Sumerian and Babylonian art

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Sumerian and Babylonian art, works of art and architecture created by the Sumerian and Babylonian peoples of ancient Mesopotamia, civilizations which had an artistic tradition of remarkable antiquity, variety, and richness.

See also Hittite art and architecture; Phoenician art.

Sumerian Art

The art of the Sumerian civilization, as revealed by excavations at Ur, Babylon, Uruk (Erech), Mari, Kish, and Lagash, among other cities, was one of enormous power and originality that influenced all of the major cultures of ancient western Asia. Their techniques and motifs were made widely available by means of cuneiform writing, which they invented before 3000 BC Poor in the raw materials of art, the Sumerians traded crops from their fertile soil for the metal, stone, and wood that they required. Clay was their most abundant native material, and its qualities determined their style of baked-mud building and the nature of their fine-textured pottery.

Sumerian craftsmanship was of marked excellence from very early times. A vase in alabaster from Erech (c.3500 BC; Iraq Mus., Baghdad) shows a detailed ceremonial procession of men and animals to the fertility goddess Inanna, carved in four bands on an elegant vase shape. A major peak of artistic achievement is represented by a female head, called Lady of Warka (Erech) from about 3200 BC (Iraq Mus.). It is carved in white marble with simplicity and subtlety.

The vast royal cemetery at Ur has yielded many masterpieces of Sumerian work. Outstanding among these are a wooden harp detailed with gold and mosaic inlay picturing mythological scenes on the soundbox, surmounted by a black-bearded golden head of a bull (c.2650 BC; Univ. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia); a gaming board of wood inlaid with bone, lapis lazuli, shell, and stone, mounted in bitumen (c.2700 BC; British Mus.); a ritual offering stand in the shape of a ram, made of silver, lapis lazuli, and mussel shells, rearing on his hind legs to eat from a tree of gold; and a splendid gold helmet fashioned from a single sheet of metal and beaten into the form of a head of wavy hair with a chignon at the back (c.2500 BC; Baghdad).

At Lagash a strongly modeled head of stone (c.2500 BC) portrays a Sumerian man, clearly representing the structural type of these ancient people. Its large and widely spaced features set on a heavy round skull are revealed in bas-relief and inlay work of the period. Examples of the famous votive stone sculptures of Sumer discovered at Tell Asmar represent tall, long-haired, bearded figures with huge, staring eyes and long, pleated skirts, standing rigidly with hands folded above the waist. Some are portrayed kneeling.

The ziggurat temple form was the most striking architectural achievement of the Sumerians. One ziggurat at Erech extended over an area of half a million square feet (46,500 sq m). It was set upon a mound, and the platform built to support its crowning shrine was 40 feet (12 m) high.

Among other Sumerian arts, one of the most sophisticated was the cylinder seal, a small carved cylinder of stone or metal that, when rolled over seals of moist clay, would leave the reverse image of its carving in relief as an identifying mark or signature. Used to mark documents and property, the cylinders were worn on a wristband or necklace during their owners' lifetime and were buried with them. A great many examples survive, bearing primarily scenes of religious ritual, often portraying the legendary hero Gilgamesh.

With the ascent to power of Sargon of Akkad, Sumerian art reached new heights of expression, particularly in sculpture. The greatest known examples reflecting that splendor include a bronze head thought to be a portrait of Sargon himself (from Nineveh, c.2300 BC; Iraq Mus., Baghdad), from which the gemstone eyes have been stolen, and the stele of Naram-sin, a triumphal relief showing the deified grandson of Sargon in battle (2261–24 BC; Louvre). The Akkadians spread cuneiform writing throughout the Middle East, and even after the destruction of Sargon's empire by invasions from the east in the latter part of the 3d millennium BC, Sumerian artistic techniques and styles exerted profound influence on contemporary and later cultures. The city of Lagash survived the invasions and was beautified by its governor Gudea with numerous works of art. These were carved of dark, hard diorite; many represented the dignified and serene seated figure of Gudea himself. Although most are small in stature, they convey a sense of grandeur and monumentality. After the invasions the glory of Sumer was revived from 2200 to 2100 BC During this period the great ziggurat of the moon god at Ur was built.

Invasions of Semitic peoples from what are now Iran and Syria ended the last Sumerian golden age. The site of Mari has yielded the most complete archaeological evidence of Sumerian civilization during that transitional time. The great Mari royal palace with its labyrinthine corridors, frescoed walls, royal residential rooms, courts and temple buildings, and scribal school containing more than 25,000 cuneiform tablets, reveal the brilliance of a vanished world.

Babylonian Art

In the 18th cent. BC, Babylonia under Hammurabi rose to power and dominated Mesopotamia. A diorite head, wide-eyed, bearded, and hatted, found at Susa (1792–50 BC; Louvre), is generally taken to be a portrait of Hammurabi. The surface is carved to show the marks of aging on a sensitive face. The great basalt stele found in Susa upon which Hammurabi's immortal code of law is inscribed bears a relief at the top showing the king himself before the sun god who commands him to set down the law for his people (c.1750 BC; Louvre). Hammurabi is also represented kneeling in prayer in a sculpture in the round that is colored green and on which the hands and face have been gilded (from Larsa; Louvre).

A sculpture from Mari of a fertility goddess (Aleppo Mus.), holding a vase from which water flows down her skirt, further attests to the genius of Babylonian sculptors. Several examples of terra-cotta plaques of this period in the Louvre depict scenes of Babylonian daily life, including agricultural pursuits and crafts such as carpentry. Babylonia was also a glassmaking center, but far less glass than sculpture has survived its destructive climate.

After Hammurabi's death Mesopotamia was torn for centuries by foreign invasions. For a time the Assyrian warrior people held sway and established some cultural coherence (see Assyrian art). One of their kings, Sennacherib, razed the city of Babylon. Babylonia was not to be reborn until Nebuchadnezzar divided the Assyrian lands with the Medes in 612 BC Under his rule the Babylonians developed to perfection one of their most striking arts: the great polychrome-glazed brick walls modeled in relief, the foremost example of which is the Ishtar gates of Babylon. These, produced for Nebuchadnezzar, contain 575 reliefs of lions, dragons, and bulls of superb workmanship (6th cent. BC; one lion exhibited at the Metropolitan Mus.).

The king's palace, with its courtyard and hanging (balconied) gardens (constructed more than a century before Nebuchadnezzar came to power), the Ishtar gates, and the royal processional road made Babylon a city of unrivaled magnificence in its time. Its artisans were able to draw upon materials and styles from an area bounded only by Egypt and India. The new splendor was short-lived; less than a century later Babylonia fell prey to more invasions, and the Persians, Greeks, and Romans ruled in succession. The great Mesopotamian civilizations eventually crumbled. They were forgotten until archaeologists of the 19th cent. AD began to bring to light something of their history and appearance.


See C. L. Woolley, Ur Excavations (1956) and The Art of the Middle East (1960); Seton Lloyd, Art of the Ancient Near East (1961); H. Frankfort, Cylinder Seals (1965); H. W. F. Saggs, The Greatness That Was Babylon (1966).