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Art History

Category: History

Art History I Ancient to Medieval incorporates various different methodologies. Among them includes becoming familiar with cultural history, which is defined as the use of all relevant sources of information to place the artist and/or the work of art in the context of the “cultures” which produced them. This methodology includes the examination of various different elements produced by culture.

For purposes of the reading response, cultural history here specifically examines documentary evidence. The goal of this assignment is to examine the relationship of art to writings produced at the same period. Like formal analysis, this investigation assists in the contextualization and interpretation of a work of art.

The instructor will distribute reading(s) for this assignment. Students should carefully read, process and review the readings to become intimately familiar with the presented ideas/concepts (this is an excellent assignment to employ the “Active Reading Strategies” presented in ACAD 1000). After completing the reading as assigned, compose a response following the below provided directions.


The assignment consists of two sections: a summary of the assigned reading(s) and your response.

In the summary, identify and describe the thesis or main idea made by the author(s) and the supporting arguments, and evidence presented. Include citations in CMS format for references to the readings and any specific art works mentioned within your summary.

The reading response should provide a comprehensive critique and exploration of the presented material. In your response, you should address assumptions and implications, identify intent, attitude, tone and bias, and, finally, analyze the argument(s) made by the author.

Your response should analyze, contextualize, relate, and reveal what and how the readings reveal about the art historical, historical, and cultural context.

You may refer to course content, lectures/presentations, as well as the textbook within your response.

Include citations in CMS format for references to any readings, lectures/presentations, and any specific art works mentioned within your response.

34 The Royal Image

The Royal Image

Images of humans, especially of rulers, tend to emphasize ideal characteristics

rather than naturalistic ones. Royal images usually convey

either piety (in the ruler’s role as servant of the gods and builder of

temples) or might (in the ruler’s role as protector and enlarger of his

realm). Images of royalty in pious attitudes with clasped hands and

serene gazes generally took the form of sculpture in the round. Such

statues were placed in temples where they represented the ruler’s

eternal presence. Rulers engaged in more dynamic acts of piety,

such as ritual or building activities, were more likely to be shown in

relief since the format allows the narrative action to unfold across the

surface. Royal images illustrating might, with the ruler shown victorious

over a vanquished enemy or hunting lions (see “Animals and

Humans,” pp. 30 –33), were most often shown in large reliefs on walls

within the palace complex, metal vessels, or on cylinder seals which

conveyed similar narratives on a minute scale.

Although rulers sometimes were identified by their names and

lists of their accomplishments, their images were rarely intended to

be portraits or likenesses, although some may appear so to us today.

They were generally shown with idealized physical features that were

meant to convey strength, wisdom, or other qualities associated with

good leadership (FIG. 16). As with many representations in ancient

Near Eastern art, the consistency of such artistic conventions allowed

these concepts to be clearly expressed in a society in which few people

could read and relied instead on visual literacy.

While statues of rulers were not meant to be portraits, they did

possess a life force when set up in their original contexts. We know

this because texts record that certain rituals were performed in

order to “bring them to life”; they were bathed, fed, and cared for,

much like statues of deities (see “Communicating with the Divine,”

pp. 39 –42). Images of rulers were thus invested with power in their

visual form — power that could also be taken away. For instance, many

royal images were found with features such as eyes and noses mutilated

by conquering rulers, suggesting that the destruction of the

image was believed to also destroy its power and life force.

Royal images are defined by remarkably consistent attributes,

in spite of some variations over time and place. In the ancient Near

East, headdresses are generally the most recognizable markers of an

individual’s status. In fact, the donning of headgear itself indicates

elevated status of some sort. For the ruler, the brimmed cap is the

most widespread head attire during the later third and early second

millennia b.c., while later rulers depict themselves wearing a fez-like

Image 10

Image 19

Image 30

Image 11

Images 10, 29

Images 10, 11

Image 19

The Royal Image 35

cap. In one well-known instance, a ruler did not merely deify himself

in writing, but even adopted the horned crown reserved as a marker

of divinity in his representations (FIG. 17) (see “Communicating with

the Divine,” pp. 39 –42). This appropriation of the symbolism of gods

was perceived in subsequent periods as an act of hubris that led directly

to the downfall of his dynasty.

Other aspects of a figure’s appearance that help identify him as an

elite personage include a well-groomed beard and mustache and fine

garments. Rulers are uniformly depicted in this manner, showcasing

their refinement through their mastery of the civilized arts of grooming

and dress. While the details may differ in specific cases, the overall

effect is the same, whether the ruler depicts himself with a short but

elaborately woven kilt in Hittite Anatolia (FIG. 18) or a long, fringed

Distinctive headdress

Activities, such as the performance of rituals

Beard and mustache

Pronounced size and muscular physique

Long or elaborate garments

Symbols of rulership, such as a bow or a sword

Inscriptions that identify the ruler by name


Attributes of royalty

As shown in Relief of King Ashurnasirpal II (detail, image 19)

Image 11

36 The Royal Image

garment decorated with palmettes and fantastic creatures in the reliefs

of the Assyrian kings.

