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Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

[From: Woolley, Leonard. The Art of The Middle East, including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine. New York: Crown Publishers. 1961.]

1.Geography and History --- 2.Elam --- 3.Sumer --- 4.Sumer and Akkad --- 5.Syria & Palestine --- 6.Hurri & Hittites --- 7.Anatolia

The Art of The Middle East - Including
Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine

Chapter Four

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Sumer and Akkad - The Sargonid Age and The Third Dynasty of Ur to the Time of Hammurabi
Notes for this Chapter

P E R I O D S:
Sargon's Dynasty [c. 2380-2223 BC]
Third Dynasty of Ur
Hammurabi


The success of the Amorite Sargon of Akkad in establishing his suzerainty over the whole of Mesopotamia must have had a profound effect upon the people, for art, not merely the court art of the palace but the popular art, undergoes a sudden and a drastic change. SargonÍs short-lived dynasty [c. 2380-2223 BC] has left few major monuments, but the cylinder seals are so numerous as to make comparison with the past as easy as it is informative, and for art in general the seals are an admirable criterion.

In the first place there is a change of subject. The ritual banquet scene preferred in the Early Dynastic period is dropped altogether: the 'Gilgamesh' motive continues; but there is now introduced a whole range of lively religious scenes, mythological subjects treated in a dramatic way. In the second place there is a change of style. In the previous period the gem-cutter overcrowded his composition, so much so that it was difficult, especially in the 'Gilgamesh' scenes, to disentangle the figures. In the Sargonid seals, which are often exquisitely engraved, the figures gain immensely in individual importance and acquire a new spatial value by being shown isolated against a plain background. Essentially this is pictorial as against decorative art. In the case of the 'Gilgamesh' scenes, where the subject is traditional, the contrast with the Early Dynastic seals is most obvious; each figure, whether of the demigod or of the beast he subdues, stands out as something having value in itself; and because it is not merely part of a pattern but the representation of real creatures it must be made as lifelike as possible, and therefore the modelling of the relief becomes much more intricate and naturalistic. With the mythological scenes the subject is necessarily more complex and the gem-cutter has to build up his picture with greater detail, and that within the narrow limits of his cylinder; thus in the Etana legend, a goatherd driving his beasts out from the byre sets the scene, the eagle carries Etana up to heaven, his fellow-herdsman looks up in distress, shading his eyes, his two dogs sit and bay the moon, and while one man runs to tell the news we have a seated figure with a row of vases which perhaps signify the farm. The story, so fully told, [p. 85] occupies a space only four centimetres by seven, but every little figure is clear-cut agaisnt the plain ground. On another seal-impression, 3-2 centimetres by 5.5, there is Enki in his shrine surrounded by the waters of the abyss, a kneeling figure embraces the buckled shaft which marks the shrine, and there are two solar gods, one perhaps the Akkadian Shamash, treading upon a lion climbs between the mountains, the other, perhaps the Sumerian Utu, mounts a ziggurat. It is tempting to think that such scenes as these are illustrations derived from the ritual dramas performred in the temples upon feast-days, for they possess all the assurance of things seen; they tell a story, and in order that it may be immediately recognisable everything in the picture must be individually manifest for what it is, and individuality is gained by isolation.

We see the same principle followed in a fragment of a limestone relief found at Lagash. It is a battle scene of which only four figures remain, but they are widely spaced, each an individual study. But the finest example of the new style in art is given by the stela of Naram-Sin, Sargon's great-grandson This is a rough slab of diorite carved on one face only with a relief which is altogether pictorial in treatment and monumental in conception; a single historical incident is made typical and symbolic. The artist has dispensed with the old-fashioned registers and works on a single field in order to assure the unity of his subject. Eannatum's stela had shown on one side the triumph of the city's god, and on the other, on a smaller scale, the [p. 86] human aspect. On Naram-Sin's stela the artist celebrates a victory won, it is true, by the will of the god, but none the less a personal victory of the king of Akkad. The monument has been well described by Mrs. Groenewegen-Frankfort: [1] "The actuality of the scene", she writes, "is enhanced by the setting of the event. The topography though partly formalized, has convincingly concrete details, and both it and the incidents of the battle hold a subtle balance between the decorative and the dramatic. The roughly triangular grouping, for instance, fits the shape of the stone, but it also underlines the climax of the action; and the upward surge of the conquerors is balanced by the falling and collapsing figures, halted by the rigidity of the four doomed survivors on the right. The smooth cone of the mountain top, rising well above the impressive figure of the king, does not dwarf him in any way but seems to emphasize his human statue and at the same time check the impetuosity of his stride. But the king's posture epitomizes the movement of his soldiers, yet he appears almost immobile at the moment of his triumph, holding the enemy transfixed with fear, and though his towering figure has a symbolic quality, the spatial relation between him and his prospective victims has been made more concrete by the tilting of their heads at different angles, the lower ones looking increasingly upwards. The king is thus not only the symbolic and decorative but also the actual dramatic centre of the whole composition, and the empty surface surrounding him emphasizes his spatial isolation. This aloofness is enhanced, not minimized, by the divine symbols at the top of the stela. This victory, blessed by the heavenly powers, was a solitary achievement".

For sculpture in the round, a limestone head of a young woman, found at Assur, is in the direct line of descent from the early Dynastic series of worshippers; it shows a more delicate technique and a more lifelike air than most, but is not very far removed from the best work of the Mari school. The head of a bearded prince from Adab, now in Chicago, is however inspired by a new spirit. Here is no worshipper, wrapped in adoration of the deity, but a living portrait of a worldly ruler, self-reliant and self-confident: it is the work of a new school of sculpture. But more striking is a bronze head from Nineveh which may well be a portrait of Sargon himself. The bronze-casting technique is of course inherited from the Sumerians and the stylistic conventions too are Sumerian, so much so that the treatment of the hair and the fashion of the hair-dressing might have been copied from that of Mes-kalam-dug's golden helmet of four centuries before, and [p. 88] the formal beard is traditional; all that is true, and yet we know of nothing like this head in any earlier period. It has been badly damaged, and it lacks the coloured inlay that once filled the eye-sockets, but none the less does it seems a living thing instinct with majesty. It is not so easy to define precisely the means whereby the author of this great work of art has made it so different from the work of the older school to which, for non-essentials, he still adheres; his success may be judged by this, that although it bears no inscription, nor was there anything in the conditions of its discovery to identify its subject, no critic has failed to recognize in it the actual portrait of Sargon, the greatest man that Mesopotamia had yet produced.

The Amorite dynasty collapsed and the country was overrun and for a time misgoverned by the barbarous and incompetent Guti; it was not unnatural therefore that when Ur-Nammu of Ur made himself master of Sumer and Akkad and re-established order there should be something in the nature of a Sumerian revival. The third Dynasty artist profited by some of the lessons taught him by Sargonid art, but for his inspiration he turned back to the older tradition.

There are preserved fragments of a great stela set up by Ur-Nammu to commemorate the deeds of his reign, and since the best artists would presumably be employed on so important a royal monument these may fairly represent the highest level of contemporary art. In its composition the stela reverts to the true Sumerian tradition, the entire field being divided into horizontal registers the subject of each of which is complete in itself, the only link between them being the constantly recurring figure of the king. On the other hand the [p. 89] figures are well spaced and stand out clearly against the plain background, and they are far more rounded than, e.g., the figures in the Eannatum stela, resembling closely those on the fragment of the stela of Sargon mentioned above. One scene, showing the building of the ziggurat of Ur, spread over two registers [though even here the line of the top of the finished brickwork divides the figures into two rows connected only by the sloping lines of the ladders] is dramatically composed, but in the other registers the individual figures may be [p. 90] shown in action; yet the scene lacks any sense of drama; in some the duplication of the subject and the counterbalancing of the figures--as when the king makes his offering on the one hand to Nannar and on the other to Nin-gal--is mechanical; it is symbolism without actuality. Taken as a whole the stela falls far short of the real artistry of that of Naram-Sin; it was impressive and not unbeautiful; but when we find that not only in style and treatment but in what at first appear to be its most imaginative features, such as the scene wherein winged 'angels' pour the life-giving waters upon the earth, it is identical with a stela set up by Gudea of Lagash, then we must needs recognize that this is a standardized design and that Ur-Nammu's artist, however skillful, can claim neither originality nor inspiration.

