Mesopotamian art

Art of Mesopotamia : Refers to the artistic expressions that are preserved from the cultures that flourished in the basins of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the emergence of the Neolithic until the fall of Babylon , the last of the ancient empires of Mesopotamian culture.

The development of artistic and craft techniques was matched both by technological advances —development of better baking ovens or the appearance of the potter’s wheel— and social and cultural —the birth of writing.


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  • 1 Mesopotamia
  • 2 Ceramic
  • 3 Metallurgy
  • 4 Literature
  • 5 Architecture
    • 1 Main monuments
  • 6 Painting and Relief
  • 7 Sculptures
  • 8 Source


Mesopotamian peoples are those who lived in the extensive valley located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which then flow into the Persian Gulf , on the Arabian peninsula (approximately in the year 4000 BC). This earthly paradise welcomed a number of peoples who inhabited it: The Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Chaldeans, Medes and Persians, among others.

In Mesopotamia we also find various artistic stages determined by the diversification of peoples that dominated this territory. The creators of the artistic style are the Sumerians , a style that will be continued by the Semites, achieving maximum splendor in the Assyrian and Babylonian periods.

Mesopotamia was a land that lacked certain materials such as wood , stone, and metals. Instead it was rich in other resources (for example clay ), which favored the manufacture of bricks (made of adobe, mud and straw mix) and glass .


Three-foot cup, colored in Egyptian blue to imitate lapis lazuli. It comes from Lower Mesopotamia.

The antecedents of the use of ceramics are found in obtaining lime and plaster; materials used in architecture and in the manufacture of the so-called white tableware. Relatively low-power kilns (about 200 ° C for lime and about 800 ° C for plaster) are sufficient for the production of lime and gypsum, temperatures that, in some places, were already obtained before the practice of agriculture.

The beginnings of this technology have been found in the site of Beidha Palestine ) in the so-called period 2 (8300 – 7600 BC) from where it spread first, along the entire Mediterranean coast of Canaan reaching Abu Hureyra (present-day Syria ) and Anatolia between periods 3 and 5 (5600 – 3700 ad C) and, finally (periods 6 – 9, (5600 – 3700) throughout the Middle East. The birth of a clay pottery with stable development occurred around the year 6000 ad C. Before this date, sporadic finds of small pieces are found, although their use was not popularized, possibly due to the fact that the pieces of plaster and lime were easier to obtain and just as useful for existing needs until moment.

Ceramic cultures of the Ancient Near East in the Middle Halaf period (5200-4500 BC). In red: Haggi Muhammad’s Culture; in green: Culture of Samarra; in yellow: Halaf culture; in dark blue: Hassuna Culture; in blue-green: “Halaf type” culture; in fuchsia: Anatomical ceramic; in gray: Amuq D and Palestinian Neolithic ceramic B; colorless (Byblos area): Neolithic middle of Byblos.

The pottery of the 6th millennium ad C already shows the mastery of a series of complex techniques such as modeling, slip, illustrated, polishing, smoothing and firing. Of this first stage, the one developed in the Taurus, Cilicia and Syria regions stands out with a ceramic of simple shapes and decoration based on incisions. The first painted pottery is found in Buqras and during the Hassuna-Samarra period (late 6th millennium) the art of inscription was developed with all kinds of natural and domestic motifs.


Towards the middle of the III millennium ad C the flourishing of metallurgy took place. Although metal objects were made from millennia ago from metal materials found as is in nature, it was in this period that forging and obtaining metal from ore was discovered.

Among these first metals, copper stood out, which soon afterwards began to be alloyed with copper and tin to make bronze. These two types of bronze coexisted for about a thousand years in different geographical areas: thus, arsenious copper occurred in Palestine, southern Mesopotamia , eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus, and tin copper in Iran, complete Mesopotamia, Syria and Cilicia. The only region where these two types of bronze coexisted was Mesopotamia. Towards the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, tin bronze finally prevailed.

Sargon mask, bronze head representing a Mesopotamian leader

Around 1200-1000 BC, the use of iron in metallurgy became popular, possibly after the discovery of carburation technology, although its price was always much higher than that of copper and in many cases similar to that of gold.

In Mesopotamia three professions related to metalwork were distinguished: the qurqurru was in charge of obtaining the metal from the mineral, that is, the metallurgist; the nappahu or smelter, was in charge of manufacturing the pieces based on the material obtained from the qurqurru ; finally the kutimmu was in charge of the work of precious metals, of goldsmithing.


Pictographic writing was born in Sumer around 3200 BC, probably as an evolution of merchandise marking systems such as bulla and numerical printing. In Mesopotamia, since the 5th millennium ad C, two peoples of different languages ​​lived together: the Akkadians (Semites) and the Sumerians. Probably this, added to a progressive linearization of the Sumerian pictographic symbols, ended up evolving into a phonetic, cuneiform writing, common to both languages, towards 3000 BC and which, between the 16th-15th centuries AD] began to be replaced by an alphabetic script probably born in Phenicia or the Sinai region .

Sumerian literature is the oldest of the two, although it also coexists with the Akkadian. Its themes can be divided into myths, hymns and lamentations. Myths are short stories about the lives of the gods: Enlil, Enki, Ninhursag, trying to define their personality and their most important traits. The hymns are dedicated to both gods and kings or great works, in all cases in a tone of praise. The lamentations sing about disasters, wars or destruction of cities.

Akkadian literature appeared around the 17th century BC; its themes are religious, epic or wisdom. Among the religious texts stand out the poem Enuma Elish, which sings about the supremacy of the god Marduk who, through his people, Babylon, intends to impose his order in a world of chaos; Erra’s poem dealing with a plague that attacks Babylon but fails to destroy it, perhaps in reference to some historical disease, and Atrahasis’s poem, or Flood story, which possibly inspired Noah’s biblical account .

