Art History for Normal People: Mesopotamia

We begin our sprint through art history with a brief look at ancient Mesopotamia. The cultures we call “ancient Mesopotamia” – Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Akkadian, to name a few – existed for millennia and occupied many thousands of square miles. The word mesopotamia means “between rivers,” namely, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, whose annual floods were responsible for sustaining life.

Art History for Normal People

Art and Liturgy - mesopotamia fertile crescent map

Despite the vast time and distance that separates us from the ancient Sumerians, there are some nifty artistic things worth a look.

Victory Stele of Naram-SinThis is the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin. (Click the image to view it full-size.) It comes from the Akkadian dynasty, around 2250 BC. The warrior-king, Naram-Sin, has ascended to the top of the mountain on the backs of his vanquished enemies. Two things are noteworthy for us: the first is that he is wearing a horned helmet. Like we talked about with Moses, these horns indicate divinity and power. The Akkadians believed their kings to be deities. The second thing to note is the constellation near the top. These stars represent other deities, even more powerful and distant than the king. Even in the earliest civilizations in the world, we see a notion that the gods reside somewhere in the sky.

Mesopotamian alabaster worshipper statuetteWe see this idea repeated in the many “worshipper statues” found throughout the region. These were small votive figurines made of alabaster. Nearly all of them have creepy eyes and most of them are looking upwards in prayer. Again we see a recognition that the divine must be somewhere that transcends our messy and uncomfortable human existence. In the hot, vast, dusty plains of the ancient Middle East, that place was “up.”

Because the gods were all “up,” naturally, humans began to build places to go meet them. Mesopotamian societies built ziggurats, a word you may remember since “Ziggurat” was the computer opponent’s name in Windows 95 Chess. Though these ziggurats are squat by modern standards, these mud-brick structures towered over the desert landscape. What a sight they must have been! Only priests were allowed inside the ziggurat; their job was to care for the gods who resided within.

Art and Liturgy - Ziggurat of Ur - Babylonian Mesopotamian archaeology Christian Catholic architecture
The Ziggurat of Ur, located in modern-day southeastern Iraq

This need to go “up” to meet God is seemingly an innate human urge, and it will become important for us later on. It is not a distinctly Indo-European thing, either — Aztec and Inca pyramids come to mind. It is something interesting to keep in mind as we move forward.

Finally, no exploration of Mesopotamian art would be complete without a look at the bearded lamassu, a mythical creature with a human head, an ox’s body, and an eagle’s wings. They guarded the gates of cities and citadels. I have nothing important to say about them, but they are super awesome.

Bearded lamassu (mythological winged bull)


Header image by Josep Renalias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Map by PB_Hausarbeiten is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Photo of victory stele by Rosemaniakos from Bejing (hometown)Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo of ziggurat by Hardnfast, CC BY 3.0,

Photo of lamassu: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons