Art of Mesopotamia

Tell Asmar Hoard statue of worshipper, 2750-2600 BC
"War"-panel of the Standard of Ur, c. 2600 BC, showing parading men, animals and chariots

The art of Mesopotamia has survived in the archaeological record from early hunter-gatherer societies (10th millennium BC) through 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 rivaled 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 durable forms of sculpture in stone and clay; little painting has survived, but what does exist suggests that, with some exceptions,[1] painting was mainly used for geometrical and plant-based decorative schemes. Most sculptures were painted as well. Cylinder seals have survived in large numbers, many including complex and detailed scenes despite their small size.

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 art was religious and some apparently not.[2] Favorite subjects include deities, alone or with worshippers, and animals in several types of scenes: repeated in rows, single, fighting each other or a human, confronted animals by themselves or flanking a human or god in the Master of Animals motif, or a Tree of Life.[3]

Stone stelae, votive offerings, or ones probably commemorating victories and showing feasts, are also found from temples, which unlike more official ones lack inscriptions that would explain them;[4] the fragmentary Stele of the Vultures is an early example of the inscribed type,[5] and the Assyrian Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III a large and well preserved late one.[6]


Uruk periodEdit

Cylinder seal with serpopards, c. 3000 BC, Uruk

The Protoliterate, or Uruk period, named after the city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia, (ca. 4000 to 3100 BC) existed from the protohistoric Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age period, following the Ubaid period and succeeded by the Jemdet Nasr period generally dated to 3100–2900 BC.[7] It saw the emergence of urban life in Mesopotamia, the beginnings of Sumerian civilization,[8] and also the first "great creative age" of Mesopotamian art.[9] Slightly earlier, the northern city of Tell Brak, today in Syria, also saw urbanization, and the development of a temple with regional significance. This is called the Eye Temple after the many "eye idols", in fact votive offerings, found there, a type distinctive to this site. The stone Tell Brak Head, 7 inches high, shows a simplified face; similar heads are in gypsum. These were evidently fitted to bodies that have not survived, probably of wood.[10] Like temples further south, the Eye Temple was decorated with cone mosaics made up of clay cylinders some four inches long, differently coloured to create simple patterns.[11]

Significant works from the southern cities in Sumer proper including the Mask of Warka, Warka Vase, and Uruk Trough display complex multi-figured scenes of humans and animals. An eye-catching, life-size marble mask from Uruk, The Mask of Warka, could depict a temple goddess. Shells may have served as the whites of the eyes, and the lapis lazuli, a beautiful, blue semi-precious gemstone, may have formed the pupils.[12] This is a more realistic head than the Tell Brak examples, like them made to top a wooden body; what survives of this is only the basic framework, to which coloured inlays, gold leaf hair, paint and jewelry were added.[13] The Guennol Lioness is an exceptionally powerful small figurine of a lion-headed monster,[14] perhaps from the start of the next period.

There are a number of stone or alabaster vessels carved in deep relief, and stone friezes of animals, both designed for temples, where the vessels held offerings. Cylinder seals are already complex and very finely executed and, as later, seem to have been an influence on larger works. For example, the “Warka Vase” exhibits a slim vessel carved from alabaster found in the temple complex of Inanna at Uruk. The bottom register displays naturalistic components of life, including water and plants, such as date palm, barley, and wheat. On the upper portion of the lowest register, alternating rams and ewes march in a single file. The middle register conveys naked men carrying baskets of foodstuffs symbolizing offerings. Lastly, the top register depicts the goddess Inanna accepting a votive offer.[15] Inanna stands at the front portion of the gate surrounded by her richly filled shrine and storehouse (identifiable by two reed door poles with dangling banners). This scene may illustrate a reproduction of the ritual marriage between the goddess and Dumunzi, her consort that ensures Uruk’s continued vitality.[15] Animals shown are often representations of the gods, another continuing feature of Mesopotamian art.[16] The end of the period, despite being a time of considerable economic expansion, saw a decline in the quality of art, perhaps as demand outstripped the supply of artists.[17]

Early Dynastic periodEdit

Cylinder seal with impression; banquet scene, Ur, c. 2600 BC

The Early Dynastic Period is generally dated to 2900–2350 BC. While continuing many earlier trends, its art is marked by an emphasis on figures of worshippers and priests making offerings, and social scenes of worship, war and court life. Copper becomes a significant medium for sculpture, probably despite most works having later being recycled for their metal.[19] Few if any copper sculptures are as large as the Tell al-'Ubaid Lintel, which is 2.59 metres wide and 1.07 metres high.[20]

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.[21] The so-called Standard of Ur, actually an inlaid box or set of panels of uncertain function, is finely inlaid with partly figurative designs.[22] One of the greatest discoveries in the royal burials at Ur, an elaborate lyre (or a type of harp) was created to lie over a woman’s body who likely performed with it during the funeral ceremony for the royal figure buried nearby. Similar to the nine other excavations of lyres by Woolley at Ur, the lyre’s wooden sound box disintegrated with age. However, located at the top of the alluring instrument, was an elegantly crafted bull’s-head coated with gold and a beard carved from lapis lazuli. In addition, a plaque of carved shell located below the head of a bull and veneered with bitumen still survives today. The top image illustrates a heroic man controlling two bulls and below this image, there are a series of three scenes of animals mocking daily activities of humans. In addition, the top and bottom registers are particularly alluring because they reference the Epic of Gilgamesh, a rich description of heroism as well as an attempt to question morality.[23]

A group of 12 temple statues known as the Tell Asmar Hoard, now split up, show gods, priests and donor worshippers at different sizes, but all in the same highly simplified style. All have greatly enlarged inlaid eyes, but the tallest figure, the main cult image depicting the local god, has enormous eyes that give it a "fierce power".[24] Later in the period this geometric style was replaced by a strongly contrasting one giving "a detailed rendering of the physical peculiarities of the subject"; "Instead of sharply contrasting, clearly articulated masses, we see fluid transitions and infinitely modulated surfaces".[25]

Akkadian periodEdit

The Akkadian Empire was the first to control not only all Mesopotamia, but other territories in the Levant, from about 2271 to 2154 BC. The Akkadians were not Sumerian, and spoke a Semitic language. In art there was a great emphasis on the kings of the dynasty, alongside much that continued earlier Sumerian art. In large works and small ones such as seals, the degree of realism was considerably increased,[27] but the seals show a "grim world of cruel conflict, of danger and uncertainty, a world in which man is subjected without appeal to the incomprehensible acts of distant and fearful divinities who he must serve but cannot love. This sombre mood ... remained characteristic of Mesopotamian art..."[28]

King Naram-Sin's famous Victory Stele depicts him as a god-king (symbolized by his horned helmet) climbing a mountain above his soldiers, and his enemies, the defeated Lullubi. The strongest indication that the stele is depicting a campaign to Cilicia is evidenced by the booty—a metal vessel—carried by one of Naram-Sin's soldiers. Completely foreign to Mesopotamia, the vessel closely resembles Anatolian crafts from Troy and Cilicia. These vessels—ceramic or metal—were produced during the Early Bronze III Period, which is around the time of Naram-Sin's rule.[29] Although the stele was broken off at the top when it was stolen and carried off by the Elamite forces of Shutruk-Nakhunte, it still strikingly reveals the pride, glory, and divinity of Naram-Sin. The application of hierarchical scale is used to emphasize Naram-Sin’s relative size to the mountain before him and obvious enlarged stature compared to the subjects below him, differentiating class status between Naram-Sin, Akkadian soldiers, and Lullabi enemies, which also reiterates the warrior as the a mighty protagonist.[30] However the more traditional horizontal frames are visible on smaller broken pieces. The stele seems to break from traditional Akkadian art style of layered registers by using successive diagonal tiers in step-like processions of Naram-Sin's soldiers up the hillside to communicate the story to viewers.[26] It is six feet and seven inches tall, and made from pink sandstone.[31][32] From the same reign, the bare legs and lower torso of the copper Bassetki Statue show an unprecedented level of realism, as does the imposing bronze head of a bearded ruler (Louvre).[28]

Among other artworks from the Akkadian Period is “Head of a Man,” a life-size, bronze bust found in Nineveh or modern day Ninua, Iraq. Experts speculate that the artwork reflects a generalized person rather than a specific individual and is suspected to represent Sargon himself because the piece is thought to date to the time of his rule. The intricate curling and patterning of the beard and the complex hairstyle suggests royalty, power, and wealth from an ideal male in society. Aside from its aesthetic traits, this piece is spectacular because it is the earliest hollow-cast sculpture item known to use the lost-wax casting process.[33] There is deliberate damage on the left side of the face and eye, indicating that the bust was intentionally slashed at a later period to demonstrate political iconoclasm. By selectively disfiguring the head, the offender uses symbolism to exhibit defeat and humiliation from a ruler once mightily portrayed. From one perspective, the gouged eyes and butched ears might have served to literally depict the individual’s physical state from an actual mutilation used as political punishment. Although it is unclear of who did this or where it occurred, experts speculate that this happened during one of the chaotic revolts during the Akkadian period.[34]

Between the Akkadians and AssyriansEdit

The Burney Relief, probably of Ishtar, Old Babylonian, around 1800 BC

The political history of this period of nearly 1300 years is complicated, including the Neo-Sumerian art of the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Isin-Larsa Period and First Babylonian Dynasty or Old Babylonian period, an interlude under the rule of the Kassites, and other periods. It ended with the decisive advent of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under Adad-nirari II, whose reign began in 911 BC. Life was often unstable, and non-Sumerian invasions a recurring theme. During the period Babylon became a great city, which was often the seat of the dominant power. The period was not one of great artistic development, these invaders failing to bring new artistic impetus,[35] and much religious art was rather self-consciously conservative, perhaps in a deliberate assertion of Sumerian values.[36] The quality of execution is often lower than in preceding and later periods.[37]

