If prehistoric art pointed towards the need to survive, then the art of the ancient (but historical ) civilizations of the Near East point towards the development of urban civilization as we know it.
After the Neolithic period, societies formed with organized religions and governments, all of which were reflected in their temples and renderings of their gods, rulers, and laws.
The Sumerians were the first people to create written language, build the wheel and the plow, and organize themselves into a race of people. They were followed by others: Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, et al.
The Greeks (and subsequently the Romans) would borrow heavily from the people of Mesopotamia in creating their own art in the 9th and 8th c. BCE .
The art of the near east became what we know as Islamic art after the Arabs of the 7th century CE took control of the region.
Agriculture became the basis of wealth and kingships became the dominant form of government.
Religion was a part of every aspect of life for both areas.
Both Mesopotamia and Egypt were polytheistic societies, meaning they worshipped many gods, each with distinct powers and features.
Rulers identified themselves with the gods.
Soon, a need for a means other than oral communication to document and record important information arose and a system of written record was created. It is as this point in development that the paths of Mesopotamia and Egypt diverge.
very wealthy and had good agricultural resources which made the region a target of invasions and internal conflict
balance of power continuously shifting
art based on earlier Sumerian traditions
The Mesopotamian city of Sumer was a place of many firsts for mankind. The first known system of writing is from the Sumerians. It is known as cuneiform. Figures were drawn in wet clay tablets with a wedge shaped stylus. The first written words were in the form of pictographs , simple representations of the object mentioned (bull = bull). Later, pictographs evolved into more of what we currently think of as “written language” where symbols represent the sounds of the Sumerian language, these were called phonograms . Cuneiform means “wedge shaped” and refers to the shapes the stylus made in clay.
Uruk Period (c. 4,500 – 3,100 BC) Uruk was the first independent Sumerian city-state and was located in what is now modern day Iraq.
Carved Vase “Warka Vase,” from Uruk, 3,500 – 3,000 BC
This is an alabaster vase found in ziggurat that was dedicated to the goddess Inanna (Ishtar to the Akkadians) goddess of fertility, love and war.
The vase is carved in low relief and set in registers (horizontal bands). These carvings tell of the wealth of the Uruk. Also they are in hieratic scale. Hieratic scale is a visual devise that is used to tell who in the story. The largest person is always the most important person, as the size of persons become smaller so does their social status.
The iconography of these people is clearly understood-lots of vegetation, linked with the goddess Inanna, it is depicts the marriage between the goddess and a human to ensure the fertility of the crops.
Composite view- Figures show legs and heads in profile, the torso slightly turned and eyes to the front, all characteristics common in depictions of the figure during this period
Inanna accepting an offering from a naked priest.
Female Head ( Inanna ?) Uruk, Iraq ca. 3200 - 3000 BCE marble approx. 8” high Iraq Museum, Baghdad
Q 1.1: Why might this represent Inanna?
Q 1.2: How would this head have appeared in its original context?
Female Head, Uruk, 3500-3000 BC Sculpture was found in Cella- used as cult statue. Eyes and eyebrows were originally inlaid with colored materials and the hair was covered with gold/copper wig- the rest of the figure was probably made up of wood- (because of expense). It seems odd that the other features of the face are “off’ just enough to make historians believe that this was a true attempt at portraiture and not just a generic face from an artist’s memory image.
Each Sumerian city believed in a specific patron god. Near East monumental architecture was made for their temples. Religions and governments were the earliest patrons of the art and that is mainly reflected in the architect of those religions and government. One thing to keep in mind is that religion and government were often one and the same. So a temple was not only a symbol for the gods but also was meant to symbolize the power of the government. Early ancient religions were often polytheistic; they believed in more than one deity. In early Mesopotamia cultures each city-state had a protective deity and temples were built as houses for these deities. Anu Ziggurat and “White Temple”, Uruk (c. 3,500-3,000 BC)
Ziggurat (northeastern façade with restored stairs) Ur, Iraq ca. 2100 BCE
Q 9.1: What is this building, and what is its function?
Q 9.2: What are the noteworthy architectural features of the building and how do they relate to the building’s purpose? In other words, what is the relationship between form and function?
Ziggurat of King Urnammu, Ur, 2500 BC Mub bricks Bent-axis approach- the entrance faces away from the stairs- the worshipper must work to be able to worship- an angular spiral path Buildings called ziggurats served as a transitional space between people and their gods. We know nothing of the rituals performed in these temples. Ziggurats are stepped pyramids with shrines located on top. This is a good example of a load bearing construction that was developed in the Neolithic period. As the structure goes up the load becomes lighter, the base wider that bears the weight of the structure. As we can see in this reconstruction drawing for the White temple in the city of Uruk, its corners are oriented toward the 4 cardinal points. Statues of the deities were kept in the temple. Interior of the temples were divided into several rooms off the cella (open room) which contains the altar. The ziggurat would remain the main structure for temples and would only become more elaborate.
