The Art of the Middle East Including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine

By Leonard Woolley | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
SUMER AND AKKAD; THE SARGONID AGE AND THE THIRD DYNASTY OF UR TO THE TIME OF HAMMURABI

The success of the Amorite Sargon of Akkad in establishing his suzerainty over the whole of Mesopotamia must have had a profound effect upon the people, for art, not merely the court art of the palace but the popular art, undergoes a sudden and a drastic change. Sargon's short-lived dynasty (c. 2380-2223 B.C.) has left few major monuments, but the cylinder seals are so numerous as to make comparison with the past as easy as it is informative, and for art in general the seals are an admirable criterion.

Cylinder seals

THE SARGONID PERIOD

In the first place there is a change of subject. The ritual banquet scene preferred in the Early Dynastic period is dropped altogether; the 'Gilgamesh' motive continues; but there is now introduced a whole range of lively religious scenes, mythological subjects treated in a dramatic way. In the second place there is a change of style. In the previous period the gem-cutter overcrowded his composition, so much so that it was difficult, especially in the 'Gilgamesh' scenes, to disentangle the figures. In the Sargonid seals, which are often exquisitely engraved, the figures gain immensely in individual importance and acquire a new spatial value by being shown isolated against a plain background. Essentially this is pictorial as against decorative art. In the case of the 'Gilgamesh' scenes, where the subject is traditional, the contrast with the Early Dynastic seals is most obvious; each figure, whether of the demigod or of the beast he subdues, stands out as something having value in itself; and because it is not merely part of a pattern but the representation of real creatures it must be made as lifelike as possible, and therefore the modelling of the relief becomes much more intricate and naturalistic. With the mythological scenes the subject is necessarily more complex and the gem-cutter has to build up his picture with greater detail, and that within the narrow limits of his cylinder; thus in the Etana legend, a goatherd driving his beasts out from the byre sets the scene, the eagle carries Etana up to heaven, his fellow-herdsman looks up in distress, shading his eyes, his two dogs sit and bay the moon, and while one man runs to tell the news we have a seated figure with a row of vases which perhaps signify the farm. The story, so fully told,

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