For sculpture in the round the artist did not venture beyond the traditional limitations, whereby a statue was meant to stand in the god's temple to symbolize the donor's perpetual contemplation of the divinity, but he did improve upon his models. Now that the political and therefore the artistic centre had shifted again to the south the natural material for the sculptor was imported diorite instead of the soft northern stone, and the challenge of the more difficult medium was triumphantly met. The style is illustrated by the whole series of statues of Gudea, the contemporary of Ur-Nammu, and of his son, unearthed at Lagash. Perhaps because Gudea was not a king but a governor enjoying only limited authority, in his portrait statues piety takes the place of the virile force that we saw in the Naram-Sin stela and of the supreme majesty of Sargon's portrait in bronze: certainly the intense vitality of the best Akkadian works is lacking in these essentially Sumerian effigies, but they possess the same firmness and precision of modeling, and the richness in the play of light provoked by the stone is not equaled even by the bronze head of Sargon. The diorite is indeed carved with complete mastery and brought by grinding and polishing to an extraordinary perfection of finish. The technique then is superb, and with it goes real observation of nature, not only in the sensitive treatment of the bare flesh but also in the character-drawing of the features. The statues show Gudea at different times in his life; they are idealized, certainly purged of the accidentals of humanity and expressing no emotion other than serenity and strength of mind, just as the powerful bodies obey that cylindrical canon which combines spatial actuality with perfect composure; but they are unmistakably portraits of the real man. [p. 91]

The art of the Third Dynasty sculptor did not perish at once when Ur fell. Two small heads of goddesses found at Ur, one carved in diorite and one in marble, belong ether to late in the Third Dynasty or to the Larsa period, and both can be called beautiful in very different ways--the artist was not simply reproducing a familiar type. A higher level is reached by a much-damaged but still magnificent diorite head [found at Susa] which may well represent the great king Hammurabi himself in his old age; in striking contrast with the formal beard the drawn and haggard features express, as does no other piece of sculpture from the ancient world, the still royal spirit battling with weariness and disillusionment. It is interesting to compare this personal portrait with the well-known relief carved at the top of the stela bearing Hammurabi's famous code of law, where the king is shown standing in the presence of Shamash, the fount of law. [p. 93]

That relief has been highly praised. It is indeed a finely executed work, and it is easy to read a dramatic effect into the isolation in space of the two figures, with no suggestion of place and no hint of action other than the submission of the mortal to the transcendent majesty of the god; but in fact the group only reproduces that on the Ur-Nammu stela and on the stela of Gudea and is in line with the 'presentation scene' on countless cylinder seals; whatever it expresses it does so by an old-established convention sincerely perhaps but with no originality.

The inspiration of the third Dynasty Sumerian revival had exhausted itself. In various sculptures from Mari, dated to the Isin-Larsa period, the outward forms are preserved and the technical skill is undoubted, but the artists have no real creative power and can only disguise the repetitive character of their work by the over-elaboration of detail; virtuosity takes the place of genius.

In glyptic art decadence sets in earlier. The dramatic episodes of mythology which had been popular with the gem-cutters of the Sargonid age are no longer represented upon the cylinder seals of Ur-Nammu's day; with them disappears the best opportunity afforded to the artist for original and creative work. The Gilgamesh motive seldom recurs, and then in debased form. Nearly all the seals are now of one type, which apparently reflected a more personal religious outlook prevalent at the time; this is the 'presentation scene', in which the seal's owner is introduced by his personal or family god to one or other of the major gods of the pantheon. Because the seal [which did not necessarily bear the owner's name] had to be distinctive, no two could be absolutely identical; the private citizen would of course require that the god of his choice be represented, and in the way that seemed to him best--we commonly find trial-pieces engraved on potsherds or bits of smooth limestone, which presumably were submitted by the gem-cutter to his client for approval--but many thousands of seals had to be made, and the maker had to ring the changes upon a single theme. Royal seals, such as those of Bur-Sin and Ibi-Sin, are finely cut in a style that closely resembles the libation scene on Ur-Nammu's stela: but too often the monotony of the task led to bad workmanship, and for as long as the public asked for the same subject the degradation of the seal continued. It is seldom that we find a cylinder possessed of artistic merit.