Gudea, ruler of Lagash (reign ca. 2144 to 2124 BC), was a great patron of new temples early in the period, and an unprecedented 26 statues of Gudea, mostly rather small, have survived from temples, beautifully executed, mostly in "costly and very hard diorite" stone. These exude a confident serenity.[38] The northern Royal Palace of Mari produced a number of important objects from before about 1800 BC, including the Statue of Iddi-Ilum,[39] and the most extensive remains of Mesopotamian palace frescos.[1]

The Burney Relief is an unusual, elaborate, and relatively large (20 x 15 inches) terracotta plaque depicting a naked, winged goddess with the feet of a bird of prey. She stands on the backs of two lions while two owls guard her right and left sides.[40] It comes from the 18th or 19th centuries BC, and may also be moulded. Experts do not know who the winged woman represents. However, they suspect the figure to be Inanna or Ishtar, Lilith, or Ereshkigal. The woman in the relief is perceived as a goddess because she wears a horned headdress of a deity and holds the sacred rod-and-ring emblem in both of her hands. She is most likely a goddess from the underworld, though, because her wings are positioned downwards and the owls beside her potentially symbolize darkness too.[41] Similar pieces, small statues or reliefs of deities, were made for altars in homes or small wayside shrines, and small moulded terracotta ones were probably available as souvenirs from temples.[42]

This was generally not a period of the highest quality for cylinder seal images; at different times the inscription took prominence over the image, and the variety of scenes shown reduced, with the "presentation scene" of a king before a god, or an official before a seated king, becoming the norm at times.[43] Especially from the Kassite period several stone kudurru stelae survive, mostly taken up with inscriptions recording grants of land, boundary lines, and other official records, but often with figures and emblems of the gods or the king as well; a land grant by Meli-Shipak II is an example.[44]

Assyrian periodEdit

Glazed terracotta tile from Nimrud, with a court scene, British Museum

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

Assyrian relief from Nimrud, from c 728 BC

The conquest of the whole of Mesopotamia and much surrounding territory by the Neo-Assyrian Empire 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. From around 879 BC the Assyrians developed a style of extremely large schemes of very finely detailed narrative low reliefs in stone or gypsum alabaster, 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 famous Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal scenes in alabaster, and the Lachish reliefs showing a war campaign in Palestine, both of which are of the 7th century BC, from Nineveh and now in the British Museum.[45] Reliefs were also carved into rock faces, as at Shikaft-e Gulgul, a style which the Persians continued.

The Assyrians produced relatively little sculpture in the round, with the partial exception of colossal human-headed lamassu guardian figures, with the bodies of lions or bulls, which are sculpted in high relief on two sides of a rectangular block, with the heads effectively in the round (and often also five legs, so that both views seem complete). These marked fortified royal gateways, an architectural form common throughout Asia Minor. The Assyrian form of the winged genie, winged spirits with bearded human heads seen in reliefs, influenced Ancient Greek art, which in its "orientalizing period" added various winged mythological beasts including the Chimera, griffin and winged horses (Pegasus) and men (Talos).[46]

Even before dominating the region the Assyrians had continued the cylinder seal tradition with designs which are often exceptionally energetic and refined.[45] 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.

Neo-Babylonian periodEdit

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

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 who exiled the Jews; the empire lasted from 626 BC to 539 BC. The walls, which surrounded the entrance and were decorated with rows of large relief animals in glazed brick on either side of the route, have retained their colours. The Ishtar Gate was part of a much larger scheme for a processional way into the city, from which there are sections in many other museums.[47]

The Processional Way, the route taken by religious processions honoring Marduk, the city’s patron, was paved with large stone hunks set in a bed of bitumen and up to 66 feet wide at some points. This street ran from the Euphrates bride through the temple district and palates and into the Ishtar Gate. The Ishtar Gate was the ceremonial avenue and was the emblem of Babylonian power as well.[48] Symbolization was a trademark feature of Babylonian art, and the lions, dragons, and bulls depicted on the gate were detailed to enhance the effectiveness of the intended motif. Through animal imagery illustrated on the walls of the Ishtar Gate, three deities were represented: the lion of Ishtar, the war goddess, the dragon of Marduk, the lord of the gods, and the bull of Adad, the storm god.[49]

The lion is pictured upon a blue enameled tile background and an orange colored border that runs along the very bottom portion of the wall. Having a white body and yellow mane, the lion of Ishtar was an embodiment of vivid naturalism that further enhanced the glory of Babylon’s Procession Street.[49] The lion served as a protector of the city as well as a guide for ritual processions through the city to the temple.[50] Large wooden gates throughout the period were strengthened and decorated with large horizontal metal bands, often decorated with reliefs, several of which have survived, such as the various Balawat Gates.

