Ancient Near East

October 5, 2013 at 8:34 pm (Art History)

Ancient Near East Map

Ancient Near East Map

Civilization in the Ancient Near East began with the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  The people of the region established twelve or more independent city-states, which were ruled by combination religious and secular leaders or “priest-kings” and were each associated with a different deity (Kleiner 18).  Influence of these gods was crucial to daily life as evidenced by the White Temple of Uruk (ca. 3200-3000 BCE) and the Neo-Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur (ca. 2100 BCE).

White Temple, Uruk

White Temple, Uruk

These temples, as symbolic city centers, served as both city hall and religious “waiting rooms (19).”  The Sumerians believed that their patron deities would literally appear within the cellas, or central chambers, of these temples.

Ziggurat of Ur

Ziggurat of Ur

Opportunity for division of labor was made possible by advancements in agricultural development and trade with all of Mesopotamia led to the need for the first known complex writing system.  Cuneiform, a wedge-shaped, pictorial-based writing technique was developed by Sumerians not only to track commercial endeavors, but to record historical and even fictional accounts.  Cuneiform inscriptions on the Stele of Vultures (ca. 2600-2500) illustrate the victory of Eannatum along with a series of detailed reliefs, while the first known example of ancient literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh portrays the fantastic deeds of the title king (18, 22).

Stele of Vultures Inscriptions

Stele of Vultures Inscriptions

Flourishing agriculture and trade within the city-states had both positive and negative consequences.  Although there was great wealth amassed, wars were common.  Both of these themes are present in the Standard of Ur (ca. 2600 BCE), which was found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur along with many treasures and sacrificed human attendants, intended to “accompany the [wealthy individuals] into the afterlife (22).”  Another sign of immense wealth were the cylinder seals worn by significant persons and utilized as stamps of ownership.

Standard of Ur - War and Peace Sides

Standard of Ur – War and Peace Sides

Sumerian society differs from Neolithic culture primarily due to its specialization of labor, considerable wealth and establishment of writing, but another relevant divergence involves revolutionary artistic techniques.  Sumerians continue to exploit the Neolithic composite view of the human form; however they abandon the chaotic placement of figures in favor of a more organized narrative design.

Sumerian artists institute many artistic conventions, which are present in subsequent societies.  As seen with the White Temple, Sumerian architecture originates the use of a ziggurat to elevate their temples to the heavens.  They also introduce the bent-axis plan, featuring “two or more angular changes in direction (807).”  Both of these techniques are displayed by the great ziggurat within the citadel of Sargon II of Assyria (ca. 720-705 BCE).   Religious imagery dominated Sumerian art and the Warka Vase (ca. 3200-3000), which depicts the “presentation of offerings to Inanna,” demonstrates three artistic practices of Sumerian design—ground line, hierarchy of scale and friezes (20).  The ground line, a painted, or in this case carved, line functions as “the horizontal base of the composition (21).”

Warka Vase

Warka Vase

It is seen again in later art such as, The Triumph of Shapur I over Valerian (ca. 260 CE) in the new Persian Empire.

Triumph of Shapur I over Valerian

Triumph of Shapur I over Valerian

Hierarchy of Scale is a method by which figures of greater importance (i.e. rulers and deities) are pictured larger and higher than their insignificant counterparts.  Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanipal appears larger than his attendants in Ashurbanipal hunting lions (ca. 645-640 BCE), a relief exhibiting the leader’s military prowess and control over nature (33).  The Warka Vase also contains friezes or registers, a series of horizontal bands, creating a narrative.

Ashurbanipal hunting lions

Ashurbanipal hunting lions

This style persisted throughout the Sumerian age and was seen again with the Votive disk of Enheduanna (ca. 2300-2275 BCE), an Akkadian princess/priestess (27). 

Votive Disk of Enheduanna

Votive Disk of Enheduanna

Other examples of religiocentric art are the Statuettes of two worshippers, from the Square Temple of Eshnunna.  These figures “offer[ed] constant prayer” on behalf of their benefactors and featured folded hands, large “eternal[ly] wakeful” eyes, heads raised to the heavens and explicatory inscriptions (21).

Statuettes of Two Worshippers, Eshnunna

Statuettes of Two Worshippers, Eshnunna

Similar characteristics are found in the diorite statues of the Akkadian ruler, Gudea (28).  Three final Sumerian artistic contributions are displayed by the Bull-headed lyre found in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.  The sound box of the artifact expresses heraldic composition—symmetrical design elements on both sides of a central figure, composite imaginary figures and anthropomorphic animals.

Bull-headed lyre

Bull-headed lyre

Heraldic composition persisted into Ancient Greek art (Lion Gate, Mycenae ca. 1300-1250 BCE, 66) and beyond (to be discussed later), while composite imaginary figures were common in Mesopotamian art.  The Lamassu guarding the gates at the citadel of Sargon II were “winged, human-headed bull[s] (31). “ According to Kleiner, personified animals became a recurring theme in art throughout history.

Lamassu

Lamassu

Although Sumerian artistic principles were immortalized by later civilizations, these successive groups were often responsible for spontaneous creative innovations.  The Akkadian artist responsible for the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (ca. 2254-2218 BCE), provided a landscape for his figures rather than placing them in conventional registers.  The same artist broke tradition by rendering a human ruler as a god.

Stele of Naram-sin

Victory Stele of Naram-sin

From Babylonian art came a new attention to detail, as seen in the femininity and grace of the Statue of Queen Napir-Asu (ca. 1350-1300 BCE) and the first known attempt at foreshortening—using angle to create depth, demonstrated by the Stele with law code of Hammurabi (ca. 1780 BCE) (29).

Stele with the law code of Hammurabi

Stele with the law code of Hammurabi

Assyrian artists maintained the conceptual view of animals and figures established by early artists, but they attempted to add even more descriptive information.  The Lamassu are sculpted with five legs, “two seen from the front [and] four seen from the side […to] combine the front view of the animal at rest with the side view of it in motion (32).”  Assyrians also accomplished a level of “documentary detail” never before seen.  The Assyrian archers pursuing enemies relief for the palace of Ashurnasirpal II employs multiple points of view to communicate the most detail (32).  Art and architecture from the Persian Empire integrates stylistic components from all of its conquered lands.  The rounded, high-relief forms of the Processional Frieze (ca. 521-465 BCE) of Persepolis contain details characteristic of Grecian sculpture (35).  Throughout its evolutions, Mesopotamian art and society made a lasting impression on future civilizations.

Processional Frieze, Persepolis

Processional Frieze, Persepolis

Source:

Kleiner, Fred S.  Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.  Boston: Wadsworth, 2010.  Print.

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