World History Episode 3 Mesopotamia (Time Stamp 8:08 & 9:12)
Assyrian Relief Sculptures, 700 - 681 BCE
Context in CC: “The Assyrians have a deserved reputation for being the brutal bullies of Mesopotamia. The Assyrians did give us an early example of probably the most important and durable form of political organization in world history and also Star Wars history: the empire.” So the Assyrians had to build their empire through brutal and terrifying conquest, but lucky for us art historians, they chronicled their mighty conquests on the wall of their palaces.
Greater Historical/Art Historical Relevance: There is a great collection of Assyrian relief sculptures in the British Museum including the one pictured here from the Assyrian city of Nineveh. The one pictured here illustrates what John describes as the Assyrians being the epic bullies of Mesopotamia. It depicts the siege and capture of the city of Lachish, in the kingdom of Judah in the southern Levant. Here’s the description that the British Museum give to describe the narrative of these reliefs:
“Having been exiled from their city, the people of Lachish move through the countryside to be resettled elsewhere in the Assyrian Empire. Below them high officials and foreigners are being tortured and executed. It is likely that they are being flayed alive…The foreigners are possibly officers from Nubia. The Nubians were seen as sharing responsibility for the rebellion. Much of Egypt at this time was ruled by a line of kings from Nubia (the Twenty-fifth Dynasty) who were keen to interfere in the politics of the Levant, to contain the threat of Assyrian expansion” (1).
So yeah, the Assyrians were the bullies of ancient Mesopotamia, and they made sure that images of their strength and epic conquest were preserved for posterity. This relief is from the palace of King Sennacherib who came to power in 704 BCE and took Lachish in 701 BCE.
Bonus Vocabulary: A relief sculpture is a piece of art in which the main content, usually figures, appear to raised above the background, but not separated from it. Low relief is when the figure are closer to the base, while high relief means they appear almost free from it, but are still attached. Sunken relief is when the figures are carved into the background. Sunken relief is more common in Egyptian art.
World History Episode 3 Mesopotamia (Time Stamp 6:29)
Stele of Hammurabi, Babylon, 18th Century BCE
Context in CC: So the actual stele isn’t pictured in Crash Course, but I felt like it was important enough to include and talk about it here. “The most famous of these early monarchs is Hammurabi, or as I remember him from my high school history class, ‘The Hammer of Abi!’ Hammurabi ruled the new kingdom of Babylon from 1792 BCE to 1792 BCE. Hammurabi’s main claim to fame is his famous law code.” So Hammurabi had to have a way to tell the people about his law code, right? So he put it on a piece of rock and took it to all the cities.
Greater Historical/Art Historical Relevance: So the Stele of Hammurabi…Stele? What’s a stele? A stele is basically a thin piece of rock, taller than it is wide, which is used to commemorate or display…something. If you ever study ancient art history, it’s one of those key vocab words that gets thrown around a lot until you’ve gleaned what it actually means. So now that we’ve covered that, we can move on.
So Hammurabi had his really awesome law code, which, while incredibly harsh at times, was just the first to establish any sort of socio-political organization. Or the first for which we have evidence. This Stele, made of black basalt, was probably one of many spread through out the kingdom, but it’s the only one that has made it this long still intact. The lower part contains 3500 lines of text, most outlining punishments and penalties.
In the upper part, a relief sculpture, demonstrates that the king’s laws were inspired and approved by the god of justice, Shamash. Hammurabi is the standing figure, while the god sits, showing that he is farther up on the hierarchical scale. The image shows the god giving advice or perhaps even the laws themselves to Hammurabi. The relief allows the people to show the same faith in Hammurabi as they would in the decisions of the divine.
Giovanni Curatola ed., Art and Architecture of Mesopotamia (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2006), 69 - 72.
World History Episode 3 Mesopotamia (Time Stamp 1:09)
Apollo in Vulcan’s Forge, Diego Velazquez, 1630
Context in CC: “These early Mesopotamian cities engaged in a form of socialism, where farmers contributed to their crops to public storehouses out of which workers, like metal workers or builders or male models or whatever, would be paid uniform wages in grain.” Basically, Crash Course uses Velasquez’s painting to illustrate some metal workers.
Greater Historical/Art Historical Relevance: So the first object from the Mesopotamia episode isn’t Mesopotamian at all, but Spanish Baroque. It’s also the first piece I’ve been able to discuss here that has a pretty meaty narrative. So what exactly is going on in this picture?
The painting is much more than some simple metal workers in their shop. This forge belongs to the god Vulcan (second from the left), the Roman god of fire. Apollo, farthest to the left with glowing laurel crown and orange tunic, comes to warn Vulcan that his wife is having an affair with Mars, the god of war.
The bodies of the smiths in Vulcan’s forge are all idealized. Velazquez painted this in Rome, and was probably looking at ancient Greco-roman sculpture, but the faces of all the men are much more earthly, much more realistic. They are not the stoic faces often associated with Greco-roman sculpture; instead they are more expressive. The exchange between Vulcan and Mars sort of sums up Velazquez’s main source of content: the conflict between a sort of divine ideal and something more earthly.
“Apollo, god of poetry and music and knower of the truth, represents the superiority of Art over Craft, which is embodied by Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and protector of blacksmiths. This work was totally conceived by Velasquez and wasn’t commissioned by anyone. It constitutes praise of artists by raising painting to the level of poetry and music and distancing it from the work of craftsmen”(1).
Velazquez is taking on a theme that had been developing since the renaissance. The artist began to appear as genius, to have an almost divine power to create distancing himself from the craftsman, who was merely a skilled worker. Before the renaissance this divide didn’t really exist. Craftsman (painters, wood carvers, metal workers, etc) worked in city-based guilds.