If I fall, I will have achieved fame.
People will say: ‘Gilgamesh fell
fighting against the fierce Humbaba! …
I am determined to enter the cedar forest,
Until now my heart is happy:
I hear this song, I see a flower
I want to found my glory.

Gilgamesh’s Poem: Tablet III, Column 4

The most prominent of the epic texts is Gilgamesh’s poem, which recounts the adventures of a mythical king of Uruk who is measured against the gods in his adventures. The story of this hero must have spread throughout the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, since versions in Hittite and Hurrian and fragments have been found in Anatolia and Palestine. Other epic texts sing the stories of historical kings such as Sargón de Agadé or Tukulti-Ninurta I.

Wisdom texts deal with philosophical questions; the best known case is the story of the suffering Sufferer who sings the suffering of a man in the face of adversity from which he does not know that he may have unleashed it. From this story, its similarity with the Biblical account of Job has been highlighted .


Mesopotamian art had a civic character: it has palaces, temples, and public services; such as walls, irrigation channels, bridges, gates, and fortresses. It also combines the platform and lintel system with the arch and vault system.

As there was no stone in the region and the wood was scarce, they used brick (made of adobe). As brick is a somewhat fragile material, the walls were made thick and with hardly any openings; so that the appearance of the building is solid, heavy and monotonous. Due to periodic floods that were favorable to crops, buildings used to be built on terraces.

The walls were covered with colored reliefs following very simple patterns, particularly those of repetition and symmetry.

Main monuments

  • The Temple: It consists of a large walled courtyard that, in the space corresponding to one of its minor sides, contains what will be its most characteristic element: the Ziggurat, a square tower with several tiered floors, on whose top is the sanctuary. The faces are oriented towards the four cardinal points and the different levels are climbed by means of a ramp that surrounds the four sides, or by two symmetrical stairs that climb up the front or the sides. In its construction very rich materials were used: marble, alabaster, lapis lazuli, gold and cedar.

Ziggurat of Ur, Mesopotamian architectural work

  • The Palace: There is no planned form for the palace. Nor is it a building, but rather a series of prismatic buildings of different sizes linked together by corridors, galleries and corridors with wide intermediate patios and walls around them. It consisted of a simple quadrangular construction with a central patio through which it received light and ventilation. It stood on brick terraces, which were climbed by stairs and ramps with drains to protect against floods and humidity. The doors, whose leaves used to be of bronze, were flanked by statues and winged bulls with a human head that were attributed protective powers. The interior walls were decorated with fresco paintings on lime plaster, or with brightly colored enamel bricks and reliefs.
  • The Walls: The cities were guarded by thick walls with vertical walls and cut at right angles, reinforced from section to section by square towers. The passage was made through fortified gates. The passage of these doors was a half-barrel vault, on both sides the usual protective statues were placed.
  • The Tombs: From the architectural point of view, the tomb is not of great interest, as it is a simple hypogeum with a brick vault and several chambers, which is manifested outside by some small monument of no artistic value. In its interior a very rich funeral trousseau has been found: corpses of ladies, musicians, servants, coachmen and guards immolated in large numbers that reveal the barbarous funeral customs of these towns.

Painting and Relief

Nebamun’s Theban Tomb Painting

  • Characteristics of the painting: It was strictly decorative. It was used to beautify the architecture. It lacks perspective, and is chromatically poor: only white, blue, and red prevail. Use of the tempering technique. It can be seen in decorative mosaics or tiles. The themes were scenes of wars and ritual sacrifices with great realism. Are represented geometric figures, peoples, animals and monsters. It is used in home decoration. Shadows were not shown.
  • Characteristics of the relief: They were frequent in the platelets or narrative stelae and some of these stelae have cuneiform texts. They are detailed and detailed works. Reflects remarkable naturalism. The separation of divine from human affairs is distinguished. The king is captured in scenes of war, banquets or hunting; a figure always appears erect, which highlights its power.


Mesopotamian Art: King Gudea

In the sculpture the inhabitants of Mesopotamia used basalt, sandstone, diorite and alabaster. Some metals such as bronze, copper , gold and silver were also worked, as well as precious stones in the most delicate pieces and in the inlay work. In their cylindrical seals they used stones of all kinds, such as lapis lazuli, jasper, carnelian, alabaster, hematite, serpentine, and soapstone. However, some of these stones were scarce in the area, so they had to be imported. Another important form of expression were the cylindrical seals, delicately engraved in stone. The greatest perfection in this technique would have been achieved by the Akkadians.

The purpose of this type of art was social and religious, so its purpose was utilitarian. Its theme was the portrait of the gods, kings or high officials, in whose execution the idea of ​​duplication dominates. It responded to the laws of verticality, frontality and symmetry, although they did not know the perspective. There was also stylization of the features, hair and beards (of curly hair). Inside the sculpture, both the statues and the bas-relief were developed:

  1. a) Statue: It is a replica of reality, which also includes size. However, this realism carries the subjective imprint of the artist, who prints a symbolism, or a meaning that goes beyond the strictly visual. The statue is perhaps the artistic category in which the Mesopotamian world is most clearly recognized: in its conceptions in its characters, in its way of being translated into art. Their pattern is as follows: hands clasped across the chest, shaved head, and bare or covered torso. Its theme was based on the protagonists of that world of power and faith from which art flows and from which it is an expression.

Votive bas-relief of Ur-Nanshe, king of Lagash, from Ngirsu (ca. 2550-2500 BC)

  1. b) Bas-relief: it was used to narrate great military exploits, civic and family events, and religious motives. The human figure is represented in profile with some frontal features, such as the eyes and torso. The animals are also sculpted in profile, and with impressive realism.

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