When studying art, it is important to understand the culture and the people who created it because in no other cultural form is the culture and beliefs of the creators so apparent as in art and sculpture. Sculpture has always been an important part of a culture’s religious beliefs, a representation of the deities who were important to them and what they stood for. Many cultures, including the societies of ancient Egypt and Sumer, believed that in some way the spirit of what was being depicted in the statue would inhabit it. Looking at the art as history gives us a greater insight into the culture and the people who formed the art and made it a part of their everyday life. In the Sumerian sculpture Prince of Lagash and the Egyptian sculptures Sunken Relief of Horus and Block Statue of Official the culture and history of the civilization from which these sculptures are from is represented in a way that can be studied and understood.
The first statue in the Menil Collection to be studies and understood is from the civilization of Sumer. The Prince of Lagash is a Sumerian sculpture dated 2450 BC and is a depiction of Eannatum, a king “whose military conquests raised Lagash to the pinnacle of power” (Kramer 37). The Sumerian civilization existed in what was then known as Mesopotamia 5000 years ago and is considered the first documented civilization in history. The Sumerians had the first system of writing, a strong religious system, technological and social advances that were diffused to many other cultures, and created complex and large cities. Historical references to Mesopotamia and the culture of the Sumerians is found in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, and many researchers have used the artifacts and art of the Sumerians to study their culture and history. The Sumerian military was also impressive, and the sculpture of the Prince of Lagash depicts one of Mesopotamia’s most impressive military rulers, a man who had “subdued other Sumerian city-states so that for a brief period Lagash could claim” sovereignty over all of Sumer (Kramer 36-37). Eannatum would have been especially indebted to the goddess Inanna because she was the Goddess of Love and War. As a military leader, Eannatum would have worshiped Inanna because he would want victory. Inanna’s insignia was, in fact, gateposts strung with streamers, a representation of victory. Also, if death occurred in battle, it was Inanna who was present when the life of the soldier ended (Kramer 101).
The sculpture The Prince of Lagash is, itself, an interesting piece of art but within the context of knowing who Eannatum was and what he had accomplished it becomes even more interesting. The sculpture appears to be made of a white stone, carved in a way that the natural flecks of color become part of the art itself in the body and the apparel of Eannatum. The figure of the prince appears short and stout, the feet bare and standing upon a small piece of carved stone. The hands of Eannatum are clasped in front of him, almost giving an appearance of reverence and prayer. The prince’s chest is bare but he is wearing an elaborate skirt of small pieces of rounded fabric shaped almost like feathers. The face and head of the statue is rounded and the head is bald except for the dark lines of the eyebrows. The face of the statue is carved in an expression of piety, his eyes wide and blue, and his lips raised in a slight serene smile. This statue is a sculpture in the round because the carvings are rounded and made to be three-dimensional instead of simply one dimensional. The sculpture represents a beautiful and interesting representation of a Sumerian leader.
Just as the sculpture itself is relevant to the culture, so is the places in which these sculptures were placed within the society itself. In Sumerian culture statues and sculptures were used primarily in two aspects of the society: religious worship and the palaces of the king. Many statues of Mesopotamia were reserved for a special place within religious temples and for use with the rites and rituals of worship. In the later years of Sumerian history art became equal to architecture in that “their chief function was to impress ordinary men with the power and glory of the king” (Kramer 143). There was yet another purpose for Sumerian sculpture that appears to be interesting in light of this particular sculpture: praying statues. The Mesopotamians believed that in order to achieve an ideal life of prosperity and longevity constant prayer was important and because this type of prayer required was impractical, praying statues were carved as a stand-in for the person. These statues depicted the person for whom the statue was standing in for, and were always left at the altar of the temple in permanent prayer (Kramer 143). Descriptions of these types of statues could be describing the Prince of Lagash exactly. They were known for their “intensity of gaze, fixed and hypnotic, and the humility of their folded hands expressed deep religious conviction” (Kramer 143-144). Therefore, the statue of the Prince of Lagash was likely a figure-in-the-round used as a religious stand-in for Eannatum, left at the temple to ensure that the king would have longevity and prosperity in his life (Kramer 143-145). This melding of life and religious was a strong influence on Sumerian art.