Beyond these aspects of personal appearance, rulers could also

underscore their status by including various symbols of their office

in their depictions. These include the rod and ring symbol handed to

Hammurabi by the god Shamash (FIG. 7), an explicit statement that

the king’s power to dispense justice and create order in his kingdom

derives directly from the gods. Weapons, such as a bow or a sword,

are common attributes that refer to the ruler’s might in the midst of

battle, even when no military action is depicted. Lions are also associated

with depictions of rulers from a very early period, and this

imagery persists for millennia (FIGS. 13,19) (see “Animals and Humans,”

pp. 30 –33). The strength and ferocity of the lion is closely identified

with that of the ruler, who is often shown grappling with lions or

slaughtering them, and thus claiming their power for himself. Even

when not shown in combat, lions retain a close association with the

office of the ruler and often appear in royal contexts.

Depictions of rulers generally emphasize their physical strength,

not only as a sign of their mastery over dangerous beasts and enemy

troops, but as an indication that they possess the essential qualities

necessary for effective leadership. For instance, texts written during

the reign of the late-third millennium b.c. ruler Gudea use the phrase

“strong arm” to describe the ruler’s physical power — a description

Image 19

Images 9, 25


Victory stele of Naram-Sin. The

Akkadian king Naram-Sin is the

largest figure in the scene. He

wears a horned crown, an attribute

of divinity, and treads upon

the bodies of defeated enemies.

Astral symbols of the gods

Shamash and Ishtar appear in the

sky above. Mesopotamia, Sippar;

found at Susa, Iran. Akkadian

period, reign of Naram-Sin, ca.

2254–2218 b.c. Limestone;

78 3/$ × 41 3/* in. (200 × 105 cm).

Musée du Louvre, Paris

paralleled in Gudea’s representation in sculpture, where he is shown

with an extremely well-muscled right arm. Other metaphoric phrases

in the languages of the ancient Near East indicate that even more

intangible qualities could be expressed in visual form. The epithet

“wide-eared” indicates wisdom, a quality obtained through careful

listening, which could thus be expressed in depictions of wise rulers

through an emphasis on representing almost protuberant ears. The

somewhat exaggerated features of rulers such as Gudea or the Assyrian

kings, with their enlarged features and bulging muscles, were thus

not meant to represent how these rulers actually appeared in life, but

rather to show them as the embodiment of qualities such as strength,

wisdom, and piety.

Rulers are also identified as such through the activities in which

they are shown participating. Among their characteristic deeds are

military campaigns, lion hunts, the performance of rituals, and the

building of temples, in all of which they are shown taking an active

role. For example, rulers record in texts that they actually participated in

making the symbolic first bricks laid as the foundation of a new temple,

to the extent of gathering and mixing the mud for those bricks (FIG. 23).

Activities with important symbolic significance such as these were often

recorded in texts, in which rulers list the achievements of their reigns

and express their desire to have their names live on in the memories of

later generations through recollection of their great accomplishments.

Image 10

Image 11

The Royal Image 37


Relief from King’s Gate. This

powerful male figure wears the

typical short, tightly wrapped

skirt worn by images of Hittite

gods and clasps an axe to his

chest, another indication of

his might. The relief originally

adorned a monumental stone

gateway at the Hittite capital.

Anatolia, Hattusa (modern

Bog?azköy), Hittite Empire period,

ca. 1350–1200 b.c. Limestone.

Ankara Museum of Anatolian


38 The Royal Image

One crucial way in which a ruler could live on in this manner was

through his representations, such as those featured in this resource.

In fact, the survival of many of these representations to the present

day would probably have been gratifying to the rulers who created

them. We know through texts that rulers specified the use of durable

and precious materials, such as diorite or bronze, in creating their

images so that they would last for many generations. They would

have been well aware of the monuments of earlier rulers that were

still visible during their lifetimes, such as the steles of Hammurabi

and Naram-Sin (FIGS. 7, 17), publicly displayed for many centuries in

Mesopotamian cities. The fact that these monuments were taken as

spoils of war by invading Elamite troops and carried off to the Elamite

capital of Susa in the twelfth century b.c., nearly a millennium after

the reign of Naram-Sin and six centuries after that of Hammurabi eloquently

demonstrates the lasting power in these images of rulership.


