Humanities Uncategorized

An Introduction to Near Eastern Art

The civilizations of the ancient Near East expressed their cultures through art in a variety of forms. By examining the similarities and differences in monumental art such as murals, bas-reliefs and statuary, to be specific, the level to which the Assyrian, Hittite, Egyptian, and Minoan cultures engaged with one another will, again, become clearer. Monumental art such as murals and bas-reliefs were used in a variety of ways; besides adorning the palace walls for the personal enjoyment of the royal family and palace officials, they served as a medium which could be employed to preserve the legacy of a king throughout the ages. Bas-reliefs and murals were also used extensively in religious settings where they adorned and glorified gods on the walls of temples across the ancient Near East and Aegean. As art progressed, many attempts were made at sculpting in the round and they concluded with varying degrees of success. The use of statuary, like with bas-reliefs and murals, also varied and was used for entertainment and decorative purposes but also for religious purposes.

The Assyrians had varying success in their attempts at sculpture, their soft medium allowed for a high level of ornamentation and intricacy. However, this also led to exaggeration commonly seen in the areas of exposed skin. It was a result of the idea that it was shameful to be depicted in the nude, which was also recognized by the Hittites and Egyptians, which led to the high stylization and exaggeration of some parts of the body and muscular system. Commonly, Assyrian themes revolved around military campaign or the hunt and it was in the hunt that the Assyrians created their best work.

Fig. 1

However, as with their seals, their depictions of human figures often came off as stiff even though they excelled in forming animals of all types and poses. The Assyrians attempted sculpture in the round, but often reverted back to bas-relief which, in places, does approach the round. For instance, the human headed winged bulls of the Neo-Assyrian period (Fig. 1) often approach the round in spots such as the head; however the majority of the body is done in a high relief on one side of a block.

The Hittites achieved the same if not slightly less success in sculpture, often less clean or, in some senses, less aggressive than the Assyrians, their figures took slightly more natural and round characteristics; however, this is not to say that they were void of the geometric and static style that also occupied the arts of Assyria and Egypt. Hittite bas-relief can be seen as quite advanced in its ability to form natural rock formations into scenes depicting a variety of images. Sculpture in the Hittite culture mainly depicted deities where statuary played the lead role in a temples daily activities.

Although the Egyptian artistic world revolved around the glorification of gods and kings, who were considered gods, a variety of scenes can be seen in their statues but, more frequently, their bas-reliefs. The bas-reliefs of the Egyptian are strictly static in their representation of scenes, and their employment of fractional representation and hierarchical scale differs largely from that of other Near-Eastern and Aegean civilizations. Both statuary and relief depict their images along set guidelines where people and gods were identified by certain colors, mediums, objects being held or worn, and by a direct identification through text inscribed on the piece. It can be examined that text is much more prevalent on the bas-reliefs and statuary of the Egyptians both overall and in the commencing of their civilization than can be seen in the arts of Anatolia, Assyria, and Minoa. This is because of the Egyptian religious obligation to create an earthly station for individual gods in statuary, leading to the wide use of inscription on statuary. The Egyptians advanced governing system and riches, which would require adequate chronicles also were a source of the frequent inscriptions we see on bas-reliefs from Egypt. Hierarchical scale is also an indicator of power or godliness; for instance, it is common to have a series of vertically organized reliefs conclude in one colossal image of a king, who was thought to be a god.

In Minoa, as with their seals, the art work of the Minoans can be seen as organic and flowing in style with some heavy stylization in certain time periods. Minoan culture is, again, largely rejecting of a common art form seen in the ancient Near East: the bas-reliefs so prevalent in Assyrian, Egyptian, and Hittite cultures. It is commonly replaced by murals on the Minoans walls with the exception of a few examples of painted reliefs that can be found at the palace of Knossos. Unlike the bas-reliefs of the mainland Near East cultures, the reliefs of the Minoans often depict scenes of everyday life and nature as opposed to the war and religious glorification. However, there are some similarities. For examples, as in Egyptian murals, the men are painted in a brown hue while women appear much more pale. In addition, the Minoans share with the Egyptians in their use of hierarchical scale to denote importance or emphasize one or more images. In statuary the Minoans differ slightly less from the works of the Assyrians, Hittites, and Egyptians. Their statues employ a geometric style similar to that used in Egyptian statues which contrasts with the organic and dynamic properties of their paintings. Overall there is a lack of monumental works of art left to be observed in Minoan culture: a reasonable idea is that the lack of statuary and large art works can be attributed to their religion which, unlike those of the Near East, did not call for such works.

Examining the bas-relief and statuary of the Assyrians, Egyptians, Hittites, and Minoans, will lead to a further understanding of how these cultures interacted with each other and to what degree they exchanged ideas and artistic styles.  Bas-relief and statuary provide insight into the governing powers and into the religious life of these cultures and, although they are separated by differing religions, their depictions of scenes can be a seen as shared from one region to another.


  1. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute