Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Sumerian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Statue of Gudea

Period: Neo-Sumerian
Date: ca. 2090 B.C.
Geography: Mesopotamia, probably from Girsu (modern Tello)
Culture: Neo-Sumerian
Medium: Diorite
Dimensions: 17 3/8 x 8 1/2 x 11 5/8 in. (44 x 21.5 x 29.5 cm)
Classification: Stone-Sculpture-Inscribed
Credit Line: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1959
Accession Number: 59.2
The Akkadian Empire collapsed after two centuries of rule, and during the succeeding fifty years, local kings ruled independent city-states in southern Mesopotamia. The city-state of Lagash produced a remarkable number of statues of its kings as well as Sumerian literary hymns and prayers under the rule of Gudea (ca. 2150–2125 B.C.) and his son Ur-Ningirsu (ca. 2125–2100 B.C.). Unlike the art of the Akkadian period, which was characterized by dynamic naturalism, the works produced by this Neo-Sumerian culture are pervaded by a sense of pious reserve and serenity.

This sculpture belongs to a series of diorite statues commissioned by Gudea, who devoted his energies to rebuilding the great temples of Lagash and installing statues of himself in them. Many inscribed with his name and divine dedications survive. Here, Gudea is depicted in the seated pose of a ruler before his subjects, his hands folded in a traditional gesture of greeting and prayer.

The Sumerian inscription on his robe reads as follows:

When Ningirsu, the mighty warrior of Enlil, had established a courtyard in the city for Ningišzida, son of Ninazu, the beloved one among the gods; when he had established for him irrigated plots(?) on the agricultural land; (and) when Gudea, ruler of Lagaš, the straightforward one, beloved by his (personal) god, had built the Eninnu, the White Thunderbird, and the..., his 'heptagon,' for Ningirsu, his lord, (then) for Nanše, the powerful lady, his lady, did he build the Sirara House, her mountain rising out of the waters. He (also) built the individual houses of (other) great gods of Lagaš. For Ningišzida, his (personal) god, he built his House of Girsu. Someone (in the future) whom Ningirsu, his god - as my god (addressed me) has (directly) addressed within the crowd, let him not, thereafter, be envious(?) with regard to the house of my (personal) god. Let him invoke its (the house's) name; let such a person be my friend, and let him (also) invoke my (own) name. (Gudea) fashioned a statue of himself. "Let the life of Gudea, who built the house, be long." - (this is how) he named (the statue) for his sake, and he brought it to him into (his) house.

This translation is derived from Edzard, Dietz-Otto. 1997. Gudea and his Dynasty. The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia, Early Periods Volume 3/1. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 57-58.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Standing female worshiper

Early Dynastic IIIa
ca. 2600–2500 B.C.
Mesopotamia, Nippur
Limestone, inlaid with shell and lapis lazuli
H. 9 13/16 x W. 3 3/8 x D. 2 1/8 in. (24.9 x 8.5 x 5.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1962
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 403
This statue of a standing woman with her hands clasped in front of her chest was found in the plasterings of a mud-brick bench located in one of the cellars of the Nippur temple of Inanna (Level VIIB), the Sumerian goddess of abundance. Her garment is draped over her left shoulder and falls in folds indicated by two incised lines along the border of the otherwise smooth fabric. The feet are carved in high relief against the back support and the toes and ankles are clearly indicated. The wavy hair is held in place by two plain bands, and curly locks hang down on either side of the face. Inlay of shell and lapis lazuli survives in her left eye. The best-preserved statues at Nippur are those that were buried within the temple furniture, like this example. Such deliberate burials suggest that temple offerings and equipment remained sacred even when no longer in use.
1960–61, excavated on behalf of the Joint Expedition to Nippur (Baghdad School of the American Schools of Oriental Research and The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago); acquired by the Museum in 1962, as a result of its financial contribution to the excavations. 
Mesopotamia, 8000-2000 B.C.
Stamp and cylinder seals
Stamp and cylinder seals are a crucial source for the art, history, and religion of the ancient Near East. The rulers, gods, demons, and monsters that move in stately and seemingly dumb procession around the seals give us important insights into the real and magical worlds of the ancients. Cylinder and stamp seals were among the first objects to enter the Museum's collection from the Near East.

In 1874 a large and interesting group was included in the Cesnola collection of ancient Cypriot art, and in 1886 cylinder and stamp seals from Mesopotamia—as well as more than three hundred cuneiform tablets—were acquired from William H. Ward. Through its participation in excavations and through gifts and purchases, the Museum has received since that time over a thousand stamp and cylinder seals from all periods and regions in the pre-Islamic Near East.

This catalogue and the exhibition in the Museum's Recent Acquisitions gallery acknowledge the generous gift of more than two hundred and fifty seals from the Martin and Sarah Cherkasky collection of stamp and cylinder seals. It is an important gift—one that substantially strengthens and supplements the Museum's holdings. Additionally, the exhibition includes a number of objects from the permanent collection for comparative and illustrative purposes.

Cylinder seal


Period: Old Babylonian
Date: ca. 18th–17th century B.C.
Geography: Mesopotamia
Culture: Babylonian
Medium: Hematite
Dimensions: 0.94 in. (2.39 cm)
Classification: Stone-Cylinder Seals-Inscribed
Credit Line: Gift of Martin and Sarah Cherkasky, 1987
Accession Number: 1987.96.5
Although engraved stones had been used as early as the seventh millennium B.C. to stamp impressions in clay, the invention in the fourth millennium B.C. of carved cylinders that could be rolled over clay allowed the development of more complex seal designs. These cylinder seals, first used in Mesopotamia, served as a mark of ownership or identification. Seals were either impressed on lumps of clay that were used to close jars, doors, and baskets, or they were rolled onto clay tablets that recorded information about commercial or legal transactions.

The seals were often made of precious stones. Protective properties may have been ascribed to both the material itself and the carved designs. Seals are important to the study of ancient Near Eastern art because many examples survive from every period and can, therefore, help to define chronological phases. Often preserving imagery no longer extant in any other medium, they serve as a visual chronicle of style and iconography.

The modern impression of the seal is shown so that the entire design can be seen. This seal features a three line inscription and a scene with the goddess Ishtar, who is shown wearing an open robe and holding a mace in her raised right hand and a scimitar in her left. Weapons emerge from her shoulders and she stands on a lion-headed eagle. Facing her is a man with a mace standing on a platform and behind him stands a suppliant goddess. Presentation scenes – featuring a worshipper before a deity or ruler – were common motifs on seals of the Old Babylonian period. The use of hematite, a dark colored hard stone, is another characteristic of seal production in this period.


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