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 Three [cont.]

Sumer - From the Beginnings of Art to The End of The Early Dynastic Period
Notes for this Chapter

Because the temple had been violently destroyed, its walls undermined and pushed down from the inside, so that great blocks of mud-brickwork were found lying intact with the decorative elements still adhering to them in position, the reconstruction was in most points beyond question. The result is a building of a surprising sort, a unique illustration of the architectural style of the Early Dynastic period. Other buildings, e.g. at Khafaje and at Tell Asmar show the ground-plan and internal arrangements of a temple of that age, but tell us little or nothing about their appearance; we can, however, hardly be wrong if we assume that they were no less gay in colour and rich in works of art than that of al 'Ubaid.

The extravagant virtuosity of the Jamdat Nasr vase-carvers may have seemed to have exhausted the possibilities of sculpture as an [p. 63] applied art; at any rate we possess few stone vases of early Dynastic date decorated with reliefs, and those possess little merit. A rare exception is a limestone trough with figures of cows on either side of a byre; the composition is almost identical with that of the al 'Ubaid temple frieze, and it is a good piece of craftsmanship. The independent reliefs are generally disappointing. A promising start had been made with a basalt relief of early but uncertain date found at Warka in the Jamdat Nasr level, showing a king engaged in a lion-hunt; he shoots at the beast with bow and arrow, and again he transfixes it with a spear. The two figures are casually grouped one above the other with no idea of space or perspective; there is here a freedom and a vigour which are far removed from mere decoration, and though the drawing is primitive it is the work of an artist in embryo. It seems to have led to nothing. The commonest reliefs of the Early Dynastic period are square limestone plaques, with a hole in the centre, which served as bases for such offerings as votive maces; -they were therefore temple furniture commemorating a pious dedication; they were personal and individual, in that it is the piety of an individual person that is commemorated--very often his name is carefully inscribed; they were conventional in that the subjects to be treated were strictly limited. The dedication of a temple, symbolized by the figure of the ruler bearing on his head a basket of mortar; the ceremonial banquet; the empty chariot; these are repeated again and again, varied only by the umber of the rulers children who accompany him; so stereotyped are the plaques that an incomplete example found at Khafaje could be restored by an identical fragment found at Ur. The reliefs are in two flat planes, the edges of the figures rounded and the details incised with no attempt at modelling; technically therefore they linked up with the limestone-and-mosaic friezes of the al 'Ubaid temple and are much inferior to the shell-and-mosaic frieze figures of the same building. The Sumerian stone-carver had not yet mastered the secret of relief modelling; this is clear from a vase bearing the name of Entemena [c. 2500 B.C.] on which is carved the figure of a goddess; it is a frontal view and the features of the face are rendered in relief, but the body is still in two planes, the whole figure being thereby so distorted that body and head scarcely seem to belong together. The only relief of the period that has any claim to artistic endeavor is the great stela of Eannatum of Lagash [c. 2550 B.C.] which celebrates his victory over Umma; it was a round-topped slab 1.30 m. wide and at least 1.80 m. high; it is in [p. 64] the archaic style in that the carving is on two planes and, for composition, the field is divided into horizontal registers; but there is a certain amount of modelling of the figures. The obverse has two registers only, in the upper of which Nin-girsu, the god of Lagash, grasps the net in which his diminutive enemies have been caught: in the lower the same god was seen in his war chariot. Here the glory is given to the god; in the four registers of the reverse the human king claims his share in the victory. Eannatum advances at the head of his phalanx of heavy-armed infantry over ground strewn with enemy corpses, while in front of him lions and vultures tear the bodies of the dead; in the next register the king in his chariot leads his light-armed infantry while the men of Umma flee before him; below that the Lagash dead, heaped in piles, are being covered by their comrades under the earth of a tumulus while the king pours a libation and prepares to sacrifice a bull in their honour; in the lowest register it would seem that the fate of the prisoners of war is being decided, and Eannatum touches with his outstretched spear the head of the king of Umma, pronouncing the death sentence.

