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One of 18 Statues of Gudea, a ruler around 2090 BCE

The art of Mesopotamia has survived in the archaeological record from early hunter-gatherer societies (10th millennium BC) on to the Bronze Age cultures of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires. These empires were later replaced in the Iron Age by the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires. Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia brought significant cultural developments, including the oldest examples of writing.

The art of Mesopotamia rivalled that of Ancient Egypt as the most grand, sophisticated and elaborate in western Eurasia from the 4th millennium BC until the Persian Achaemenid Empire conquered the region in the 6th century BC. The main emphasis was on various, very durable, forms of sculpture in stone and clay; little painting has survived, but what has suggests that painting was mainly used for geometrical and plant-based decorative schemes, though most sculptures were also painted.

Before the Assyrians[edit]

The Protoliterate period in Mesopotamia, dominated by Uruk, saw the production of sophisticated works like the Warka Vase and cylinder seals. The Guennol Lioness is an outstanding small limestone figure from Elam of about 3000–2800 BC, part man and part lion.[1] A little later there are a number of figures of large-eyed priests and worshippers, mostly in alabaster and up to a foot high, who attended temple cult images of the deity, but very few of these have survived.[2] Sculptures from the Sumerian and Akkadian period generally had large, staring eyes, and long beards on the men.

Many masterpieces have also been found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur (c. 2650 BC), including the two figures of a Ram in a Thicket, the Copper Bull and a bull's head on one of the Lyres of Ur.[3] The so-called Standard of Ur actually a box of uncertain function, is finely inlaid with partly figurative designs (British Museum).

From the many subsequent periods before the ascendency of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the 10th century BCE Mesopotamian art survives in a number of forms: cylinder seals, relatively small figures in the round, and reliefs of various sizes, including cheap plaques of moulded pottery for the home, some religious and some apparently not.[4] The Burney Relief is an unusual elaborate and relatively large (20 x 15 inches) terracotta plaque of a naked winged goddess with the feet of a bird of prey, and attendant owls and lions. It comes from the 18th or 19th centuries BCE, and may also be moulded.[5] Stone stelae, votive offerings, or ones probably commemmorating victories and showing feasts, are also found from temples, which unlike more official ones lack inscriptions that would explain them;[6] the fragmentary Stele of the Vultures is an early example of the inscribed type,[7] and the Assyrian Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III a large and solid late one.[8]

Assyrian period[edit]

Assyria. Great King Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection

An Assyrian artistic style distinct from that of Babylonian art, which was the dominant contemporary art in Mesopotamia, began to emerge c. 1500 BC and lasted until the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC.

Assyrian relief from Nimrud, from c 728 BCE

The conquest of the whole of Mesopotamia and much surrounding territory by the Assyrians created a larger and wealthier state than the region had known before, and very grandiose art in palaces and public places, no doubt partly intended to match the splendour of the art of the neighbouring Egyptian empire. The Assyrians developed a style of extremely large schemes of very finely detailed narrative low reliefs in stone or alabster, and originally painted, for palaces. The precisely delineated reliefs concern royal affairs, chiefly hunting and war making. Predominance is given to animal forms, particularly horses and lions, which are magnificently represented in great detail. Human figures are comparatively rigid and static but are also minutely detailed, as in triumphal scenes of sieges, battles, and individual combat. Among the best known Assyrian reliefs are the lion-hunt alabaster carvings showing Assurnasirpal II (9th century BC) and Assurbanipal (7th century BC), both of which are in the British Museum.[9] Reliefs were also carved into rock faces, as at Shikaft-e Gulgul, a style which the Persians continued.

Assyria. Assyrian ornamental and sacred designs from reliefs and enamels; Brooklyn Museum Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection

The Assyrians produced very little sculpture in the round, except for colossal guardian figures, usually lions and winged beasts with bearded human heads, often the human-headed lamassu, which are sculpted in high relief on two sides of a rectangular block, with the heads effectively in the round (and also five legs, so that both views seem complete). These marked fortified royal gateways, an architectural form common throughout Asia Minor. Even before dominating the region they had continued the cylinder seal tradition with designs which are often exceptionally energetic and refined.[10] At Nimrud the carved Nimrud ivories and bronze bowls were found that are decorated in the Assyrian style but were produced in several parts of the Near East including many by Phoenician and Aramaean artisans.

The reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

The Assyrian form of the winged genie influenced Ancient Greek art, which in its "orientalizing period" added various winged mythological beasts including the Chimera, the Griffin or Pegasus and, in the case of the "winged man", Talos.[11]

Neo-Babylonian period[edit]

The famous Ishtar Gate, part of which is now reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, was the main entrance into Babylon, built in about 575 BC by Nebuchadnezzar II, the king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire who exiled the Jews. The walls surrounding the entrance way are decorated with rows of large relief animals in glazed brick, which has therefore retained its colours. Lions, dragons and bulls are represented. The gate was part of a much larger scheme for a processional way into the city, from which there are sections in many other museums.[12] Large wooden gates throughout the period were strengthened with large metal bands, often decorated with reliefs, several of which have survived.

Other traditional types of art continued to be produced - the Neo-Babylonians were very keen to stress their ancient heritage - and after Mesopotamia fell to the Persian Achaemenid Empire, which had much simpler artistic traditions, Mesopotamian art was, with Ancient Greek art, the main influence on the cosmopolitan Achaemenid style that emerged,[13] and many ancient elements were retained in the area even in the Hellenistic art that succeeded the conquest of the region by Alexander the Great.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Frankfort, 24–37
  2. ^ Frankfort, 45–59
  3. ^ Frankfort, 61–66
  4. ^ Frankfort, Chapters 2–5
  5. ^ Frankfort, 110–112
  6. ^ Frankfort, 66–74
  7. ^ Frankfort, 71–73
  8. ^ Frankfort, 66–74; 167
  9. ^ Frankfort, 141–193
  10. ^ Frankfort, 141–193
  11. ^ Frankfort, 205
  12. ^ Frankfort, 203–205
  13. ^ Frankfort, 348-349


  • Frankfort, Henri, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, Pelican History of Art, 4th ed 1970, Penguin (now Yale History of Art), ISBN 0140561072

Further reading[edit]

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