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Arts of the ancient world

This article is part of the

Art history series.
Pre-historic art
Arts of the ancient world
European art history
Islamic art history
Arts of the Far East
Contemporary art

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Arts of Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), is often considered the "cradle of civilization." Within its boundaries, the most ancient civilizations known to man first developed writing and agriculture. Many civilizations flourished there, leaving behind a rich legacy of ancient art.


Sumeria is considered by many to be the first civilization - archaeological evidence attests to their existence during the 5th millennium BC. The Sumerians were the first to develop pottery. They decorated their works with cedar oil paints. The Sumerians also developed jewellery.

One of the most remarkable artifact remaining from the Sumerian civilization is known as the Standard of Ur . Dated to approximately 2500 B.C., the Standard is a wooden box inlaid with shells and lapis lazuli. It depicts soldiers presenting their king with prisoners on one side and peasants presenting him with gifts on the other - stunning evidence attesting to the vibrancy of art in this ancient culture.


The conquest of Sumeria and Akkad by Babylon marks a turning point in the artistic as well as political history of the region.

The Babylonians took advantage of the abundance of clay in Mesopotamia to create bricks. The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster and column, as well as of frescoes and enamelled tiles. The walls were brilliantly coloured, and sometimes plated with bronze or gold as well as with tiles. Painted terra-cotta cones were also embedded in the plaster.

The Babylonians were also great metal-workers, creating funtional and beautiful tools with copper. It is possible that Babylonia was the original home of copper-working, which spread westward with the civilization to which it belonged. In addition, the want of stone in Babylonia made every pebble precious and led to a high perfection in the art of gem-cutting. The arts of Babylon also included tapestries, and Babylonian civilization was from an early date famous for its embroideries and rugs.


Like all other kingdoms, the Babylonian kingdom did not last forever. When Babylon fell into decline it was eventually conquered by Assyria, one of its former colonies, Assyria inherited its arts as well as its empire.

At first, Assyrian architects and artists copied Babylonian styles and materials, but as time went by, however, the later Assyrians began to shake themselves free of Babylonian influences. The walls of the Assyrian palaces were lined with slabs of stone instead of brick, and were colored instead of painted as in Chaldea. In place of the bas relief we have scuplted figures, the earliest examples being the statues from Telloh which are realistic but somewhat clumsy.

No remarkable specimens of metallurgic art from early Assyria have been found, but at a later epoch great excellence was attained in the manufacture of such jewellery as ear-rings and bracelets of gold. Copper was also worked with skill.

The forms of Assyrian pottery were graceful; the porcelain, like the glass discovered in the palaces of Nineveh, was derived from Egyptian originals. Transparent glass seems to have been first introduced in the reign of Sargon II. Stone as well as clay and glass were employed in the manufacture of vases. Vases of hard stone have been disinterred at Tello similar to those of the early dynastic period of Egypt.

Ancient Egyptian Art

Because of the highly religious nature of Ancient Egyptian civilization, many of the great works of Ancient Egypt depict gods, goddesses, and Pharaohs, who were also considered divine.

Ancient Egyptian art is characerized by the idea of order. Clear and simple lines combined with simple shapes and flat areas of color helped to create a sense of order and balance in the art of ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptian artists used vertical and horizontal reference lines in order to maintain the correct porportions in their work. Political and religious, as well as artistic order, was also maintained in Egyptian art. In order to clearly define the social hierarchy of a situation, figures were drawn to sizes based not on their distance from the painter's point of view but on relative importance. For instance, the Pharaoh would be drawn as the largest figure in a painting no matter where he was situated, and a greater God would be drawn smaller than a lesser god. Symbolism also played an important role in establishing a sense of order. Symbolism, ranging from the Pharaoh's regalia (symbolizing his power to maintain order) to the individual symbols of Egyptian gods and goddesses, was ominpresent in Egyptian art . Animals were usually also highly symbolic figures in Egyptain art. Color, as well, had extended meaning— Blue and green represented the Nile and life; yellow stood for the sun god; and red represented power and vitality. The colors in Egyptian artifacts have survived extremely well over the centuries because of Egypt's dry climate.

Despite the stilted form caused by a lack of perspective, ancient Egyptian art is often highly realistic. Ancient Egyptian artists often show a sophisticated knowledge of anatomy and a close attention to detail, especially in their renderings of animals.

During the 18th Dynasty of Egypt a Pharaoh by the name of Akhenaton took the throne and abolished the traditional polytheism. He formed a monotheistic religion based on the worship of Aten, a sun god. Artistic change followed political upheval. A new style of art was introduced that was more naturalistic than the stylised frieze favored in Egyptian art for the previous 1700 years. After Akhenaton's death, however, Egyptian artists reverted to their old styles.

Arts of the Ancient Aegean

The Minoan Civilization

The greatest civilization of the Bronze Age was that of the Minoans, a mercantalist people who built a trading empire from their homeland of Crete and from other Aegean islands. Minoan civilization was known for its beautiful ceramics, but also for its frescos, landscapes, and stone carvings. In the early Minoan period ceramics were characterised by linear patterns of spirals, triangles, curved lines, crosses, fishbone motives and such. In the middle Minoan period naturalistic designs such fish, squids, birds and lillies were common. In the late Minoan period flowers and animals were still the most characteristic, but variability had increased. The 'palace style' of the region around Knossos is characterised by strong geometric simplification of naturalistic shapes and monochromatic painting. The Palace at Knossos was decorated with frescoes showing aspects of everyday life, including court ritual and entertainment such as bull-leaping and boxing. The Minoans were also skilled goldsmiths, creating beautiful pendants and masks in the prescious metal.

The Mycenaen Civilization

Greek art

Hellenic Greece
Hellenistic Greece

Roman culture

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Last updated: 12-17-2004 01:57:59