Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons
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Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.
Much of what we know about the Ancient Near East comes from its art. This seems kind of strange, doesn't it? We're used to learning about the history, politics, and culture of a place or a people through documents like papers or letters or books. But these didn't exist in the Ancient Near East, so we turn to another source: art.
Thankfully, the cultures of the Ancient Near East left us plenty of art, and it has proven very useful to scholars who are trying to understand the region's history, politics, and culture. Why? Because the people of the Ancient Near East were conscious of these elements. They deliberately included history, politics, and culture in their art and in doing so, they left us an important record about their lives and activities.
In this lesson, we're going to examine some art of the Ancient Near East that teaches us a great deal about the history, politics, and culture of the people who created it.
Writing is key to learning about any culture, and one of the oldest written scripts in the world was developed in the Ancient Near East by the Sumerians. Cuneiform, a writing system that used wedge-shaped markings in clay, captured the culture of the Ancient Near East in writing and often appeared on the region's works of art.
Cuneiform inscriptions appear on everything from clay tablets that documented business transactions, to relief sculptures and steles that explained the great wars and victories of kings, to religious art that honored and supplicated the gods. Cuneiform recorded the great epics of Ancient Near Eastern peoples, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, and made them into a form of visual art simply by merit of the uniqueness and creativity of the script's forms and symbols.
Cuneiform writing also records the famous Code of Hammurabi, which is a code of law issued by the Babylonian king of that name about 1780 BCE. The Code has come down to us inscribed on a 7-foot, 4-inch basalt stele, an upright stone pillar, that also features a relief sculpture of Hammurabi receiving the law from the sun god Shamash. Hammurabi's authority and power shines through the art as he speaks directly to Shamash and then lays down the law for his people.
The law itself, incorporated into this work of art, is a fine expression of Babylonian culture. It includes a prologue about Hammurabi and his role as the protector of the people and then details almost 300 laws that governed nearly every aspect of Babylonian life, from marriage and family to business and agriculture.
Ancient Near Eastern artists left behind other steles and relief sculptures that tell us a great deal about the history, politics, and culture of their region. These works of art captured important moments in stone: rulers' brave deeds, military victories, and the high points of the life and existence of the people.
For instance, the great Victory Stele of Naram-Sin was created by an Akkadian artist to document the victory of King Naram-Sin over the Lullubi, an enemy people. The limestone stele gives the most important place to the king, who, looking every bit the regal royal and representative of the gods, leads his army in a charge with his enemies quailing at his feet. The stele both commemorates the event and reveals the king's great power and eminence. It clearly informed other potential enemies not to mess with the Akkadians.
The Assyrian relief sculptures featuring King Ashurnasirpal II performed a similar role. Hundreds of reliefs once decorated the king's palace. The ones that have come down to us show the king as a military conqueror, as the mediator between his people and the gods, and as a great hunter of lions. These reliefs, which were carved during the king's reign in 883-859 BCE, are inscribed in cuneiform with the proud words:
I am Ashur-nasir-pal, the obedient prince, the worshiper of the Great Gods, the fierce dragon, the conqueror of all cities and mountains to their full extent, the king of rulers who tames the dangerous enemies, the crowned with glory, the unafraid of battle, the relentless lion who shakes resistance, the king of praise, the shepherd, protection of the world, the king whose command blots out mountains and seas...
The king was sending a strong message to friends and foes alike and, in doing so, left us some incredible works of art that provide a peek into his world.
Ancient Near Eastern rulers also showed off their power, authority, and prestige by sponsoring the construction of massive rectangular temples called ziggurats and lavish palaces. They wanted to claim and obtain the favor of the gods and show the rest of the world who was boss. In doing so, they left behind artistic buildings that have stood the test of time and provide important clues into the history, politics, and culture of the Ancient Near East.
The Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur is a fine example of one of these structures. This grand temple, constructed of mud bricks, rose up in a rectangular pyramid through three terraces to heights of 70-100 feet. The ziggurat was built about 2100 BCE to honor Nanna, the moon goddess. King Ur-Nammu also wanted to show his neighbors how powerful he was and how much the gods favored him. Today, the remains of this massive temple tell us much about Sumerian life and religion.
Several centuries later, Persians rulers of the Ancient Near East longed to exhibit their dominance and grandeur, so they built a colossal city called Parsa or Persepolis. Rediscovered by archeologists in the 1930s, the city was home to the elaborate palace Apadana, built by King Xerxes I, as well as to an enormous stairway that allowed nobles to climb up to the palace on horseback, three protective walls with ramparts, and several imposing doors and gates. Nearly everything was decorated with reliefs, columns, free-standing sculptures, and other works of art. Again, art and architecture offer a fascinating peek into a long-lost culture.
The art of the Ancient Near East teaches us a great deal about the history, politics, and culture of the people who created it. In this lesson, we've examined several works of art and architecture that give us important glimpses into the lives and concerns of the people of the Ancient Near East.
Cuneiform, a writing system that used wedge-shaped markings in clay, captured the culture of the Ancient Near East in writing and often appears on the region's works of art. It is prominent on the stele that records the great Code of Hammurabi, a law code given by the Babylonian King Hammurabi to his subjects.
Other steles, like the Akkadian Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, and reliefs, like those of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II, record important moments in stone: rulers' brave deeds, military victories, and the high points of the life and existence of Ancient Near Eastern people. They also send strong messages to potential foes, warning them not to mess with these powerful kings.
Finally, Ancient Near Eastern rulers exhibited their authority and prominence by sponsoring the construction of massive rectangular temples called ziggurats like the Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur and palaces like the Persian Apadana in Parsa. These structures, as well as the other art we've studied, provide a fascinating peek into the history, politics, and culture of peoples who otherwise would be lost in the desert sands of time.
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Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons