Warka Vase, from Uruk, Iraq, 3200-3000 BCE

The Sumerians were pioneers in so many areas, especially in the field of art. The Warka Vase, named after the place it was found (it was found in Uruk, modern-day Warka in Iraq), depicting the presentation of offerings to Sumerian goddess Inanna, is one fine example.

This vase, although it may not seem to compare with some of the magnificent later works to come (such as the remarkable detail and precision in Greek and Roman marble statues) is revolutionary in many ways.

First, it is an attempt by the Sumerian artist to depict a narrative and it is the earliest known work of narrative relief to date. What’s more is that the artist developed a new technique to depict his story. The artist divided the vase’s relief into bands known as registers or friezes that each depict a different scene, together forming the story. By dividing the sculpting space into registers, the artist was able to place all the figures on a ground line. This new method of organization broke from tradition as artists of traditional narratives had a tendency to “randomly” place figures on a plane and has left a lasting legacy (today, we use still use registers in comic books). The Warka Vase is also one of the oldest works of art to employ the convention of hierarchy of scale where more important figures are depicted significantly larger than others. The use of hierarchy of scale can be seen in the increasing sizes of the registers sculpted on the vase.

As revolutionary as the vase is, it is also in keeping with some of the pre-established art/narrative traditions. For instance, figures are depicted in composite view, as artists of the time were concerned with conceptual representation, not optical representation (in other words, artists tried to depict the idea of the subject, including its every part; they did not seek to do so in a naturalistic manner like later artists of the modern world).

The Sumerian artist employed these techniques to enhance his/her storytelling. The Warka Vase as a whole depicts a religious ceremony in which offerings are being presented to Inanna, the Sumerian goddess. The lowest register of the vase depicts crops along a wavy line. These crops will be given to the goddess. The wavy line is most likely an early depiction of water. The next friezes is filled with ewes and rams, all of which are in strict profile. This approach of representing animals is over 20,000 years old. The third band from the top shows a procession of naked men carry baskets overflowing with goods that they will give to their goddess. The humans, unlike the animals are in composite view. Their bodies are mainly in profile but their large staring frontal eyes stick out from their profile heads. There is not overlapping of figures. As the viewer’s eyes move upward, the size of the registers increases, indicating that importance of what is being depicted is greater (animals were depicted as more important than crops, humans more important than animals, etc.).

The uppermost register depicts the goddess Inanna herself (although some scholars argue that she may be a priestess and not the goddess herself). She is the largest figure and is located in the largest band, indicating her significance. A nude man on her right brings the goddess offerings and a Sumerian priest-king stands to her left.

I think this is a very interesting work of art. I am intrigued by the complexity and the level of detail in this early narrative relief. I think this work really goes to show how much work, thought, and planning was needed to create this vase. There is one little part that I don’t really like though… The large frontal eyes staring at the viewer from the profile heads of the nude men in the third register (third from the top) freak me out a little! However, I do recognize how revolutionary this work is and its significant impact on the works of art to come.

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