Mesopotamian Art

Introduction

Summary

Summary of Mesopotamian Art
architecture ziggurats, Ishtar Gate
sculpture statues (notably portal guardians), wall reliefs

Mesopotamian Culture

Ancient Mesopotamia (which corresponds roughly to modern Iraq) was governed by a variety of cultures, including the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians (see History of the Ancient Middle East). From a broad historical perspective, these cultures are similar enough to be grouped under the overarching term Mesopotamian culture. The artistic traditions of these cultures may therefore be grouped as Mesopotamian art.

The fine art of Mesopotamia survives mainly in the form of sculpture (both relief and in-the-round) and architecture. Though the Mesopotamians also painted murals, none have survived.G51

Main Article

Mesopotamian Sculpture

Mesopotamian sculpture features a distinct stylized aesthetic (see Realism vs. Stylization). As in most of the world's traditional visual art, figures are typically presented either front-on or side-on. Simple textures are often achieved through repetition of lines or dots.

Many statues and reliefs were produced by Mesopotamian sculptors; perhaps the most impressive works are the majestic portal guardians. ("Portal" is an architectural term for "doorway".)

While portal guardians are three-dimensional at the front, their sides are only carved in relief.4 They take the form of animals (real or imaginary) or animals with human heads. (Animal-human hybrids are another common feature of traditional art throughout the world.G48)

Mesopotamian statue
Mesopotamian bust
Mesopotamian relief sculpture
Mesopotamian relief sculpture
Portal guardians (winged lion and winged bull)
Portal guardian (lion)

The Role of Architecture

The pre-industrial world featured three main types of large-scale architecture: palaces (royal residences), temples (buildings devoted to religious activity), and royal tombs. Often, two of these types (or even all three) were combined in a single building. In many palaces and temples, some rooms were used for secondary activities, such as commercial business, manufacturing, or food storage.

The architectural term complex denotes a cluster of buildings, which may stand separately or attached. A tomb complex, for instance, might contain dozens of tombs, as well as accompanying structures (e.g. shrines, monuments). A palace complex might feature multiple palaces, as well as administrative buildings (e.g. offices, meeting halls) and defensive structures (e.g. walls, towers).

Art and architecture were harnessed by all civilizations to reinforce the power and legitimacy of the state and its ruler. The sheer size of a city's buildings would communicate its might (to both native inhabitants and any would-be invaders), while murals and sculptures often illustrated divine approval (or even full-blown divinity) of the monarch. In many societies, the power of the monarch and priestly class was periodically reaffirmed through dramatic ceremonies conducted in the presence of monumental art and architecture.

Mesopotamian Architecture

As Mesopotamia is virtually devoid of stone, bricks (made from clay or mud) were the primary construction material.4 (Clay and mud are both a mixture of earth and water; clay is simply finer-grained.) Consequently, little survives of Mesopotamian architecture. Large-scale Egyptian and Greek buildings, on the other hand, were generally built from stone, making them far more durable.

The most distinctive type of Mesopotamian architecture is the ziggurat, a structure shaped like a stepped pyramid. A ziggurat typically featured little or no interior space, instead serving mainly as a platform for a temple. The exterior of a ziggurat was often decorated with glazed tiles, murals, or mosaics, and landscaped with trees and gardens.G46,1,41

Ruins of a Ziggurat
Model of a Ziggurat (note the temple at the top)

The two main traditional forms of building construction are post-and-beam (in which the roof rests on columns) and arched (in which the roof rests on arches). While stone and wood (both scarce materials in Mesopotamia) are well-suited to post-and-beam construction, bricks are not; consequently, Mesopotamian buildings were almost exclusively arched. This again contrasts with Egypt and Greece, which both favoured post-and-beam construction.

Traditional Construction Methods

One quality shared by Mesopotamian and Egyptian architecture was the flat roof, a common feature of architecture in desert regions (given negligible precipitation).38

The Mesopotamians erected many splendid palaces and temples, but showed little interest in monumental tombs (unlike their Egyptian neighbours). Within a Mesopotamian city, much of the architecture (including palaces, temples, and city walls) was often linked together, forming a vast municipal complex. The architectural bulk of a Mesopotamian city was relieved with spacious courtyards.D30

Reconstruction of a Mesopotamian Palace Complex
Rebuilt Ruins of Babylon
Rebuilt Ruins of Babylon
Map of Babylon (Neo-Babylonian period)

The greatest surviving work of Mesopotamian architecture is the Ishtar Gate, one of a series of gates that guarded the route into the heart of Babylon (during the Neo-Babylonian period). Coated in glazed blue tiles, the gate is graced with reliefs of lions, bulls, and dragons, providing a taste of the glazed-tile decoration that once coated large portions of Mesopotamian palaces, temples, and ziggurats.G125 Like other Mesopotamian gates and defensive walls, the Ishtar gate features a flat roof (upon which defenders could stand) edged with a battlement (a wall with regular gaps, providing defenders with shelter).

Model of the Ishtar Gate
Ishtar Gate
Relief Sculpture on the Ishtar Gate
Relief Sculpture on the Ishtar Gate
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