history of mural cover image

Did you ever wonder how murals came to be?  Well, here’s a “Short and Sweet” history of the mural.

What is a mural?

The word “mural” comes from the Latin word “murus” meaning wall.  Murals are wall and ceiling imagery. Many murals are applied directly to the wall using paint or indirectly by applying a prepainted or preprinted image to the wall with an adhesive.  As an artist, I find the history of art, and in particular the history of the mural, pretty interesting.    I’d like to share with you the how and the why behind the evolution of the mural.  I promise to keep the history of the mural short so you don’t fall asleep!

Even a Caveman Did It.

Did you know that the oldest mural is 17,000 years old?  The caves in Lascaux, France house murals of animals and even stenciled human hands.  These “wish paintings” were to bring good karma to an upcoming hunt.  The Paleolithic cavemen created pigments from the earth and mixed them with animal fat to create a paint.

cave painting of an animal
Cave painting in Lascaux
from Flickr

Really, how cool is that?

Ancient Egyptian Mural Art

The ancient Egyptians told stories of their religion and history on the ceilings, walls, columns of temples and tombs throughout the country.  They used “hieroglyphics” which is picture writing.  These hieroglyphics were painted along with stylized gods, goddesses, pharaohs and queens to create walls that told stories.  Many years ago I was fortunate enough to travel to Egypt.  To see the preserved vibrant colors in many of the temples cannot even be put into the words you’re reading in this blog post.

egyptian wall mural
Ancient Egyptian wall mural
photo from historylink101.com

When in Rome or in this case, Pompeii…

Equally as beautiful and amazing are the ancient Roman murals, specifically in Pompeii, Italy.  Walking through the Roman villa ruins, you can see how the Romans created “windows” using murals and adorned complete rooms with hand-painted ornamentation.  Many of their murals show the beginning of illusionary art otherwise known as “trompe l’oeil” which means to “fool the eye.”  And can we talk about the wall finishes of Pompeiian red juxtaposed with greens?  Or, the garden murals painted on a blue background with a variety of colors and detail?  Seriously, they are that beautiful.

ancient roman wall mural of a garden
Pompeiian wall mural
photo from color-consult.com

Mosaics and Seeing the Light

Fast forward to Medieval times in the history of mural art: Hand-painted murals were created out of tempera paint using eggs as a binder as a paint.  The artist began adding gold leaf to his murals to mimic the light of heaven.  For example, holy figures had halos in gold leaf around their heads to show divinity.  Even though mosaics are a different form of art where images are created out of small squares of color, one could argue that mosaics were also a form of mural work in many byzantine churches. Could you imagine gold being pounded into sheets and then cut up into small squares??

A mural from the byzantine period
Byzantine mural
photo from brittanica.com

Science and Art Work Together

It was during the Renaissance that so many advancements took place in mural creation.   Many Italian Renaissance artists combined their interest in the sciences with the arts.  Perspective, proportioning, attention to human anatomy, realistic representation, plus taking into account the viewer’s point of view were some of the advancements artists made in the creation of large wall art.  In addition,  the artist paid attention to the architectural surroundings when planning the murals and quite often incorporated the architecture into the piece.  Artists incorporated faux finishes of elaborate marbles and stone into the mural.  Multi-layered narratives were heavy in symbolism and usually religious in origin.  And, if a wealthy patron commissioned a mural for a church, there was a guarantee that his or his family’s portraits would be painted into the wall painting.  In addition,  the interest in science also permeated into the creation of materials and application techniques.  Paint product technology improved and painting into wet plaster, also known as “Buon Fresco,” helped improve the longevity and durability of the murals.

Team Work

Artists worked as a team under the guise of a master artist. Murals were planned out and the outlined images were transferred to a wall using a grid method and a “cartoon” transfer method of replicating the drawings onto a surface.  The team worked together on one mural, working the pigment into the wet plaster.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling mural is proof of Renaissance mural artists’ accomplishments during this time.

mural on sistine chapel ceiling
Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Baroque Whimsy and Illusion

Baroque murals took the concept of illusionary art a step further with beautiful atmospheric sky murals loaded with cumulous clouds and playful cherubs.  These murals were surrounded by intensely detailed, highly ornate “frames” of architecture.  Baroque artists painted the murals on canvas with oil paint.  The artists then adhered the painted canvases to a wall surface.

ceiling mural
Baroque mural
public domain photo

The Twentieth Century

Mural art in terms of materials, styles, techniques changed yet again in the early 20th century.  Public murals became very popular.  The wall art spoke various political messages. And, because these murals were in the public arena, they were available for all to see.   Murals also served to beautify inner cities with messages of strength and hope.  Artists increased the variety of materials in their creation toolbox to include acrylic paints, spray paints, digital creation, photography, and multimedia.  The wide variety of tools have helped stretch the possibilities of mural creation.

mural of detroit industry by diego rivera
Diego Rivera
Detroit Industry Mural

And now…

There is such diversity in mural art today.   There are a variety of application methods, materials, and messages in contemporary mural art.  Social media has helped murals become more accessible to everyone whether the murals are in the public, commercial, or even private domain.  Mural artists create temporary murals, permanent murals, wallpaper murals, murals using lights, murals incorporating sounds, and even make murals interactive.

I am excited to see where the mural arts go from here.

Ta Da!

I hope you liked my little post about the history of the mural.  For the sake of brevity and for the sake of you, the reader, I do not have a fully comprehensive timeline of the history of mural art here.  As a result, I have probably left mural art created by other important cultures out of my discussion.  Hopefully this blog post will inspire you to look at examples of mural art on the internet to add another level of appreciation to the murals you see in your environment.

Here are some cool links to the history of murals:










Please feel free to add your thoughts or share mural art history links you have found on the internet in the comment section below.


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