Other traditional types of art continued to be produced, and the Neo-Babylonians were very keen to stress their ancient heritage. Many sophisticated and finely carved seals survive. 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,[51] 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.


By some margin, the most important collections are those of (in no particular order) the Louvre Museum, the British Museum and the National Museum of Iraq. The last was extensively looted after the breakdown of law and order following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but the most important objects have largely been recovered. Several other museums have good collections, especially of the very numerous cylinder seals. Syrian museums have important collections from sites in modern Syria. The reconstructed Ishtar Gate in Berlin is arguably the most spectacular single work in a museum.


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Frankfort, 124-126
  2. ^ Frankfort, Chapters 2–5
  3. ^ Convenient summaries of the typical motifs of cylinder seals in the main periods are found throughout in Teissier
  4. ^ Frankfort, 66–74
  5. ^ Frankfort, 71–73
  6. ^ Frankfort, 66–74; 167
  7. ^ Crawford 2004, p. 69
  8. ^ Crawford 2004, p. 75
  9. ^ Frankfort, 27
  10. ^ Frankfort, 241-242
  11. ^ Frankfort, 24, 242
  12. ^ Stokstad, Marilyn (2018). Art History. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. pp. 29–30, 33. ISBN 9780134479279.
  13. ^ Frankfort, 24-28, 31-32
  14. ^ Frankfort, 32-33
  15. ^ a b c Stokstad, Marilyn (2018). Art History. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. p. 30. ISBN 9780134479279.
  16. ^ Frankfort, 28-37
  17. ^ Frankfort, 36-39
  18. ^ Stokstad, Marilyn (2018). Art History. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. p. 31. ISBN 9780134479279.
  19. ^ Frankfort, 55
  20. ^ Frankfort, 60–61
  21. ^ Frankfort, 61–66
  22. ^ Frankfort, 71-76
  23. ^ Stokstad, Marilyn (2018). Art History. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. p. 32. ISBN 9780134479279.
  24. ^ Frankfort, 46-49; the group are now divided between the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Oriental Institute, Chicago, and the National Museum of Iraq (with the god).
  25. ^ Frankfort, 55-60, 55 quoted
  26. ^ a b "Victory Stele of Naram-Sin | Louvre Museum | Paris". Retrieved 2018-11-16.
  27. ^ Frankfort, 83–91
  28. ^ a b Frankfort, 91
  29. ^ McKeon, John (1970). "An Akkadian Victory Stele". Boston Museum Bulletin. 68 (354): 226–243. JSTOR 4171539.
  30. ^ Stokstad, Marilyn (2018). Art History. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. p. 27. ISBN 9780134479279.
  31. ^ Kleiner, Fred (2005). Gardner's Art Through The Ages. Thomson-Wadsworth. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-534-64095-8.
  32. ^ Frankfort, 86
  33. ^ a b Stokstad, Marilyn (2018). Art History. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. p. 36. ISBN 9780134479279.
  34. ^ Nylander, Carl (July 1980). "Earless in Nineveh: Who Mutilated 'Sargon's' Head?". American Journal of Archaeology. 84 (3): 329–333. doi:10.2307/504709. JSTOR 504709.
  35. ^ Frankfort, 127
  36. ^ Frankfort, 93
  37. ^ Frankfort, 110-116, 126
  38. ^ Frankfort, 93 (quoted)-99
  39. ^ Frankfort, 114–119
  40. ^ Mark, Joshua (14 February 2014). "The Queen of the Night". Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  41. ^ Mark, Joshua (19 February 2014). "The Queen of the Night". Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  42. ^ Frankfort, 110–112
  43. ^ Frankfort, 102-126
  44. ^ Frankfort, 130
  45. ^ a b Frankfort, 141–193
  46. ^ Frankfort, 205
  47. ^ Frankfort, 203–205
  48. ^ Stokstad, Marilyn (2018). Art History. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. pp. 43–44. ISBN 9780134479279.
  49. ^ a b R.P.D. (October 1932). "The Lion of Ishtar". Bulletin of the Associates in Fine Arts at Yale University. 4 (3): 144–147. JSTOR 40513763.
  50. ^ "Panel with Striding Lion". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2018.
  51. ^ Frankfort, 348-349


  • Crawford, Harriet E. W. (16 Sep 2004). Sumer and the Sumerians (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521533386.
  • 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
  • Teissier, Beatrice, Ancient Near Eastern Cylinder Seals from the Marcopolic Collection, 1984, University of California Press, ISBN 0520049276, 9780520049277, google books

Further readingEdit