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Sumerian and Babylonian art

Babylonian Art

In the 18th cent. B.C., Babylonia under Hammurabi rose to power and dominated Mesopotamia. A diorite head, wide-eyed, bearded, and hatted, found at Susa (1792–50 B.C.; Louvre), is generally taken to be a portrait of Hammurabi. The surface is carved to show the marks of aging on a sensitive face. The great basalt stele found in Susa upon which Hammurabi's immortal code of law is inscribed bears a relief at the top showing the king himself before the sun god who commands him to set down the law for his people (c.1750 B.C.; Louvre). Hammurabi is also represented kneeling in prayer in a sculpture in the round that is colored green and on which the hands and face have been gilded (from Larsa; Louvre).

A sculpture from Mari of a fertility goddess (Aleppo Mus.), holding a vase from which water flows down her skirt, further attests to the genius of Babylonian sculptors. Several examples of terra-cotta plaques of this period in the Louvre depict scenes of Babylonian daily life, including agricultural pursuits and crafts such as carpentry. Babylonia was also a glassmaking center, but far less glass than sculpture has survived its destructive climate.

After Hammurabi's death Mesopotamia was torn for centuries by foreign invasions. For a time the Assyrian warrior people held sway and established some cultural coherence (see Assyrian art). One of their kings, Sennacherib, razed the city of Babylon. Babylonia was not to be reborn until Nebuchadnezzar divided the Assyrian lands with the Medes in 612 B.C. Under his rule the Babylonians developed to perfection one of their most striking arts: the great polychrome-glazed brick walls modeled in relief, the foremost example of which is the Ishtar gates of Babylon. These, produced for Nebuchadnezzar, contain 575 reliefs of lions, dragons, and bulls of superb workmanship (6th cent. B.C.; one lion exhibited at the Metropolitan Mus.).

The king's palace, with its courtyard and hanging (balconied) gardens (constructed more than a century before Nebuchadnezzar came to power), the Ishtar gates, and the royal processional road made Babylon a city of unrivaled magnificence in its time. Its artisans were able to draw upon materials and styles from an area bounded only by Egypt and India. The new splendor was short-lived; less than a century later Babylonia fell prey to more invasions, and the Persians, Greeks, and Romans ruled in succession. The great Mesopotamian civilizations eventually crumbled. They were forgotten until archaeologists of the 19th cent. A.D. began to bring to light something of their history and appearance.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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