The city, the temple, and the palace complexes were all means to give physical expression to power. We begin to get a fairly complete building language-architectural vocabulary-from Mesopotamia. To begin...objects created 3000 years ago in Mesopotamia were never thought of as art objects in our sense of the term. Rather they were highly functional, utilitarian objects. Another example of this is the Ashante stool-it's very beautiful, but it's purpose is to sit on!!.
One thing you'll see is that the ancient Sumerians were concerned with some of the same things that occupy our minds in 20th century America.
Types of visual art in Mesopotamia:
Interesting web sites
Tell Asmar Statuettes (A TELL is an artificial mound built of debris left from an earlier habitation)
Tell Asmar Figures (2700 BC) - These are three-dimensional statuettes made of marble. The tallest figure is about 30 inches in height. He represents the god of vegetation. The next tallest represents a mother goddess-mother goddesses were common in many ancient cultures.
They were worshipped in the hope that they would bring fertility to women and to crops. (Another connection to African culture.)
The next largest figures are priests. The smallest figures are worshippers---a definite HIERARCHY of size. This is an example of ARTISTIC ICONOGRAPHY. We learn to read picture symbols---bodies are cylindrical and scarcely differentiated by gender, with their uplifted heads and hands clasped. This is a pose of supplication-wanting or waiting for something.
MESOPOTAMIAN ARTISTIC CONVENTIONS (A convention is art created in accordance with the accepted manner, model, or tradition of a certain people or of a certain time period):
Every element of the Tell Asmar figures except the faces is reduced to the simplest form possible. This stylized method reinforces the POWER of the faces. The figures are dominated by vast eyes-the eyes would have once been inlaid with colored stone or enamel.
These are not silent statues; rather they seem to speak as they stare open-eyed offering constant supplication to their gods on behalf of their donors. The figures were STAND-INS. These figures were part of a religious RITUAL of leaving stand-ins at the temple when a person was dead. The Tell Asmar statues were STYLIZED-with large eyes and in a pose of supplication-and they represented the HIERARCHY of the society.
OBJECTS OF STATE
The Standard of Ur 2500 BC
Standard of Ur: Scenes of Peace
Standard of Ur: Scenes of War
What is a standard and why is it an object of state? STANDARD literally means flag or banner. These are scenes that could have decorated a banner. The figures on this standard commemorate all aspects of life in Sumer...one side has soldiers in battle leading prisoners to the king...the other side has a king holding a banquet while commoners bring him gifts of livestock, produce and manufactured goods.
THE STANDARD OF UR dates from 2600-2500 BC and is about 18 inches long. This is the sounding box of a musical "contrivance" and is decorated with shell and lapis lazuli. The mosaic design of inlaid stone and shell was set in bitumen.
The Standard of Ur tells us that Sumer was a land of farmers. The great majority of Sumerians were farmers...the world's oldest agricultural manual is a Sumerian document that tells how to grow barley. Oxen were draft animals; their hides were tanned into leather. Sheep provided wool for a thriving textile industry.
A wealth of trade grew out of agriculture...merchants led caravans laden with barley and textiles to Asia Minor and Iran. They returned with timber, stone, and metals. The Sumerian craftsmen worked these raw materials into tools, weapons, and jewelry...and then they exported these items. NOTE: Art mirrors the culture and in the case of the Standard of Ur, the art almost gives a narrative of what the culture was like.
The king's court was luxurious and powerful. In order to regulate the booming business of trade and architecture, each Sumerian state developed a powerful government, run by bureaucrats and headed by a king. The king lived in luxury but he had tremendous responsibilities, too. He built temples, administered justice, and maintained the elaborate system of canals that irrigated the cropland. REMEMBER-the kings were elected at first and then the office became hereditary...the office took on such an aura of grandeur that the Sumerians claimed their monarchs were appointed by heaven.
The Sumerian Monarch's main job was to wage war. There was always conflict between neighboring city-states over land and water rights. Sumer had a specialized class of professional soldiers...and they were so good at their jobs that they helped transmit Sumerian culture into many other areas.
By looking at the Standard of Ur, you can see the conventions of Mesopotamian art
NOTE: Art mirrors the culutre and in the case of the standard of UR, the art amost gives a narrative of what the culture was like. Visit this site for more information.
We now move on to the third category: personal objects. You should probably put a question mark after this because there is so much we don't know about the use of these items.
Ram Caught in a Thicket 2800 BC
Ram Caught in a Thicket was made in 2800 BC and is roughly 18 inches long. First this ram is not really a ram. It is a golden goat. It was found in a Sumerian grave at Ur. The animal's head and legs, as well as the flowering tree, were made of wood overlaid with gold. His coat is of shell, his horns and eyes are of lapis lazuli. The ram is much different from the Standard of Ur or the Figures of tell Asmar. There is lots of energy and power in the bearded face, bright eyes, curling horns, and springing flowers. The ram may represent the god TAMMUZ-the male principle in nature. This figure is stylized in some respects, but the overall effect is one of life and energy.
REVIEW - What does the art of Sumer tell us?
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