Detail of a relief fragment of a

lion hunt. In a display of royal

prowess, the Assyrian kings often

showed themselves hunting

lions, on reliefs, seals, and

other forms of official art. Here,

Ashurbanipal grasps a lion while

an attendant waits behind him

with arrows ready. Mesopotamia,

excavated at Nineveh, Palace

of Ashurbanipal, Neo-Assyrian

period, reign of Ashurbanipal, ca.

668–627 b.c. Gypsum alabaster;

entire slab 25 × 28 in. (63.5 × 71

cm). The Trustees of The British

Museum, London

Communicating with the Divine

gods and goddesses

Ancient Near Eastern spiritual beliefs were largely polytheistic and

were primarily concerned with the natural and cosmic forces that

affected people most profoundly. The pantheon of gods and goddesses

at any one time was considerably large; accumulated written records

list over 3,000 names of deities but their powers were not all equal.

Examination of ancient myths, legends, ritual texts, and images

reveals that most deities were anthropomorphic, or conceived in

human terms. They could be male or female, and often had families,

including children. Gods and goddesses generally lived a life of ease

and slumber, with needs for food, drink, housing, and care that mirrored

those of humans. In fact, according to ancient Near Eastern mythology,

humankind was created by the gods to ease their burdens and

provide them with the daily care and food they required. However,

they were still supreme beings: immortal, transcendent, awesome,

and mostly distant. Priests worshiped the great gods and goddesses of

the pantheon in rituals at religious centers, but ordinary people had

no direct contact with these deities. In their homes people worshiped

personal gods, minor deities who played a parental role and who could

intercede on their behalf with the great gods to ensure health and

protection for a worshipper and his or her family.

Certain gods and goddesses were associated with astral phenomena

such as the sun, moon, and stars, while others were connected to

forces of nature such as fresh or ocean waters or winds. These cosmic

features were often depicted as divine emblems or symbols. Many gods

and goddesses were also linked with specific animals. Visually, deities

could be alluded to by their emblems or animal forms as effectively

as by their anthropomorphic form. For example, Inanna/Ishtar, the

goddess of sexual love and war, could be represented by her emblem,

a rosette, or by her associated animal, a lion, as well as by a figure in

human form understood to be the goddess.

As early as the third millennium b.c., cuneiform tablets indicate

that gods and goddesses were also associated with cities. Each community

worshiped its city’s patron deity in the city’s main temple.

For instance, Inanna/Ishtar was worshiped at the city of Uruk. This

association of certain cities with a specific deity was celebrated in both

ritual and myth. A city’s political strength could be measured by the

prominence of its deity in the overall hierarchy of the gods.

Although deities were thought to live primarily in the heavens or

in the underworld, their presence was not restricted to the supernatural

realm, nor was it confined to a single location. For instance, gods

Image 15

Image 18

Image 23

Communicating with the Divine 39

40 Communicating with the Divine

and goddesses were believed to be physically present in the world of

humans in the form of their cult statues, which were created by their

human servants. However, a cult statue was not considered to have

this “enlivened” status until it was dedicated, when certain rituals

were performed in order to “bring it to life” or imbue it with the divine

presence of the deity that it represented. After these rituals, the image

was placed in a temple, believed to be the deity itself, and considered

Characteristics that help distinguish deities from other human figures include:

Symbols and attributes of selected Mesopotamian divinities include:

Ea, the god of wisdom and sweet waters: a

creature with the forepart of a goat and tail

of a fish, called a goat-fish; streams of water

emanating from his shoulders or from a vessel

held in his hands

Inanna/Ishtar, the goddess of sexual

love and war: a rosette or star; weapons

emanating from her shoulders; or a lion.

Inanna is the Sumerian name of the goddess,

while Ishtar is her Akkadian name.

Shamash, the sun god and god of justice:

a sun disk; rays emanating from his

shoulders; a saw

Sin, the moon god: a crescent moon

u Activities and settings, such as libations

or the presence of a temple façade

Images 17, 19

u Animal attributes or cosmic symbols

Images 15, 23

u Horned headdress

Images 16, 20

u Flounced robe

Images 15, 16

Adad, the storm god: forked lightning; a bull


Characteristics and attributes of divine figures

Illustrations after those by Tessa Rickards

to have the same needs as the deity. It was therefore washed, dressed,

given food and drink, and lavishly adorned. Texts refer to chests,

owned by the divinity, filled with gold rings, pendants, rosettes, stars,

and other types of ornaments that could be used to embellish the cult

images. The statues themselves are described in texts as fashioned out

of wood and other precious materials, which might explain why so

few are preserved. However, depictions of deities are frequently found

on an array of other artifacts, including architectural elements, relief

sculpture, vessels, jewelry, and seals. Representations of deities invested

these objects with divine power and protection. Gods and goddesses

are usually distinguished visually from mortals by their greater size

and by the presence of horned headgear. The style and details of these

divine images varied from region to region, as did the practices of their

cults; however, certain characteristics of divinity remain more or less

consistent through time and throughout the ancient Near East (FIG. 20).

fantastic creatures

Imaginary or fantastic creatures are frequently found in ancient Near

Eastern art. They are usually conceived of as composite in character

— combining naturally occurring anatomical parts in an unnatural

manner, at times making them appear monstrous or demonic. Even

the simple addition of wings to an animal such as a lion was understood

to transform it into a fantastic creature. Each of these various

beasts embodied supernatural power — in some this power was

harmful, in others it was protective.

