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The History of Sculpture in the Middle East

Updated on March 26, 2013
Mesopotamian sculpture
Mesopotamian sculpture | Source

Mesopotamian

The great ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia—Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian—only occasionally produced sculpture of a quality comparable with the superb and sustained achievement of Egypt. Concentration on the development of a strong sculptural tradition was hampered by the unsettled political life of the region, by a rather pessimistic, joyless religious outlook, and by a lack of good, easily available stone.

The first Mesopotamian civilization, and probably the first of all civilizations, was that of Sumer, which was a region of city-states, such as Erech (Uruk), Ur, and Lagash. Sumerian sculpture consists for the most part of stiff, isolated figures, which are entirely frontal and are formed around a rigid vertical axis. The most impressive works are a number of statues of Gudea, a ruler of Lagash. They are compact, concentrated, and energetic. Their powerful, simple forms have been greatly admired by 20th century sculptors as examples of direct stone carving. Relief sculpture shows no evidence of a conception of spatial depth, but in at least one work—the victory stele of Naramsin—the composition is bold and original. One of the finest Sumerian sculptures, from Ur, is the well-known rampant goat and tree, constructed of wood, gold, and lapis lazuli.

Little sculpture of real merit has survived from the 1,000 or so years of the Babylonian Empire, which replaced the Sumerian city-states. The best-known work is the large stone stele of Hammurabi, which records that king's code of laws and is surmounted by a bold relief showing him facing the sun god.

The Assyrians maintained their empire by a rule of terror. Their major sculptural achievements were associated with the great palaces built by their autocratic emperors, such as the palaces of Sargon at Khorsabad, of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, and of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud. The finest works are the gigantic, powerful, human-headed winged bulls that guard the entrances of the palaces and the low relief friezes that occupy the interior walls.

The narrative friezes from the palaces of Ashurbanipal and Ashurnasirpal glorify the emperors, showing their cruelty and invincibility in war and their bravery as hunters. Assyrian reliefs have no spatial depth, everything being arranged in registers and flattened out to lie in the surface plane. They contain a wealth of detail about military life, but their main glory is their treatment of animals. Horses and lions, in particular, are represented with great feeling for their grace and strength.

The winged bulls, the larger relief figures, and the free-standing figures are rigidly posed and harsh, with an overemphasis on surface details at the expense of plastic form. In this aggressive art there appears to be no concern for the gentler aspects of humanity or interest in the female figure, which is so beautifully represented in Egyptian sculpture.

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Iranian

The Persian Empire absorbed Assyria and Babylonia and profited from their artistic traditions. The Achaemenid emperors built enormous palaces, the greatest of which are at Persepolis and Susa, and decorated their staircases and audience halls with splendid sculpture—stone columns topped by bulls arranged back to back, stone processional relief friezes, and brightly colored glazed brick reliefs. The conventions and general style of the reliefs owe much to Assyrian examples, but they are gentler and more decorative and graceful. This change of mood reflects the Persian rulers' more optimistic religion and humane conception of justice.

Steppe

The art of nomadic peoples, such as the Scythians, who roamed the steppe regions between China and Europe, is sometimes known as the "animal style." It is an art mainly of small portable metal objects—weapons, harness trappings, and ornaments—in which animal themes, treated with the utmost freedom, become a basis for complex, semiabstract designs. The influence of this art was widespread in China, Europe, and the Middle East. It is believed to be connected with the stylized art of prehistoric Iran and with the much later (first half of the 1st millennium B.C.) bronzes of Luristan.

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