As befitted the founder of a new dynasty and the restorer of Sumerian traditions, Ur-Nammu was a great builder, and one who built in a [p. 94] style that should symbolize the permanence of his house. In the past mud brick had been the standard material for buildings of every sort; burnt bricks had indeed been known since the early days of al 'Ubaid, but the were employed exceptionally and only for a few special features. So far as we know, Ur-Nammu was the first to use them on a large scale, and to make his construction yet more lasting he had the bricks laid in bitumen mortar, with the result that not only the ground-plans but sometimes the superstructure of his buildings are preserved today and enable us to pass judgment on Sumerian architecture.

So far as the main principles of construction were concerned there could be no new departure, for, as we have seen, all those principles--arch and vault, dome and column--had been evolved long before, but in the Third Dynasty buildings there is an architectural finesse for which no precedent can be cited nor is likely to have existed in earlier times. In the great mausoleum built by Shulgil, where the walls and pavements of the vaults and of the superstructure alike are of burnt brick set in bitumen, the tomb chambers and the underground stairways are roofed with corbel vaulting supported by timber, [2] [p. 96] which might be thought to imply a lack of technical knowledge on the builder's part; but, on the other hand, the massive outer wall of the superstructure, very slightly battered and relieved by purely decorative buttresses, is an example of first-class bricklaying, and the rounded corners are deliberately designed to give an air of strength and solidity which is almost Normanesque.

But the finest monument of the time is Ur-Nammu's ziggurat at Ur. [3] The original ziggurat was simply a platform supporting a temple, such as we have seen in the First Dynasty temple at al 'Ubaid. Subsequently, perhaps before the time of the Third Dynasty, this was elaborated into a three-staged tower which better simulated the Mountain of God on whose summit the temple stood; -trees planted on the terraces would recall the wooded mountain sides, and there had to be a staircase whereby the priests could ascend to the topmost shrine for their service to the deity. Clearly there is no architectural merit in building a solid cube of brickwork, setting on that a smaller cube and on that again a third; but on that childishly crude construction Ur-Nammu's builders brought to bear all the refinements of mature architecture.

The building is an oblong, 62.50 m. x 43.00 m., [with a core of mud brick enshrining older ziggurats] enclosed by a 2.50 m. thick casing of burnt bricks and bitumen. The walls of the first stage, admirably preserved, stand to about their full height of 11.30 m.; of the upper stages little remains. The interest of the building lies in this, that throughout it there is no single straight line, vertical or horizontal. Thus the back wall, relieved by shallow buttresses with wider buttresses at the corners to tie up the design and emphasize its unity, has a curve of 0.50 m. in the 62.50 m. length; it is inclined inwards with a batter of 1.77 m. in 10.00 m., but even so it is not straight but has a curve of 0.11 m. in a vertical rise of 10.00 m.; and the same is true, in proportion, of the other walls. The architect had realized that the towering mass crowned by the temple proper might seem to sit too heavily upon the base and produce an appearance of its sagging under the load: to counteract this he employed the principle of entasis, as it was to be used later by the builders of the Parthenon at Athens, with curves indistinguishable to the eye but producing an illusion of strength. The entire ziggurat is designed with an eye to a visual effect which is almost dramatic. Seen from in front, the inward batter of the successive stages exaggerates the perspective and seems to add to the building's height, while at the same time it leads the eye [p. 98] upwards and inwards to the shrine which gives meaning to the whole: the great projecting staircase leading directly to the shrine emphasizes the fact that everything is centered on that: the sharply-sloping lines of the side staircases starting from the extreme corners of the building and converging under a gate-tower on the central flight, knit the whole solid mass together as but a means of approach to the Holy of Holies to which the upper staircase climbs directly; that Holy of Holies was but a small single chamber, but to it the entire huge structure is made subordinate.

The ziggurat was no more than a platform. It was built of brick, and the material virtually precludes any attempt at decoration, so that it had to rely for effect upon line alone. The Sumerian architects of the Third Dynasty of Ur had so mastered the art and mystery of their profession that from this dull formula they could create one of the great buildings of antiquity. [p. 99]


[Woolley, Leonard. The Art of The Middle East, including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine. New York: Crown Publishers. 1961.]




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