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Art and Architecture

Mesopotamian Art and Architecture

Babylonian art, Stele of Naram-Sin, Mesopotamian Art, Kassites, art of Mesopotamia

Deeper web pages:

>  Prehistoric Period

>  Early Dynastic Period

>  Akkadian Period

>  Neo-Sumerian Period

>  Assyrian Empire

>  Syrian, Phoenician, and Palestinian Art

>  Neo-Babylonian Period

Mesopotamian Art and Architecture, the arts and buildings of the ancient Middle Eastern civilizations that developed in the area (now Iraq) between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from prehistory to the 6th century bc. The lower parts of the Mesopotamian region encompassed a fertile plain, but its inhabitants perpetually faced the dangers of outside invaders, extremes in temperature, drought, violent thunderstorms and rainstorms, floods, and attacks by wild beasts. Their art reflects both their love and fear of these natural forces, as well as their military conquests. Dotting the plains were urban centers; each was dominated by a temple, which was both a commercial and a religious center, but gradually the palace took over as the more important structure. The soil of Mesopotamia yielded the civilization's major building material—mud brick. This clay also was used by the Mesopotamians for their pottery, terra-cotta sculpture, and writing tablets. Few wooden artifacts have been preserved. Stone was rare, and certain types had to be imported; basalt, sandstone, diorite, and alabaster were used for sculpture. Metals such as bronze, copper, gold, and silver, as well as shells and precious stones, were used for the finest sculpture and inlays. Stones of all kinds—including lapis lazuli, jasper, carnelian, alabaster, hematite, serpentine, and steatite—were used for cylinder seals.

The art of Mesopotamia reveals a 4000-year tradition that appears, on the surface, homogeneous in style and iconography. It was created and sustained, however, by waves of invading peoples who differed ethnically and linguistically. Each of these groups made its own contribution to art until the Persian conquest of the 6th century bc. The first dominant people to control the region and shape its art were the non-Semitic Sumerians, followed by the Semitic Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Control and artistic influences at times extended to the Syro-Palestinian coast, and techniques and motifs from outlying areas had an impact on Mesopotamian centers. As other peoples invaded the region, their art was shaped by native Mesopotamian traditions.

Old Babylonian Period

With the decline of the Sumerians, the land was once more united by Semitic rulers (about 2000-1600 bc), the most important of whom was Hammurabi of Babylon. The relief figure of the king on his famous law code (first half of the 18th century bc, Louvre) is not much different from the Gudea statues (even though his hands are unclasped), nor is he depicted with an intermediary before the sun god Shamash. The most original art of the Babylonian period came from Mari and includes temples and a palace, sculptures, metalwork, and wall painting. As in much of Mesopotamian art, the animals are more lifelike than the human figures. Small plaques from Mari and other sites depict musicians, boxers, a carpenter, and peasants in scenes from everyday life. These are far more realistic than formal royal and religious art.

Kassite and Elamite Dynasties

The Kassites, a people of non-Mesopotamian origin, were present in Babylon shortly after Hammurabi's death but did not replace the Babylonian rulers until about 1600 bc. The Kassites adapted themselves to their environment and its art. The Elamites, from western Iran, destroyed the Kassite Kingdom about 1150 bc; their art also displays a provincial imitation of earlier styles and iconography. Indeed, their admiration of Akkadian and Babylonian art inspired them to carry off the Stele of Naram-Sin and the Code of Hammurabi to their capital of Susa.

Article key phrases:

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