Stele of Hammurabi. Detail.
OLD BABYLONIAN Anonymous
2nd millennium BCE Mesopotamian Babylonian (Old) Sculpture
(1900 BCE - 1600 BCE)
c. 1780 BCE
2nd millennium BCE
The concerns of the priests-- the developments of science and of writing-- continued despite the political upheavals that punctuated the entire development of Mesopotamian art. Each of the groups that came to dominance in the area added to the collective store of knowledge. A tremendous addition was made by the next ruler who was able to establish a centralized government for the entire area, the king Hammurabi. The object shown here, is a remarkable historical document as well as a fine work of art, for it is a stele inscribed with Hammurabi's code of laws. Hammurabi was the king of Babylon and he is justly famous for his organization and codification of the often contradictory laws of the various regions of Mesopotamia.
Hammurabi is depicted on the top of the stele receiving the inspiration for the law from the sun god, Shamash. In the prologue to the law, Hammurabi tells us that the gods called him to rule, to bring justice. His lack of modesty is readily apparent when I quote from the prologue: "At that time Anu and Eel called to me, Hammurabi, the pious prince, worshipper of the gods, summoning me by name, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to wipe out the wickedness and evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, to go forth like the sun over the human race, to illuminate the land, and to further the welfare of mankind." Hammurabi became the sun king, associating himself with the god, whose divine status is symbolized by the multi-horned crown, seen in profile, and the flames that project from his shoulders. The flames of divinity might remind you of the burning bush that embodied the God of the Hebrews when Moses received the tablets of the law on Mt. Sinai.
Make the image larger so that you can see the details of the carving. Certain details of this relief indicate that the artist was moving toward greater three-dimensional representation; the deeper relief of the arm of the god and the slight angle of the curls of the beard. A greater sensitivity to natural forms is seen in the curving of the drapery that falls over Hammurabi's arm, for the folds reflect the softness of the fabric and not just abstract pattern.
BABYLONIAN | Stele of Hammurabi Detail. | Old Babylonian | Old Babylonian