Just as Sumerian culture and religion is complex and fascinating, so is the civilization of the ancient Egyptians. The other two statues from the Menil Collection are the Sunken relief of Horus and the Block statue of official clasping emblem of God Min with figure of God Ptah, both from the New Kingdom Dynasty XIX. The time period in which this dynasty existed was 1320-1200 BC in Egypt and was perhaps one of the most impressive civilizations to ever develop. The ancient Egyptians enjoyed a rich culture that included many fascinating aspects. Egyptian history is full of dynasties of pharaohs that participated in strong military campaigns and created complex cities full of fascinating architecture such as pyramids, temples, and palaces. Their religious system was even more complex than their society in that it was full of hordes of deities that each represented a different aspect of Egyptian culture. The kingship and the gods were closely linked as the Pharaoh was considered a god on earth. Temples were filled with religious statues and reliefs, and there were extremely complex religious rituals surrounding everything from battle to birth to death. The art of ancient Egypt is particularly fascinating and beautiful and is seen around the world in many art museums and galleries.
The first piece of Egyptian art is the Sunken Relief of Horus, is inscribed with the words,
“The beautiful Horus, the Great God, Lord of Heaven, one who is foremost in Bahet.” This sculpture is an example of a relief because it is carved into a flat piece of stone and could have easily been carved into a wall of a temple or a palace. The relief shows Horus, a falcon-headed god who was at one time “a divine patron of the rulers of Upper Egypt” but would become the supreme god of the united kingdom of Egypt (Bianchi 21). The relief depicts Horus standing erect and regally, a strong chest and broad shoulders, his feet braced widely apart in a stance of power. He wears the crown of the united kingdom of Egypt and holds a staff and an ankh. Reliefs such as this were used in Egyptian culture to tell a story on the walls of the temples. The inscription in hieroglyphs would in some way make the picture more important. Reliefs were often used within temples as homage to the gods that were being worshiped, but sometimes were used in the tombs of Egyptian men and women to show the progression of the person through the afterlife, meeting gods and goddesses, and with words from the famous Book of the Dead inscribed (Bianchi 80-81). These reliefs were important to Egyptian religion because of their purpose as a window into the world of the gods and goddesses and became an important part of Egyptian art.
The second Egyptian sculpture is Block Statue of Official clasping emblem of God Min with figure of God Ptah, a beautiful example of the type of art that was typical of ancient Egypt. Since religion was such an important part of the culture, sculpture almost always had a religious purpose. This sculpture shows an official, a man, that is sitting on the ground, his knees clutched to his chest, his arms crossed. In front of him is a small statue of Ptah, the first god according to Egyptian mythology, who later became the patron of Egyptian craftsmen, a clue that this official may have been important in the world of Egyptian craftsmanship (Bianchi 163). The official is holding an emblem of the fertility god Min in his hand, a sign that this man was the father of children or perhaps in hopes that his bloodline would live on for eternity. His face is serene and calm, with wide eyes and a relaxed mouth and chin. He is looking off from his position on the floor with a fixed stare that is hard to ignore. This is a beautiful example of a statue in the round, meaning that it was carved in a 3-dimensional way from a block of stone, depicting the rounded look of a human form.
The purpose of these sculptures in Egyptian society were ordinarily as funerary statues that would be placed within the tombs of an individual. This statue was most likely created for the exact same purpose. These statues were often carved in such a way that “the attitude in which an individual is depicted in statuary is often a direct reflection of that individual’s status” (Bianchi 83). When a person is depicted kneeling or sitting it often is a reflection that the individual was in a subservient position in life. The difference between the art depicting pharaohs and that of the average person was intentionally very different because the status of the king must at all times be elevated, even in posture (Bianchi 84).
The art of ancient civilizations as important to understanding the people and history of the period as is any other aspect of the culture, if not more important. Art becomes a reflection not only of the artists who create it, but of the social ideals and religious beliefs of the people because these parts of society are so intricately tied to the creation of works of art in any culture. In the case of these three sculptures from the Menil Collection a lot can be learned about Sumerian and Egyptian culture, what was important to them, and how these sculptures can be a reflection of the world in which it was created. The modern world can learn what was important to the people of a particular period simply by understanding the works of art that they held as important. The religion of these people is also easily recognizable in the form and function of each sculpture, defining the way the people of Egypt and Sumer felt about their beliefs and the afterlife.
Bianchi, Robert S., comp. Splendors of Ancient Egypt From the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. London: Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1996.
Kramer, Samuel Noah. Cradle of Civilization. New York: Time Incorporated, 1967.