Ziggurat of Ur (South of Uruk) (c. 2,100 – 2,050 BC)
Dedicated to the moon god Nanna
Each of 3 staircases (each with 100 steps) converge at entrance gate.
These votive statues were found at Tel Asmar at the Abu temple. In this group the largest statue is nearly 3 feet tall. The purpose of these statues is that they may serve as surrogates for patrons/worshippers of this temple. Some of the statue do have inscription, some are holding a cup or flowers. Males are bare-chested or have very little covering on top and females are wearing a simple sheath dress and fully covered. The eyes are inlaid with black limestone.
The variety of size is probably on purpose. This is another example of hieratic scale. The largest could have been a priest for the temple or maybe a patron who gave generous donation or maybe an important political figure.
Please notice that certain style convention will be constant: large almond shaped eyes and exaggerated pupils, closed, cylindrical bodies, face tilted up, stiff postures, small mouth.
Forms based on cone and cylinder
Big eyes now interpreted as the eternal wakefulness needed to worship their deity.
Cylinder Seals are carved images represent the iconology of the Uruk culture. The seals work like an intaglio print method. The raised images are pressed across a soft surface.
Cylinder seals were used to identify ownership of items. After a system of writing was developed the seals would be used to identify and seal important documents.
The amazing thing is that this cylinder seals were no more than 2” in height. These seals are small (often 2 inches or less) stone cylinders with incised lines in the form of intaglio (a process where lines are carved into an object - the purpose of which, in the instance of seals, is to create a relief image)
Bull Lyre , from the tomb of a king of Ur, Ur (c. 2,500 – 2,400 BC)
The Bull Lyre sound box made from wood and decorated with simple geometric patterns on the side. In the center of the wood is the story of Gilgamesh (Scorpion man is from the Gilgamesh epic). We know that this is Sumerian because of the stylized forms of the people. However another popular Near East icon style is the hybrid human/animal. Animals on this sound box seem to have human characteristics: standing on 2 legs, the appearance of talking. The bulls head is definitely Sumerian (almond shaped eyes, curled beard, enlarged pupils) but there is that a sense of a more naturalistic appearance. Chances are this bull lyre was more than likely used for entertainment. Because this is made from precious metals and stones it would be considered to be used for royalty. wood inlaid with gold and silver, lapis lazuli (blue stone), and shell
Has four registers, or bands, set in a vertical line below the ornate bull’s head.
Standard of Ur (War side) Tomb 779, Royal Cemetery, Ur, Iraq ca. 2600 BCE wood inlaid w/shell, lapus lazuli, and red limestone approx. 8” x 1’ 7” British Museum, London
Consider the Bird Man with Bison image from Lascaux, which we considered as a possible early narrative in art. Now look at this piece and think about how it shows a narrative.
Q 3.1: Characterize the stylized nature of the figures in the registers .
Q 3.2: Where and how does the artist create a sense of depth in the images?
Standard of Ur (Peace side) Tomb 779, Royal Cemetery, Ur, Iraq ca. 2600 BCE wood inlaid w/shell, lapus lazuli, and red limestone approx. 8” x 1’ 7” British Museum, London
Q 4.1: How does the “Peace” side differ from the “War” side of the standard? What is the story being told here?
Q 4.2: Are animals portrayed differently from human figures? If so, how?
Q 4.3: Assuming that the figures portrayed are of greater and lesser importance, how does an audience know that this is true?
The Royal Standard of Ur, also called the Battle Standard of Ur measures 8.5 by 19.5 inches. It is made of wood and is inlaid with lapis lazuli, shell, and red limestone. The box has been restored due to deterioration over the years of the glue used to set the mosaic, and so may not be 100% accurate. The Sumerian army is shown in battle with four-wheeled chariots trampling their enemies, spearmen and other infantry. The panels also show prisoners taken before the king. These scenes are from what is usually called the "war" panel. The "peace" panel shows the other side of Sumerian life - a banquet with a musician playing the a lyre type instrument.
Sound Box of the Bull Lyre Tomb 789 (“King’s Grave”) Royal Cemetery, Ur, Iraq ca. 2600 BCE wood w/inlaid gold, lapus lazuli, and shell approx. 1’ 7” high University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, PA
This is the front of the sound box of the Bull Lyre. It is divided into registers .
Q 5.1: What does this animation of animals remind you of? Is there anything in our contemporary culture where we see this kind of anthropomorphizing of animals?
Q 5.2: What physical objects are evident in each of the registers?
Q 5.3: In the uppermost register, what is significant about the appearances of the animals and man?
