Ancient Babylonian Art

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

'An eye for an eye,' the old saying goes. But how does this relate to art of the ancient world? Did you know that it is carved on a piece of ancient Babylonian sculpture? In this lesson, learn about ancient Babylonian art.

The Kingdom of Babylonia

Before we discuss the art, let's define geography and time period. The Babylonians were people who lived in ancient Mesopotamia, a region in the Ancient Near East on the upper eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It included much of present-day today Iraq.

Map of Babylonia
Mesopotamia around time of Hammurabi

After 1900 BC, members of people from tribes like the Ammonites and Akkadians came to Mesopotamia and gained control of the region over the Sumerians, who then inhabited it. These tribes built an empire with its principal city of Babylon, hence the name Babylonians. One of their most powerful leaders was Hammurabi (1792 - 1750 BC), a king who conquered most of Mesopotamia and ruled Babylon at its height of power. He outlined a series of 282 laws that became known as Hammurabi's Code, which included the familiar adage ''an eye for an eye.''

Art and Law

How is Hammurabi connected to Babylonian art? He had his laws inscribed onto a stele, a column erected for memorial or ceremonial purposes. In this case, it was a seven-foot high column of dark basalt, a type of volcanic stone.

Stele with Hammurabi Code
Hammurabi stele

This stele is a fascinating combination of art, literature, and law. It was done in cuneiform writing, a series of slashes and symbols cut into the stone with a sharp angled tool. At the stele's top, a relief sculpture (raised from the surface but attached in the back) depicts the king receiving the laws from the seated Shamash, one of the powerful gods of the ancient world. Both figures are portrayed from the side in formal and somewhat stiff profile, with Shamash dressed in robes draped in tiers. This stele was created to be seen by people in a community, meant as a declaration of law and order. With its height and imagery, and covered in cuneiform, it would have been imposing to anyone who viewed it.

Babylonian Clay Art

The Babylonian people used materials available to them to make art, including baked clay tempered (made stronger and more durable) with binding materials like straw. They built buildings of clay bricks, and they made many clay tablets that held official decrees written in cuneiform. Other clay tablets and reliefs told the epic story of Gilgamesh, an ancient cultural hero and a character everyone at the time would have known. One fascinating example of art made of baked clay tempered with straw is the Burney sculpture, also know as the Queen of the Night. It dates from around 1800 BC and is done in high relief.

Queen of the Night relief sculpture
Queen of the Night sculpture

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