Here is something very different from the dull votive tablets. Here is pictorial art expressing itself with the most vivid realism of which the artist was capable--he even makes an attempt at perspective to show the serried ranks of the soldiers. But there is no actual fighting; as the obverse proclaims, it is a god-given victory, and the king and his men are merely executing, in almost ritual fashion, the divine decision: the whole thing is symbolic and deserves the title of 'monumental' art, the first of its kind known to us from Mesopotamia.

In Sumerian art there is a peculiar distinction between stone reliefs and stone sculpture [p. 67] in the round. The field of relief was wide; it could be applied equally to a toilet vase, to a votive tablet or to a royal monument. The stone statue, on the other hand, was made for temple use exclusively; it represented either the deity or the deity's worshipper. What the older cult statues were like we do not know; probably most of them were executed not in stone but in precious metal, or at least were acrolithic, and therefore have perished. Of the statues of worshippers many survive.

In judging the work of the Sumerian sculptor two things have to be borne in mind--the purpose of the statute, and the material.

Throughout Sumerian history the sole purpose of a human statue was that it should be placed in a temple sanctuary, where the cult statue also stood, to symbolize the perpetual adoration of the man in the presence of his god. It had therefore to be in some measure a portrait--very often the man's name was inscribed upon it to remove any doubts as to its identity; but because it was a portrait of the man as an adorant he must be shown in the proper attitude of worship, and he should be represented as he would wish the god to see him, idealized perhaps, expressing no passing emotion but concentrated upon the contemplation of the divine. We should therefore expect to see in the face a certain realism, in the attitude a fixed convention, and in the body an immobility which has no relation to space or time; no [p. 67] hint of action, or indeed of the physical element, must intrude upon the eternal absorption of the spirit.

There is no stone in Sumer. In the north there is the soft 'Mosul marble' and fairly fine-grained limestone; the majority of the statues are in such material, and probably most of them were made by northern sculptors; certainly it is in the north that new inventions in technique and in style were introduced. The hard stones, basalt, diorite and dolerite, were imported from the Persian Gulf, and would come first to the hands of artists of the southern school, to which we may assign most of the hard-stone sculptures. The diorite was not quarried but arrived in the form of boulders, and this had a marked effect upon art. A stela might preserve the shape of the natural boulder [there are several examples of this], but for a statue the builderÍs form might be decisive; this accounts for the large proportion of seated figures, in some of which, e.g., the statue of Kur-lil from al 'Ubaid, the contours of the figure are quite evidently dictated by the stone. It was rarely that a piece of basalt was long enough for a full-scale statue of a man; the Sumerian statue consequently tends to be short and stumpy; but since from the patron's point of view the portrait aspect of the figure was the most important the sculptor is most concerned with the head of his figure, so much so that by the time he has done it justice there is not enough of the stone left for the proportionate treatment of the body and the over-large head emphasizes the figure's squatness. To these general observations we shall have to recur often. The Early Dynastic period has produced few hard-stone statues; the Kur-lil figure already mentioned, another seated figure from al 'Ubaid, and a standing figure, headless, of King Entemena of Lagash, found at Ur, are the principal ones, of which the last is the most interesting. It stands 0.76 m . high without the head; it wears the shapeless sheath of the fleecy kaunakes kilt and the hands are clasped in the conventional gesture of adoration; the broad shoulders and pointed elbows are in the archaic tradition, but in the modelling of the bare torso, of the hands and of the feet there is already some approach to what was being attempted by the northern school and was to be developed by the Lagash sculptors of Gudea's time.