The Akkadians elevated their rulers to divine status. This life size head of ruler is cast in bronze. The method is done in the lost wax method (cire –perdue). Notice the style convention of the area- inlaid eyes, eyebrows meeting downward over the nose, use of pattern in hair and beard, high cheek bones. But the interesting thing is that this more than likely an actual likeness.
Very detailed and elegant
Cast in copper, a complex technique.
Victory Stele of Naram-Sin Susa, Iran 2254 - 2218 BCE pink sandstone approx. 6’ 7” high Louvre, Paris
Q 7.1: What is a stele ?
Q 7.2: What narrative is being told in this piece?
Q 7.3: How does the artist compose the figures so that an audience understands the relationships among the figures?
Q 7.4: How does the artist incorporate landscape and skyscape into the work? What does its inclusion do to the meaning of the work?
Victory Stele of Naram-Sin c.2300-2200 BC Akkadians - after the decay of the Sumerian society (due to ambitious Commissioned by Sargon’s grandson Naramsin. A stele is an upright stone that was used to commemorate a person. This is a fine example how art is used to promote and solidify a ruler’s legacy. The artist employs hieratic scale, so Naramsin should be easy to spot. The king wears a horned cap, again in profile on top of a hill. The sun and stars above a meant to give the impression that he is under divine protection and guidance. His enemies fall in his presence and his soldiers follow him without reservation. This stele needs no words to convey the message that not only is Naramsin a powerful military leader, but also that his kingship is divinely sanctioned. rulers trying to conquer each other)- nomadic people moved in from the Near East
Hieratic scale : The size of Naramsin indicates his perceived importance.
Only celestial bodies are above him in importance.
Naramsin's stele depicts the king's defeat of the Lullubi peoples of present-day Iran.
Some think that the two depicted stars represent the dieties Shamash (the primary diety for the Akkadians) and Ishtar (the goddess of love, marriage, beauty and war). These stars could indicate the gods' favorable view of Naramsin.
Head of Gudea, c.2150 BC By 2180 BCE, Akkad would lose their territories to a mountain people called the Guti. The only city state that would remain independent of the Guti would be Lagash. Gudea was the leader of the city of Lagash, and during his reign he would initiate building projects that would restore the temples. Gudea’s image would be immortalized in statues. However his image would convey a different sort of kingship as oppose to Naramsin.
This a depiction of more humbled image of a leader. The figure is stiff but that may be more about the stone that was used to make the statue. Diorite is a hard dark stone, not easily to carve from so the closed form maybe more about the materials (something to keep in mind is that the materials will often dictate the style of the object). Also notice that the representation of Gudea is more youthful and naturalistic. His clasp hands give him the sense that this was a pious man, who was in service to the gods. Gudea was not elevated to god like status unlike the Akkadian rulers, but was considered an intermediary for the gods. He is seen either standing or sitting, hands clasps, with a slight smile. His wide open eyes gives the impression that he is aware and in awe of his position. Even though Gudea is not seen as a god, he still needs to let his people know that he is divinely chosen to be leader. On the lap of the seated Gudea is the plan for the temple.
Stele with the law code of Hammurabi Susa, Iran ca. 1780 BCE basalt 7’ 4” high Louvre, Paris
Q 11.1: What is the narrative portrayed at the top of the stele?
Q 11.2: Write down five laws that you think have directly affected our own laws?
Q 11.3: What do the bulk of the laws concern?
The Amorites were from Arabia who spoke a Semitic language. They would call the capital city Babylon and this would be the beginning of the Old Babylon period. The most famous of the Amorite kings was Hammurabi. Mostly known as the one to actually write down a on a black basalt stele. The law is written in Akkadian in 51 cuneiform columns. The stele shows the Amorite king Hammurabi receiving the laws (that are meant to show that the law was divinely inspired) from the Akkadian god Shamash who is the god of sun and justice.
Shamash is seated in profile and is shown with lightening bolts radiating from his shoulders. Hammurabi receives the law on a mountain top from Shamash. Hammurabi and Shamash are shown eye level to each other, but we are made aware that Shamash is seated therefore would be taller than Hammurabi. Hieratic scale is used but at the same time Hammurabi does allow himself to he seen on equal footing (literally and figuratively) as a god.1760-1600 BC- power was controlled by the Babylonians
Hammurabi’s Code- earliest form of written law
Very high relief
Eyes are in the round- establishes the relationship between god and man
Entire Stele is 7 ft. tall
Lamassu (winged, human-headed bull) from the Citadel of Sargon II Dur Sharrukin, Iraq ca. 720 - 705 BCE limestone approx. 13’ 10” high Louvre, Paris
Q 13.1: What makes the lamassu so threatening? Consider all its attributes.
