Representation of Spiritual Beliefs in the Art of the Ancient Near East

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  • 1:12 Depicting and Caring…
  • 2:14 Kings and Gods
  • 3:01 Votive Figures
  • 3:54 Fantastic Beasts
  • 4:28 Ziggurats
  • 5:31 Art After Death
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

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.

In this lesson, we will learn how the art of the ancient Near East expresses the spiritual beliefs of the people of that region. We will pay special attention to religious statuary and ziggurats.

Spirituality and Art

Spirituality and art have always gone hand in hand. People with strong spiritual beliefs tend to express them in works of art and architecture, and the peoples of the ancient Near East were no different. In this lesson, we will learn how the art of ancient Near East expresses the spiritual beliefs of the people of that region.

We'll begin with a brief overview of ancient Near Eastern religion. Most ancient Near Eastern cultures were polytheistic. They worshiped many gods and goddesses, most of whom seemed quite a bit like mortal men and women. Gods and goddesses ate, drank, fought, married, and had children, but they also controlled natural forces like oceans, rain, and winds and therefore needed to be served and appeased by humans. Humans, led by priests, brought sacrifices to the gods, hoping to please them and win their favor. Although the various cultures had different names for their divine beings, the system worked pretty much the same throughout the ancient Near East.

Depicting and Caring for Divinity

Ancient Near Easterners frequently depicted their gods and goddesses in art. Relief sculptures, seals, vessels, and jewelry often featured divine beings who could be identified by specific characteristics or symbols. For instance, gods wore flounced robes and horned headdresses, and particular gods and goddesses were associated with particular symbols. Images of the goddess Ishtar often featured lions, while the sun god Shamash usually had rays arising from his shoulders.

Worshipers also approached gods and goddesses in the forms of idols, which were statues that were believed to contain part of the divine being's life force. Priests cared for these metal or wooden statues, offering them food and drink, washing them, and dressing them in lavish clothing and adornments. In doing so, they hoped to please the divine being and call down his or her protection and power.

Kings and Gods

Along with the priests, ancient Near Eastern kings served as mediators between their subjects and divine beings. In fact, some rulers claimed to be at least bordering on divinity if not actually divine. Artworks often show kings interacting with gods. The Babylonian Stele of Hammurabi, for instance, depicts King Hammurabi receiving his famous code of law from Shamash. Hammurabi, although standing before the god, is regal in his own right and able to communicate directly with Shamash to carry his will to the people. Other royal images portray kings with divine features or symbols that emphasize near-divine status.

Votive Figures

Even common worshipers were constantly concerned with keeping their prayers before the gods, so artists created votive figures to represent both male and female worshipers. These statues of limestone, gypsum, or shell with their inlaid eyes, painted hair, and attentive expressions and poses, stood before idols' shrines to remind divine beings of the worshipers' service and prayers. Votive figures are of various heights, from less than a foot to over 30 inches. Some look pretty natural, with normal human features; others are much more stylized. A few hold branches or cups in offering to the gods. In any case, the people they represented could be sure that if their votive figures were in place, the gods would hear their prayers.

Fantastic Beasts

Gods and goddesses weren't the only beings called upon for protection. Ancient Near Easterners believed in all kinds of fantastic beasts, some good and some evil. The good ones were often depicted in relief sculptures and jewelry and invoked as beneficent spirits. Evil creatures found their way into art, as people tried to pacify them or chase them away. Griffins, sphinxes, winged lions, and bulls with human heads often appear in ancient Near Eastern art.


Ancient Near Eastern life was permeated by spiritual beliefs, but proper worship was centered in the region's ziggurats, which were massive rectangular temples and were often works of art in their own right. Each major city built a ziggurat for its most important god. These mud brick structures rose in several steps or terraces to heights of 70 to 100 feet and featured lavish decorations, like painted frescoes, mosaics, sculptures, gemstones, metalwork, and woven cloth.

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