For people in ancient times the world was full of fantastic creatures

— both good ones and bad ones — that constantly had to be

appeased, chased away, or enlisted for protection. When depicted,

some took on protective powers against the very evil that they or

other creatures represented; others were innately positive and helpful

spirits. Priests may have dressed in animal skins for certain rituals as a

way of achieving the same effect. Certain composite animals, such as

the human-headed lions and bulls that guarded the Assyrian palaces,

wear horned headdresses — typically worn by gods in the ancient Near

East but here perhaps meant to express that the protective power of

these animals derived from the divine realm.

While the specific identity of most of these creatures is not known,

their function is often suggested by their appearance or by the context

in which they are depicted. Images of composite beings were frequently

borrowed from other cultures: the sphinx came to Mesopotamia

from Egypt, and creatures such as the griffin from the ancient Near

Eastern world eventually found their way to Greece, Rome, and,

finally, Western Europe. Today these creatures are often referred to as

monsters or demons, although these modern terms do not fully and

accurately describe how the people of the ancient Near East would have

viewed them.

Images 12, 14, 19, 20, 22

Image 25

Image 20

Images 14, 22

Communicating with the Divine 41

Images 16, 17

42 Communicating with the Divine


Amulet with Lamashtu demon.

Lamashtu was a malevolent

female demon, who was thought

to be especially dangerous to

pregnant women and those in

childbirth. Images of Lamashtu

were thought to drive her away

and protect the vulnerable, such

as the sick man mentioned in

the inscription on this amulet.

Mesopotamia or Iran, early 1st

millennium b.c. Obsidian;

2 1/$ × 1 7/* in. (5.7 × 4.7 cm).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Purchase, James N. Spear Gift,

1984 (1984.348)

religion, magic, and medicine

In the ancient Near East religion, magic, and medicine were not

clearly differentiated from one another. Diseases were often attributed

to the work of deities or demons acting on behalf of deities,

as punishment for sins. Priests, magicians, shamans, and physicians

all appealed to supernatural beings to affect the health of their

patients. Exorcism, which drove a demon from the human being

that it inhabited and transferred it to another person or object, was

a commonly used technique. Amulets depicting a particular demon

were a practical means of apotropaic protection against the creature

itself and were also used to protect against and cure illness and other

misfortunes (FIG. 21).

Image 2

The Afterlife

For most of the history of the ancient Near East, the concept of an afterlife

does not appear to have occupied a central position in the visual

arts, as it did in ancient Egypt. In Mesopotamia, most human beings

were thought to survive after death as spirits or ghosts inhabiting the

netherworld, described in poetry and myth as a bleak place defined

by darkness and mourning where spirits ate clay instead of bread and

wore feathers instead of clothing. Descendants had a duty to make

offerings, including food and drink, to their deceased ancestors; if not

appeased with the proper gifts, the spirits of the dead could return to

the earth to haunt the living. The practice of giving offerings to the

dead was especially important to rulers, whose lasting fame depended

on the proper maintenance of their statues.

For rulers and other elite members of society, immortality could

also be obtained through heroic deeds, which would be remembered

by later generations. Some of this desire for renown after death can be

seen in the inscriptions left by kings below the foundations of temples

and palaces, often recording their achievements — including the construction

of such monumental buildings — and exhorting future kings

to honor and maintain the structures they have founded. Although

kings and queens were buried with splendid jewelry and grave goods,

funerary rituals like those carried out in the Royal Cemetery at Ur,

where dozens of richly adorned attendants were sacrificed to accompany

the primary occupants of certain burials, are rare in the ancient Near

East. Most people were buried in simple graves, sometimes accompanied

by a string of beads, a cylinder seal, or other personal effects,

either in cemeteries or beneath the floors of their houses, which

continued to be inhabited by their descendants. A remarkable exception

to this rule appears at Palmyra in the first to third centuries a.d.,

when monumental tombs sealed by carved gravestones commemorating

the name and image of the dead came into wide usage, perhaps

reflecting influence from Greco-Roman burial traditions.

Image 10

Image 7

Image 28

Image 9 The

Afterlife 43