A group of twelve statues in 'Mosul marble' found together in a cache under the floor of a Tell Asmar temple, together with other figures from the same site and from Khafaje, a neighbouring town, illustrates if not the beginning at least an early stage in the history of northern sculpture. Granted that they are of provincial work--for [p. 69] the Tell Asmar group comes from a small temple in a second-class town, and of the Khafaje statues some were found in the actual workshop of the local sculptor--they do represent a definite school, with principles of art already established. The canon aims at a geometric unity for the three-dimensional representation of the human body, effecting this by reducing all masses to the cone and the cylinder. The head is the apex of a cone whose base is given by the points of the elbows; below this the sheath of the skirt forms a second more slender cone or else a plain cylinder. Where there is a seated figure the whole thing is a cone. This is a purely artistic convention; for the rest, the sculptor follows those general principles for the making of temple statues which have been discussed above.

The faces are varied and individual in a naive and sometimes almost comic fashion; the artist has done his best to produce portraits. By the different tilting of the heads, and by the use of inlay for the eyes, [p. 70] he renders that absorbed attention to the godhead which is the prime motive of the statue; the exaggerated size of the eyes serves the same purpose. Too inexperienced to recognise the fragility of his soft marble the sculptor undercuts the arms of his figures and even the legs, trusting them to carry without the help of a supporting pillar the none-too-well balanced weight of the solid bodies, though sometimes he thinks it best to thicken the legs and ankles to a ludicrous extent. He has no interest in the garments as stuff, and his modelling of the exposed flesh is summary in the extreme. One figure, that of a nude kneeling man, is quite unlike the rest, but is no exception to the rule because it does not belong to the same class of sculpture; the top of the head is hollowed like a candlestick and in the back there are two copper loops for attachment; it is not a votive statue but a piece of furniture, and therefore not subject to the same conventions; actually, with its greater freedom and naturalness, it shows that the sculptor was more of an artist than the conventions generally allowed him to appear.

In most of the other figures we see progress is the sense of greater refinement of detail, but always within the same limits. For the simple sheath of the primitive dress there is substituted a more or less realistic fleece, though still with no suggestion of the bodily form beneath it; the modeling of the flesh becomes more sensitive and the face can even be pleasing, as in a head form Tell Agrab. A little figure of a woman [probably from Ur] now in the British Museum comes near to being the ideal at which the art of the period aimed. A more restrained use of the chisel for undercutting had emphasized the quietude of the engrossed worshipper and added dignity to the figure; the real danger was that with the constant repetition of the same type the craftsman, trying for variety in expression at least, should lose the spirit of the dedication; in only too many of the later statues wrapt adoration has given place to a meaningless smirk that could please neither god nor man.

That the artist should chafe at the limitations imposed on him was natural, especially as his stone was so easily worked. In the northern school centered on Mari--the westernmost outlier of the genuine Sumerian civilization--he does at length shake himself free to some extent of the old conventions. From the twenty-fourth century B.C. we find there statues which do no more than pay lip-service to tradition; they might have scandalized the religious-minded of the south country, but to the modern eye they are vastly superior to anything that [p. 73] the south attempted in the same genre. The figure of Ebih-il, small as it is, gives the impression of size and dignity; the careful detail of the [still shapeless] fleece skirt throws into relief the smooth flesh with its delicately realistic modelling; the face is a real portrait--not of a humble adorant but of a high official satisfied with himself and his rank. The figure of Urnanshe, leader of the temple choir, is even more frankly unconventional; the tilt of the head and the easy pose of the flexed legs make it astonishingly vital; she might be a temple servant, but she was a live woman, and the artist presents her to us as such.

