2: Mesopotamia, Crete and Egypt, History of Art

2: Mesopotamia, Crete and Egypt, History of Art

Mesopotamia History of Art

Mesopotamian Culture sprouted from the valley between the two rivers, “Euphrates” and “Tigris”, modern-day Iraq and dates roughly from to 3500 b.c.–539 b.c.Mesopotamian Art and Architecture are less familiar in comparison to Egyptian or Greek Art and Architecture due to the diminishing of baked brick buildings and structures over time.

The main reason for just a few early works to have been witnessed by us is probably because unlike Egyptians, the Mesopotamian religion discarded the notions of preservation of the soul. Early on, during the rule of Sumerians, kings were buried along with their slaves and household, to keep them intact in the life hereafter. Proof of this are the graves of that period, from where ancient household items have been discovered and now are part of the British Museum collection.

Back then Artistic skill and expertise went hand in hand with ancient beliefs in the supernatural and the barbaric. An example is one of the tombs that date back to 2800 BC, a harp embellished with an animal figure can be seen resembling heraldic breasts in appearance and arrangement. The intended meaning to use animals is still unknown but it can be ascertained that they were mythological characters from those early days. The scenes depicted that seem to be infantile actually had honest and serious meaning.

The artist’s thought wasn’t invited to decorate tomb walls but they had to make certain that the image they painted, kept the robust alive. Mesopotamian kings enjoyed appreciation and self-glorification so they used to commission monuments that portrayed their conquests and triumph. But it wasn’t just this, it was believed that such powerful images of victory ensured utter control upon their opponents that wouldn’t dare to rise up again. Later on, these monuments took the shape of records of events in the order of their occurrence. Quite a few of them are preserved in the British Museum, for instance, the chronicles of the ninth century BC Assyrian king Asurnasirpal II. These documentations depict scenes of the troops crossing rivers and launching attacks on the enemy, image representation resembling the Egyptian portrayal of such events but rugged in comparison.

Mesolithic Age, Crete

Mesolithic meaning “Middle Age” is the term used to define certain cultures that lie between the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Mesolithic Age spanned a time period dating approximately from 12,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE.

In comparison to the Paleolithic age, that marked the start of hunting and gathering food for survival, the Mesolithic period represented a wide variety of hunting, fishing, and food gathering techniques. Agriculture and the beginning of permanent settlements started. Some people continued with intensive hunting, while others practised the initial stages of domestication.

The types of tools used is a distinguishing factor among Paleo and Mesolithic cultures. Mesolithic tools were advanced, made out of small chipped stone tools called microliths and retouched bladelets. The Paleolithic utilized more primitive stone treatments.

Cuevas de la Araña en, Mesolithic Art


Art from this period is distinctive of the shift to a warmer climate and acclimatization to a relatively sedentary lifestyle, population size, and consumption of plants. Numerous significant Mesolithic rock art sites exist on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. The works comprised of small painted figures of humans and animals, the most advanced and widespread ones surviving from this period in Europe and possibly worldwide. The human figure is a recurring theme in painted scenes. Hunting scenes are the most common, also scenes of battles and leisure such as dance activities and possibly agricultural chores. In some scenes gathering honey is shown, most famously at Cuevas de la Araña en Bicorp, an 8000-year-old cave painting near Valencia, Spain.


Characteristic of Egyptian Art- Egyptian History of Art 

Ancient Egypt, known to the world as the “Land of the Pyramids” is considered to be one of the earliest civilizations of the world and proof of a profoundly organized land. The manner in which these mega-structures such as the great pyramid of Giza that we witness today were built, manpower and other resources that were employed, speak volumes of the grandeur and proficiency of the Egyptians.

Fig (0.01)Monument of King Naramsin found in Susa. About 2500 BC, Paris, Louvre

The pharaohs of Egypt were considered to be godly, possessing complete control over the land and its people. Thus it was believed that whenever a king departed, he ascended to where he came from, the sky, the realm of the divine. Hence pyramids had great empirical importance and their forms reaching up to the sky assisted the ascent of the ruler.

They had a staunch belief in the hereafter and thus preserved the bodies of their kings, Egyptian mummies as we all are aware of. The body was placed in the centre of the pyramid in a stone coffin, surrounded by magical spells and verses on the walls to ease his journey to the other world. Also, a sculpted head of the departed ruler in imperishable granite was placed in the tomb, which no one could see but it resided to keep the soul alive. Initially, these monuments and rites of preservation were limited just to kings but later on also for the nobles of the royal family, in the form of smaller tombs surrounding the king’s pyramid.

Egyptian Art was characterized by perfect geometry and sharp observation, clearly evident in the relief works and paintings on the walls of the tombs. These works and imagery in the tombs were reflective of servants and helpers, depicting the idea of soul accompanied by his henchmen.

