An urban society based on a surplus-producing agriculture developed in Mesopotamia in the fourth-millennium Uruk period. This allowed for professional specialization since a system of rations freed the individual from having to engage in food-procuring activities. Furthermore, social stratification and the concentration of wealth created a demand for specially produced items as a form of “conspicuous consumption.” Craftsmen worked on imported metals and semiprecious and precious stones to produce prized artifacts that adorned the bodies and houses of elites, such as those found in the lavishly provided “royal graves” at Ur.
   Pictorial representation was primarily developed on a miniature scale, as engraved on cylinder seals, which were widely used to authorize access to classified sectors of the palace or temple economy. Despite stylistic variations, the image repertoire was essentially stereotypical, relying on configurations of animals, humans, deities, or mythical creatures.
   The requirements of the cult in Mesopotamian temples called for statues, either as cult images of deities or their symbols, which were made operative through magical ceremonies, such as the “Opening of the Mouth,” that transformed the man-made effigy into a receptive representation of the divine. Very few cult statues have survived since they were often made from precious materials. In the Early Dynastic period, wealthy individuals and rulers of city-states commissioned portrait statues made of stone to be placed within the temples to remain forever within the presence of the gods. These statues, often of seated men and sometimes women, were executed with great economy from a single block of hard stone and show an unusual concern with physiognomy. Large-scale sculptures in the round of rulers such as Gudea of Lagash, many of them exhibited in the Louvre in Paris, were originally intended for ritual purposes. Monumental art could also serve to memorialize military triumphs, such as the “Stele of Vultures” by Eannatum or the various stelae by the kings of the Akkad period.
   The ideological function of art is most clearly visible in the orthostat reliefs of Assyrian palaces. Here the corridors were lined with stone slabs that showed scenes of the Assyrian army in its relentless pursuit of victory, while the throne rooms depicted the religious and ritual role of the king. The private quarters of King Ashurbanipal at Nineveh were adorned with reliefs of hunting, most famously of the king killing lions and other royal beasts. Fragments of wall paintings in Assyrian provincial palaces at Mari and Dur-Kurigalzu clearly show the primacy of line drawing with color as infill. The ubiquitous Mesopotamian clay was the material for popular art, in the form of terra-cotta figurines and plaques, often mass-produced in molds. They show a wider repertoire than monumental art, including scenes from daily life, as well as demons, protective deities, copulating couples, and various animals.
   See also CRAFTS.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.

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