The title of the artwork at hand is the Votive Statues. These statues were initially found in the archaeological site of Tel Asmar in what is present-day Iraq. The place was initially called the kingdom of Mesopotamia. The statues were found in what appeared to be ancient temples or shrines. The theory is that the elite would place these statues to represent them in the temples so that they would never miss a day of prayer in the temples. As a consequence, the original artists were not known. However, the presumption is that the elite would hire artists or sculptors from that time to carve out these images of themselves.
The draping around the images and even the hairstyles were symbolic of what the elite in the society would regard themselves in and thus, it is clear that the artists were the local sculptors who would make symbolic replicas of the people that hired them to represent their interests in the houses of worship and prayer. The artists were more likely casual workers who had only trained via apprenticeship under their parents or other sculptors as was the custom then. They would then be hired by the elite as freelancers in order to create these images for them. The lifestyles of the artists were no doubt modest ones as their wages were not that high. Due to the high prevalence of these statues in the shrines, it can accurately be concluded that they were not exclusive items that were sold to the highest bidder but sculptures that were made for the elite in the society as their symbols to mark their presence in the shrines.
The usual materials used to make this type of artwork were gypsum and limestone. Some were carved from alabaster which is a harder form of the mineral gypsum. Sometimes the artwork would be lined with either shells or bricks. The anatomy of these figures was realistic and the most realistic of them all would be the eyes which were shown to be wide open. The best description of the eyes is intricate and significant. The symbol that this was meant to portray is still unclear. The faces and the bodies were carved in a more V-shape with the skirt kicking out. Sometimes the men would be carved as bald and with a beard or without one. Women oftentimes would be carved with a depiction of the various hairstyles that were more common those days. Although the carvings had symmetrical anatomy, they were not true portraits where you could recognize the individual being represented. Their height would range from 1 foot tall to three feet tall (Snell 76). They would be placed on pedestals and are standing up during worship. The individual parts of the body were arranged in a hierarchical order with the eyes much larger than the hands.
Gypsum was not revolutionary for its time as it was the main material used for carving statues at the time. However, it was rare as the material was imported into the country. They did not have it locally hence it was slightly rare. The statues would range in size and one hoard comprised of two large figures, speculatively the gods, and several other smaller figures, both men and women, with their eyes wide open and standing in a stance of prayer or sedition to the larger figures. These statues would often be buried together in such an order.
The Votive statues are typical examples of Sumerian Art. Sumerian art was typically made in marble, hammered gold or diorite. This was in gypsum. The typical Sumerian art, as in this case, was ornate and detailed. It was also quite complex in its meaning. Primarily, Sumerian pieces of art were used for religious purposes with painting and sculpting being the primary pieces of Sumerian art. The Votive statues of Tell Asmar were primarily used for religious purposes. Because of the times, the artists were largely inspired to create pieces of art which bore some form of religious significance. The subject is religion and these pieces of sculptures are oftentimes found buried in a hoard. Among the group are taller figures which are up to 30 centimeters in height. This tall figure represents the god of vegetation (Connelly 207). The second tallest figure is the mother goddess. The mother goddess sculpture and idea were famous at the time as she was thought to bring fertility to both the women and the crops. The next larger figures were the priests and the smallest figures were representative of the worshippers. The carvings were clearly made in the order of the hierarchy. The sculptures are good examples of artistic iconography. The bodies are cylindrical in shape and hard to distinguish by gender. Their heads are uplifted, eyes staring and hands are tightly clasped.
This is a pose of supplication or waiting for something. In some hoards could be found a nude man kneeling and this is theorized to represent a mythical hero of the times.
The main purpose of the sculptures was to stand in place for the elite in places of worship. They were the ones who commissioned the creation of the sculptures by the sculptors and would take them into the places of worship and set them inside the shrine. They would often be buried in the shrine together as a cluster. As aforementioned, the main purpose of the sculptures was religious. They were placed in worship to show the supplication of the worshippers to the god of vegetation and the mother goddess. The Asmar hoard was found in the Big Square Temple at Asmar. This is a temple that was built and rebuilt several times during the occupation of people at Asmar. To be more specific, the hoard was found beneath the floor of the Early Dynastic II version of the Abu temple which is called the Square Temple (Licia 56). The original theory is that the hoard found was a form of dedicatory shrine. Placed in dedication to the gods. Now the statues are in a museum and can only be viewed from a glass box with lighting around it. They are considered as precious and are for viewing only.
There are many lessons to be learnt from this piece of art. First is the symmetry of the body parts which is in a hierarchal basis. The eyes are clearly wide open and staring at the sky showing that the people of Asmar would often look up to the gods. The hands are clasped together in supplication indicating that they did not provide for themselves but waited on the gods to provide. The eyes are bigger than the hands as they see the goodness of their lords rather than work for their own gain. The art also shows that priests were held in high regard, being second in size only to the gods. They were their link to the gods and were treated as such. The male go being larger than the female shows that the society was largely patriarchal but they did not underplay the role of the female god in granting them fertility. It is a powerful piece of art from the ancient kingdom of Mesopotamia that has endured the test of time and is a remarkable and iconic piece of art today.
Connelly, J. B. (1989). Standing Before One’s God: Votive Sculpture and the Cypriot Religious Tradition. The Biblical Archaeologist, 52(4), 210-218.
Licia, R. (2010). Who was Worshipped in the Abu Temple at Tell Asmar?. Kaskal, 7(7), 51-65.
Snell, D. C. (Ed.). (2008). A companion to the ancient Near East. John Wiley & Sons.