The painters portrayed actual life in a much different way than us and so looking at Egyptian paintings for the first time could be bewildering. This is because of the distinct purpose these paintings were made for. Beauty was not the driving force behind these works instead complete documentation was what mattered most. As a result, they did not draw from real life but a memory, they ensured they laid out all that expressed them and the life they lived.

The working methodology and the techniques Egyptian painters employed in painting resembled more of a mapmaker than that of a painter. All visual constituents and forms that they drew, were from peculiar angles.

PAINTING OF A POND (FROM A TOMB IN THEBES), 1400BC, London, British Museum

For instance, the image above of a pond painting discovered from a tomb in Thebes clarifies the artist’s way of visualizing his subject, which definitely wasn’t a personal choice of the artist but a set of rules to which all complied. The pond is drawn from an aerial perspective whereas the trees from a side view. The fish in the pond are drawn in profile to enhance their visibility or else if they were also drawn from a bird’s eye view, they would’ve hardly been visible.

PORTRAIT OF HESIRE from a wooden door in his tomb carved about 2700 BC, Cairo, Museum

Another example that substantiates this play of perspective as a visual tool by Egyptian artists, is a relief on a wooden door in a tomb that depicts a portrait of the king. A side view or the profile of a head has the eye of a frontal face incorporated. The top half of the body including the torso is drawn as seen from the front but the limbs or arms attached to the body in an uncomfortable pose.

All these seemingly errors were not mistakes but intentional in order to inculcate all parts of the body in the human form on the basis of a set of principles. Despite criticism of Egyptian paintings as being flat and contorted, we cannot label them as haphazard imagery because of the profound compositional sense they exude.

The Egyptian artist proceeded with image making by drawing a mesh of lines to assist with composing characters in the image. It was not just knowledge that directed the artist but a sight for pattern too. However, incorporating a profound sense of geometry did not prevent the artist from observing minor details of nature so much so that later on zoologists also declared the animal species as recognizable.

Egyptian Art ranging from sculpture to tomb paintings to architecture, all adhered to the laws that constituted to form their signature style. These set of rules were studied by every artist at the beginning of their careers, for instance, seated statues having hands placed on the knees or men painted in darker skin tones than women.

Similarly, the portrayal of gods also had rules to abide by e.g Horns the sun god had to be depicted with a falcon’s head or Anubis the god of death was represented with a jackal’s head. Originality lacked in Egyptian Art because it wasn’t really expected of the artist, a good artist was who imitated admired monuments of the past as closely as possible. Resultantly Egyptian Art didn’t go through changes throughout its span of more than 3000 years. Everything considered praiseworthy was as commendable a thousand years later. New trends did appear overtime but the representation of man and nature remained the same.

It was not until a disastrous invasion of Egypt, that a few significant changes Egyptian style of Art underwent during the period identified as the “New Kingdom”. The person responsible was the 18th dynasty pharaoh “Amenophis IV” whose belief was contrary to the orthodox religious doctrine. He thus negated quite a few customs that were practised as age-old tradition.

KING AMENOPHIS IV, Limestone relief, about 1370 BC, Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Agyptisches Museum

For him, only the God of sun “Aton” was supreme whom he worshipped and represented in the form of the sun. He vilified all other gods and named himself Akhnaton after his god. The imagery that he commissioned omitted earlier pharaohs, instead he had himself portrayed, lifting his daughter on his knees and walking with his wife in the garden. A couple of his portraits depict him as an ugly man maybe because he wanted the artists to convey the element of vulnerability or maybe he was convinced of his distinct significance as a prophet.

The next pharaoh to take charge was Tutankhamun, whose tomb was discovered in 1922. During his tenure, ancient Egyptian beliefs were restored, and the window to the outside world was sealed again. The Egyptian style as had existed before his time continued to exist for more than a thousand years with the Egyptians believing it would last forever. Majority of the works we come across in museums belong to this later period in Egyptian history. New themes were introduced but nothing substantially new was added to the achievement of Art.


Art History Timeline Chronological order: Find More About 

1: Primitive Art; Ancient America (Paleolithic Age)- Neolithic Art

2: Mesopotamia, Crete and Egypt, History of Art

3: GREECE (Seventh to Fifth century BC) 

4: Greece (Fifth century BC to First Century AD)- History of Art

5: The World Conquerors, Jews, Christians, Romans and Buddhists (First to Fourth Century AD )

6: Rome and Byzantium, Fifth to the Thirteenth century 

7:Eastward, Islam, China, 2nd to 13th Century  

8: Europe, Sixth to Eleventh Century, History of Western Art In Melting Pot