History of Western Paintings – The Ancient Near East

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Palaeolithic people led an unsettled life; this nomadic society of hunters and gatherers has little control over their food supply. Beginning around 8000 B.C. however, people began to grow their own food, raise their own animals, and organise into permanent communities. Although, like their Palaeolithic predecessors, the Neolithic people (from neos, meaning “new” in Greek) used stone to make basic weapons and tolls, organised agriculture and animal husbandry left more time and labour for other activities, including the production of clay vessels. Since their size and weight made them difficult to carry, clay vessels are characteristic of stationary communities.

Neolithic villages made their first appearance in the Near East, an area consisting roughly of modern-day Turkey, Iraq and Iran. A late example of Neolithic painted pottery from this region is a beaker from Susa (present day Shush in Iran) dating to c. 4000 B.C. The highly abstracted animal forms contained within patterned borders are common to many works of art from this area. Decoration takes precedence over naturalism to create designs with beautiful stylised animals, such as the thin band of elongated dogs beneath a frieze of graceful long necked birds around the top of the beaker, and the marvellous ibex with circular horns, it’s body composed of two curved triangles, that dominates the large central portion. In contrast with Palaeolithic depictions of animals, which may represent attempts to control the animal kingdom, animals, now domesticated, seem simply to decorate this Neolithic vase.

 

Beaker. c.4000 B.C. Susa (modern Shush, Iran). Ceramic, painted in brown glaze. Height: 11″ (29cm). Musee du Louvre, Paris

The Paleolithic peoples who created cave paintings were monadic hunters and gathers. Neolithic culture (New Stone Age), which first appeared in the Near East c. 8000 B.C. is characterised by settled villages, domesticated plants and aminals, and the crafts of pottery and weaving. The highly abstracted, stylised animals forms, representative of the “Animal Style”, and patterns decorating this Neolithic beaker from Iran are commonly found in workds from the ancient Near East. An ibex (wild coat), with enlarged, circular horns and a body consisting of two curved triangles, decorates the centre of this vessel. The top band contains skinny, long-necked birds, and, directly below, a band of elongated dogs encircle the beaker.

The early Neolithic agricultural communities gradually evolved into more complex societies, with systems of government, law, formal religion, and, perhaps most importantly, the first appearance of writing, thus marking the end of prehistory and the beginning of recorded history. The political structures alternated between conglomerations of independently ruled city-states and centralised governments under a single leader.

The city-states of the Near East frequently fought one another. In addition, the lack of natural barriers made the area particularly vulnerable to invasion. This almost constant warfare was a frequent subject of art. A further destabilising factor was the unpredictable climate; floods, drought, storms, and the like plagued the inhabitants of this region. This, they understandably tended to worry considerably about survival in this world – a world of invasions, political instability and natural catastrophes.

From about the fourth millennium B.C. the Sumerians inhabited southern Mesopotamia, a Greek place name meaning “the land between the rivers”, that is the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. They invented the wheel and a form of writing in which a stylus, usually a length of reed cut at an angle, was used to impress characters on wet clay. Cuneiform, meaning “wedge shaped”, which aptly describes the appearance of this writing, has been deciphered; our ability to read ancient Mesopotamian texts makes the ancient art of the region more accessible to the contemporary viewer than the art of prehistoric societies. Ancient near Eastern images usually have clearly structured compositions, ground-lines and readable narratives emphasising human beings, their history, and their relation to their gods and goddesses. All of these characteristics enable us to interpret the art more easily than the more elusive prehistoric cave paintings discussed earlier.

 

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Triumph of a King, the Standard of Ur. c.2700 B.C. Mesopotamia. Wooden panel inlaid with shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone. Approx. 8″ x 19″ (20cm x 48cm). British Museum, London

Neolithic village communities in the ancient Near East gradually developed into complex city-states, which were often politically unstable societies almost contstantly at war with east other and against invading peoples. War and victory are frequent subjects of ancient Near Eastern art. This image, an inlaid panel from the side of a box, may show an actual historical event, depicting the aftermath of war, with a victorious banquet scene in the top register. Historical narrative and a clear, formal composition distinguish this image from prehistoric cave paintings.

The various city states that comprised ancient Sumer were often at war with one another. The so called Standard of Ur is a box, the function of which is not known, that was found in a royal cemetery among daggers, helmets, and other military regalia. The box displays scenes of both war and peace, probably episodes of specific historical events. Stylistically, the depictions of human form in the Standard of Ur resemble those we will see in other ancient cultures. Frontal and profile views are combined in a single figure, emphasising the conceptual over the illusionistic, and the size of a figure directly corresponds to his importance; on the Standard of Ur, the seated, regal figure in the top row is bigger than this standing before him. Also typical is the arrangement of figures in the bands. There is little overlapping of forms, or any indication of a setting, resulting in a very two dimensional image. This straightforward, regimented presentation of figures contrasts markedly with the informal arrangement of imagery in prehistoric caves.

 

Priest Guiding a Sacrificial Bull. 2040-1870 B.C. Fragment of a mural painting from the palace of Zimri-Lim, Mari (modern Tell Hariri, Iraq). National Museum, Aleppo, Syria

A fragment of a wall painting from the palace of Zimri-Lim at Mari (today, Tell Hariri, Iraq) shows part of a religious ceremony: a priest leading a bull to sacrifice. Zimri-Lim was a ruler during the Amorite occupation of Mesopotamia. His palace was destroyed by the celebrated Hammurabi (ruled 1792-1750 B.C.) author of the famous legal code and a fellow Amorite leader. The fragmented murals of Zimri-Lim’s palace are some of the few wall paintings to survive from Mesopotamia.

Among the most famous achievements of the Mesopotamians are the construction and decoration of the Ishtar Gate, originally one of the main entryways to the ancient city of Babylon (Iraq). Babylon had been the political and cultural capital of Mesopotamia under Hammurabi, and towards the end of the seventh century B.C. with the decline of the Assyrians – probably the most powerful people to dominate Mesopotamia and the surrounding regions – The Babylonians reasserted their power. The best known ruler of this Neo-Babylonian period was Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 604-562 B.C.), the famed leader mentioned in the Old Testament who was responsible for building the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, as well as the Ishtar Gate, now reassembled in Berlin. The Ishtar Gate and the walls lining the Processional Way (the street leading from the Gate) were faced with glazed brick. Sacred animals, also of glazed brick – among them, lions, associated with the Goddess Ishtar, and dragons, sacred to Marduk, the patron God of Babylon – and these geometric borders ornamented both the Gate and Processional Way. The somewhat stylized forms of these animals, and their rhythmic arrangement within the decorative borders, recall the Neolithic vase from Susa, with which we began our discussion of the art of the ancient Near East.

 

Lion. c.575 B.C. Processional Way, Babylon. Glazed brick. Height: approx 38″ (96.5cm). Achaeological Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

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