Substantive Education

October 20, 2008

Art History

Along with homeschooling my own children I also teach some classes.  I’ve been using the pages feature of this blog to keep my students updated on their homework assignments, which takes up a great deal of time and keeps me from adding new posts to this site.  I’ve decided to add some of my class notes for Ancient Art  and History classes here, because I’ve found it fascinating, so hopefully you will too.  Most of my information from Marilyn Stokstad’s textbook, Art History and the images from various museum collection I found on the web.  I’m breaking up the information into several posts.   Enjoy

The Art of Babylon

The Amorites were a Semitic speaking people from the Arabian desert who moved west and reunited Sumer under the leadership of Hammurabi. Hammurabi built his capital in Babylon and his people became known as Babylonians.  His most notable achievement was a written legal code.  During the history of Babylonian dominence they were able to expand their empire beyond the Fertile Crescent into Egypt, Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and east into what is today Iraq. Ruling a vast empire with limited transportation options and no mass communication presented challenges we can hardly understand.  Yet, it would appear Hammurabi was a wise and fair ruler who managed it.  Up to this point the law was at the discretion of the ruler and was often unfair and arbitrary.  The rich could, and were expected to, bribe their way out of trouble and laws rarely applied to them.  Kings and rulers were above the law. Although we would be horrified at many of Hammurabi’s laws they were a huge step forward.  It is true they were biased in terms of wealth, class, and gender.  For instance, a woman commiting incest was burned, a man banished, however neither escaped judgement.  It is hard for us to appreciate what a giant step forward this was.  He was attempting, for the first time, to create a society regulated by published laws and their consequences…not on the whim of rulers.

Hammurabi’s codes were written on what is called a Stele.  The one pictured her is currently at the Louvre in Paris.  The Stele (or megalith) is made of black basalt and stands 7 feet high.  In the tradition of Ancient art It depicts a legendary event, the conversation about justice between god and man.  At the same timing it is an historical document recording laws and their punishments.

At the top of the stele we see Hammurabi and Shamash, the sun god and god of justice conversing.  They are on a mountain top indicated by the three tiers on which Shamash rests his feet.  Hammurabi stands in an attitude of prayer and attentiveness as he listens carefully.  Shamash sits on a backless throne, dressed in a traditional flounced robe wearing a cylindrical hat.  Flames rise from his shoulders and additional symbols of power include a measuring rod and rope.  He gives Hammurabi the laws because he is the intermediary between the god and his people.  From the base of this scene the laws are recorded in horizontal bands flowing to the base of the stele.  The words are written in cuneform.  The writing includes a prologue which tells of Hammurabi’s restoration of temples and his role as a peacemaker seeking to ensure uniform treatment of his subjects.   One sentence declares, “to cause justice to prevail in the land and to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak nor the weak the strong”

The concept of god-given laws engraved in stone is a longstanding tradition in the Ancient Near East.  You have probably noted the similarities to the story of Moses, known as the Lawgiver of Israel, who received the law from God on Mt. Sinai.  God wrote these laws on two stone tablets.

Hammurabi ruled Babylon from 1792 until 1750 B.C.  Babylon was in power for several centuries, eventually being conquered by the Assyrians.  We will get to them in a moment…but first let’s continue with Babylon which had a rebirth in 615 B.C.   This new Babylon or Neo-Babylon’s most famous ruler was Nebuchadnezzar II who we remember for his suppression of the Jews recorded in the book of Daniel.  He was a great patron of architecture and transformed the city of Babylon.  The city was traversed by the Processional Way.  In some places it was 66 feet wide and was used for religious processions.  It ended at the Ishtar Gate, the ceremonial entrance to the city.  The walls on either side of the route were faced with dark blue bricks.  Against this background specially molded turquoise, blue and gold bricks formed the images of striding lions which were the image of the goddess Ishtar.

The double arched Istar Gate was a symbol of Babylonian power.  It was guarded by four crenellated (notched) towers and decorated with horned dragons that had the head and body of a snake, the forelegs of a lion, and the hind legs of a bird of prey.  These were considered sacred the god Marduk.  Other animals and dieties were also honored on the gates.  The Istar Gate has been reconstructed inside of a Berlin Museum.

New-Babylon was also renowned for containing one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World…the fabled terraced and irrigated Hanging Gardens.  This is just an artist renderings of what we believe the gardens would have looked like.

I think that is enough for today.  Tomorrow we will look at Assyrian art.

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1 Comment »

  1. It really is amazing everything that has gone on in this part of the world. Such rich history and art…

    Comment by Ellen — October 22, 2008 @ 2:49 am | Reply


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