Q 13.2: In what ways does the artist adopt a descriptive (versus optical) view of this beast?
Q 13.3: What repeated motifs do we see in how this and other figures/animals are represented in this geographical area and time period?
Lamassu , Palace of Assurnasipal II, Nimrud (c. 883 – 859 BC), limestone.
The Assyrians architecture focused less on religious structures and more on palace complexes and fortifying the city. Entering the palace complex the visitors would not only pass the relief on the wall, but as the visitor approached the throne room they were confronted by a Lamassu– human headed winged lion. Lamassu were divine beings that were animal/ human hybrid. As the visitor approaches from the front this creature appears to be just to stand, but as the visitors moves to its side the Lamassu appears to walk with them. Also the fact that it is double the size of the average male is meant to show the strength of the ruler.human-headed winged lion
The Kings power was symbolized by stone Lamassu who were monumental guardians that stood at the entrance of palaces.
Ashurbanipal hunting lions (relief from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal) Nineveh, Iraq ca. 645- 640 BCE gypsum 5’ 4” high British Museum, London
Q 14.1: What is the content of this relief? What is the narrative?
Q 14.2: Who is the main figure and how is he portrayed?
Q 14.3: Count the number of dead animals. How many are there?
Q 14.4: How does the artist render the animals, and why does he make them appear as such?
The Assyrians definitely used art to promote and establish their military power. They would decorate their palaces and citadels with relief of military conquest. They would also show the king at leisure. Lion hunting was a favorite past time. Many of the walls of the palace were decorated with relief of hunting with bow and arrows. The Assyrians often showed their enemies (whether an opposing army or an animal) as muscular and strong. The Assyrians, from the art left behind, more than likely saw themselves as a formable power that was emphasize by making their enemies and prey as just as ferocious. Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions (Lion Hunt) relief from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik), Iraq Culture: Assyrian ca. 645-640 BCE British Museum, London
The gate was the ceremonial entrance into Babylon. The gate has been restored and placed in a museum The gate has a rounded archway that is flanked by 2 crenellated towers. The brick is faced with glazed bricks that have alternating images of bulls and dragons (dragons were the symbol for the god of the city, Marduk). Created under Nebuchadnezzar who reigned in Babylon from 605 – 526 BC
Palace of Darius and Xerxes Persepolis, Iran c. 500 BC By the end of the 6th century the Persians would rule Mesopotamia. Persia would become the largest empire in the ancient world. This dynasty was influenced by the Assyrians and their idea of kingship.. The Persians built no temples, their religious ceremonies were outdoors. The palace of Persepolis was initiated by Darius I. The structure that is the most impressive of the palace in Persepolis is the Apadana hall of Darius I. The Apadana is an audience hall that is located on the 2nd terrace. There are open porches on three sides with a square hall in the center. Xerxes would finish the complex and build his own palace. The imperial complex is laid out in a grid; Xerxes will enlarge treasury and will begin the Hall of 100 Columns.
Columns were used on a grand scale- Egyptian influence
Use of the motif of animals everywhere
Bull Capital From Darius I Palace Capital of a column of the Audience Chamber (Apadana) in the palace of Darius I. Susa Archaeologists estimate that it could accommodate 10,000 people. Massive stone columns supported the Apadana’s roof. 36 were interior columns and another 36 supported verandas on three sides of the building. Thirteen of these 72 columns remain standing today. Each column rose nearly 20 m (66 ft) high and had vertical channels called fluting carved into it to emphasize this height. At the top of the columns were capitals elaborately decorated with plant forms, scrolls, and double-headed animals. The animals supported wooden roof beams on their backs. Traces of paint found on column bases and other remains suggest that the room was originally brightly colored.
Palace of Darius and Xerxes Persepolis, Iran c. 500 BC
Babylon became huge empire-included Egypt and Asia Minor- only toppled by Alexander the Great (331 BC)
Religion was Zoroastrianism- altars were in open air so no religious architecture was created
Secular palaces instead
Two monumental stairways, on the north and on the east, give access. They are adorned with rows of beautifully executed reliefs showing scenes from the New Year's festival and processions of representatives of twenty-three subject nations of the Achaemenid Empire, with court notables and Persians and Medes, followed by soldiers and guards, their horses, and royal chariots. Delegates in their native attire, some completely Persian in style, carry gifts as token of their loyalty and as tribute to the king. These gifts include silver and gold vessels and vases, weapons, woven fabrics, jewelry, and animals from the delegates' own countries. Although the overall arrangement of scenes seems repetitive, there are marked differences in the designs of garments, headdresses, hair styles, and beards that give each delegation its own distinctive character and make its origin unmistakable. Persian relief sculptures have a more rounded Edges when compared to earlier Mesopotamian work.