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Use of Naturalism & Stylization in Mesopotamian Art Video

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  • 0:00 Mesopotamian Art
  • 0:55 Naturalism in Mesopotamian Art
  • 2:20 Stylization in…
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the art of ancient Mesopotamia and discover how the styles of naturalism and stylization were used by ancient artists. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Mesopotamian Art

Art from a cradle is not something that we generally get too excited about. Art from the cradle of civilization, however, is the exception. Mesopotamia, or the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Near/Middle East, is often called one of the cradles of civilization because it was here, in roughly the 4th millennium BCE, that the first major Western Eurasian civilizations arose. Mesopotamia is also where some of the world's first settled societies developed in the 10th millennium BCE.

Mesopotamia has a long history, and that history has been filled with art. Most Mesopotamian art was focused on sculptures in stone or clay. These were durable and lasting, and show a diverse range of skills amongst Mesopotamian artists. These artists depicted the world as they saw it, but also used more abstract styles to represent cultural or religious ideas.

Naturalism in Mesopotamian Art

Much of the Mesopotamian art relied on naturalism: the realistic depiction of objects in a natural setting. Artists strove to recreate what they observed in the physical world around them. Mesopotamian artists relied heavily on two forms of sculpture to depict their world. First were free-standing statues, or carvings where the statue is not connected to a panel or wall. The other style is relief, where objects are carved or molded from a larger panel so that they stand out from the background. One of the common ways that reliefs were made involved the use of a seal, a cylinder carved with an image that was rolled across clay, creating the relief.

Naturalism in Mesopotamian art was used to depict recognizable objects or events. Certain people, such as city leaders or important battles, were sometimes best presented in natural appearances. Other times, naturalism was used to represent something that was common and important to Mesopotamian cultures.

For example, the Ram in a Thicket statue, made in southern Iraq around 2500 BCE, depicts a goat, an animal that was very common and very important as one of the main subsistence animals of the time period. By presenting it naturally, the artist communicates that this animal, as it naturally appears, is an important part of the culture.

Stylization in Mesopotamian Art

Of course, not all art is made to directly reflect the naturally visible world. Artists chose to stylize, or change natural appearances, for various reasons. Even most naturalist art is often slightly stylized. For example, statues of Mesopotamian kings, while appearing natural, often exaggerate physical traits deemed to be kingly, like muscles or a large beard. Other times, kings may be depicted as larger than average humans, to indicate their status as kings and even as gods. Check out the 3rd millennia BCE Akkadian Victory Stele of Naram-Sin. See that monstrous figure at the top, literally stomping on his enemies? That's Naram-Sin, King of Akkad.

The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin
Shot of the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin

Other times, stylization was much more abstract. Ancient humans were just as intelligent and conceptual as us and they used abstract art to emphasize emotions, ideas, or spiritual beliefs that went beyond the physical world. Look at these two miniature statues from ancient Mesopotamia. The one on the left is a woman, obviously abstract, that represents ideas of fertility.

Mesopotamian art used stylization
Mesopotamian figurines

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