A few human figurines cast in copper are in striking contrast to the stone figures because, being not independent statues but parts of furniture, they were not bound by any canon. A nude standing man from Khafaje, the support of a metal vase, is well-proportioned and naturalistically modeled--the little kneeling figure from Tell Asmar is the only parallel to him in stone. Two wrestlers, also from Khafaje, who have jars balanced on their heads, are rougher in workmanship but no less realistic in their strained pose; they prove, what otherwise we might not have suspected, that the sculptor did not shrink from representing violent action and was not incapable of doing so. [p. 74]

But the Sumerian metal-worker was most successful with animal subjects. Equally adept in hammered work, in solid casting and in hollow casting by the cire perdue process, he could suit his technique to the size of his figures and in each medium and on any scale do admirable work. The reclining heifers of the al 'Ubaid temple frieze show the formalism proper to architectural statuary but are none the less true to nature; an electrum donkey [decorating a rein-ring found in the tomb of Queen Shubad at Ur' is delightfully naturalistic; a great bull's head in gold, from a lyre, is strictly conventionalized but has all the strength of the living animal and all its latent energy: and the tiny stags and antelopes, bulls and rams of gold that adorned the queen's diadem are charming.

The Royal Cemetery at Ur provided a wealth of objects in precious metal enabling us to asses the skill of the Sumerian goldsmith. One can assume that only the better craftsmen were entrusted with so valuable a material, and that they would put their best work into it; and because gold is incorruptible the object is preserved for us just as it left the maker's hands.

The goldsmith's technique was already fully developed. Apart from casting and hammering [repoussé work] he was familiar with cloisonné, filigree and granulation, chasing and gold-soldering, and the making of electrum alloys, including in the latter the trick of [p. 75] sweating out the silver by means of salt or saltpeter and burnishing the surface to produce the effect of gold plating; the use he made of those arts has not bee surpassed in any later age. While the golden helmet of Mes-kalam-dug is remarkable for its technical excellence rather than for any originality of invention, the golden dagger-sheath is a brilliant translation of simple grass-weaving into a decorative pattern, and many of the gold vessels are masterpieces of design and proportion. If a gold goblet may by the purity of its outline remind us of classical Greek art, it is to the Italian Renaissance that we must turn to find a parallel to the polychrome figure of a goat made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, polished shell and red sandstone, a pair of which supported, perhaps, an offering-table; over-ornate as we may judge it to be, it is a triumph of virtuosity which would have appealed to Benvenuto Cellini.

Amongst the minor works of art of the Early Dynastic period the engraved shell plaques deserve special mention, if only because they are the nearest approach to drawings that can ever be obtained. The material is shell, where a later age would have used ivory, and the design is incised, the incised lines being filled with black or red paste; sometimes the ground round the figure was cut back and covered with a coat of black paste, leaving the figure silhouetted against it. Clearly, incision in so hard a substance as shell cannot have the freedom of a drawing, and the more just comparison would be with a mediaeval woodcut, but the engraver did manage to get a very flexible line and had no hesitation in choosing the most difficult subjects. [p. 77]

The plaques were used for inlay in caskets, gaming-boards and, specially, in the sounding-boards of lyres; in the former, a single animal is the favourite motive, in the last there may be complicated scenes involving numerous figures. The finest of those combines the familiar Gilgamesh group with what would almost seem to be caricatures, comic scenes, drawn with astonishing verve, in which animals play the parts of men--illustrations, possibly, of incidents in folk-lore; but while the drawing is admirable, the studied balance of black and white is the mark of a real artist.

The engraved shell has taken the place of the old-fashioned mosaic of mother-of-pearl inlaid in black stone. That fashion still survived, and a splendid example is given by the 'Standard' of Ur, with its figures of cut shell set in lapis lazuli. As a mosaic it is a masterpiece, but it suffers from the limitations of a laborious craft, and while the individual figures are skillfully cut and in some cases lively the general effect tends to be rather mechanical. The composition is indeed but an elaboration of those limestone plaques which have been described above as stereotyped and dull, and although here the narrative character of the design relieves it of the charge of dullness yet a [p. 80] comparison of the 'Standard' with the shell plaques from the lyre shows at once how great an advance had been made by the Sumerian; when he was commissioned to produce no more than a variation on a traditional theme his work was a notable improvement upon the old; but when he could plan for himself and use his imagination he could achieve a real work of art. [p. 82]

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



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