The valley of the Tigris Euphrates rivers, forming the “Fertile Crescent” in ancient times, was termed mesos-potamus or the middle of the river. Mesopotamia covered roughly the area today called Western Asia (Iran and Iraq) and the area from Asia Minor to the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean. It was in habited successively and concurrently by the Sumerians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Hittites, Hebrew, Assyrians, Achaemenian Persians, Parthians, Seleucids, and Sassanians.
According to tradition, Mesopotamia was the cradle of Man, the site of Eden, and in fact it was a remarkably rich agricultural area which enabled settlers in that region to prosper and develop civilizations at an early date. Its central location made it subject to constant invasion from all sides by peoples of various origins. The decorative coloristic aspects of ancient Oriental art, extending into the Christian era as a part of Byzantine art and surviving today in Moslem art, were first apparent in the Assyrian epoch.
Although less skilled in execution than Egyptian, Mesopotamian art had a number of distinctive features. The observance of primitive conventions, such as the use of descriptive perspective, horror vacui, the arrangement of figures according to rank rather than real size in relief sculpture (except among Assyrians and Persians), and the tense frontality of free standing sculpture, lends a certain superficial resemblance to the art of the contemporary Egyptian style. However, aside from such obvious distinctions as costume and physical types, there are a number of very striking differences. Mesopotamian art presents an entirely different view of life from the Egyptian preoccupation with life after death. In Mesopotamia the freedom from hieratical limitations imposed on Egyptian artists resulted in a much more emotional quality in the art as opposed to the impassivity and impartiality of Egyptian examples. Other extraordinary features of Mesopotamian art include the variety of the backgrounds of the settlers and the freedom of the individual artist to interpret his subject either realistically or symbolically.
The Varied Cultures
Unlike Egyptian art, Mesopotamian art differed from one chronogical division to another, owing to the successive dominance of groups possessing different cultures. The only difference between Sumerian and Babylonian culture was one of language, which does not materially affect visual art except for inscriptions. The Hittites, coming from the barbarian northwest, evidenced little technical skill and demonstrated definite provincialism of style. The Assyrians tended to absorb all the artistic influences in the ancient Orient as well as those in the West. They adopted and elaborated all the earlier culture traits and are often called the Romans of Mesopotamia. The Persians were the cultural heirs of the Assyrians, and much of their art was influenced by their contemporaries, the Greeks. The Hebrews, owing to prohibitions of Mosaic Law, did not develoved an independent artistic. The nomad Hebrews had no tradition of permanent building, nor the trades of carpenters, blacksmiths, and artisans, untill centuries later. Thus Temple of Solomon was an adaptation of the Mesopotamian palace and courtyards, with its complex plan of sacred precincts built of fine imported materials by Hiram of Tyre.
Individuality of Artist
The variation in the technical character of Mesopotamian art can be explained partly on the grounds of chronology and partly by the divergence in the degree of sophistication possessed by the many contrasting cultural groups, from the cultural isolation of the remote Hittite outposts at Sinjirli and Boghaz in Asia Minor to the cities on the busy banks of the Tigris Euphrates. But there were also other considerations. In the British Museum there are two Assyrian reliefs from the reign of Ashurbanipal. One is refined and graceful, showing a battle with the nude, camel riding Arabs pursued by clothed Assyrian cavalry. The other is awkward in scale the figures of the king and his wife dining, waited upon by servants, are dumpy and inelegant. This divergence of one national style within limited chronological bounds suggests that such individualism was the result of the freedom from hieratic restriction, with the imposition of no definitive standards.
Mesopotamian reliefs expressed feelings, attitudes, and opinions in a manner never revealed in Egyptian art, The stele of Naram Sin, the grandson of Sargon of Akkad shows the Babylonian warrior king striding purposefully and triump up the side of mountain while the fallen warrior at his feet writhes in an attempt to withdraw the spear thrust into his throat. The enemy beyond seeing the hero approach is prepared for any eventuallity and although in position to flee if necessary, turns back to beg for mercy. The wounded beasts in the “Lion Hunt of Assurnasirpal II” attack the chariot in rage. The Assyrian relief of the bleeding lioness, howling in anguish as she drags her paralyzed hind legs, reveals the artist’s recognition of pain and suffering. The realism based on observation is not apparent in the poised never-never land of Egyptian art.
Descriptive Realism and Symbolism
Mesopotamian art combined two divergent elements descriptive realism and symbolism. Real landscape in the mountain forest through which the army of Naram Sin marched was used simultaneously with the superimposed bethel. The bethel was also used in the symbolic footstool or mountain range beneath Marduk in the Hamurabi stele. Purely realistic items were used in Mesopotamian art, such as the quiver of spare javelins at the back of Enneatum’s chariot in the Vulture Stele. The obverse of the same stele, however refers to a figure of speech, a purely literary expression “casting a net over the enemies” referring to conquest.
The theme of composite or imaginary animals, universal in ancient art was especially conventional in Assyrian and Persian art. The winged genie (magical spirits) on walls and the human headed bulls at gateways had a decorative formal elegance unmatched by other Mesopotamian art. The bulls were treated as relief sculpture from the side and as freestanding sculpture from the front, showing four legs from each side. Muscles of both human beings and animals were treated in a decorative and highly stylized way. The fringes on the heavy costumes were presented in full detail but defy the law of gravity for they rarely hang down.