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Epics in miniature.

When we think of the artistic accomplishments of the Ancient Near East, it's the great monumental structures that come to mind--the ziggurat at Ur, the barrel-vaulted arch at Ctesiphon, or sprawling temple complexes such as those at Persepolis and Khorsabad, of which only fragments remain. Yet there is a body of work that ranks, not just with those, but with the greatest achievements of all art: Mesopotamian cyfinder seals, simple utilitarian objects whose inscribed images constitute a narrative art of a power and sophistication out of all proportion to their diminutive size. Cylinder seals were produced between about 3500 B.C. and 500 B.C. primarily in the area we now know as Iraq. They are stone cylinders, rarely more than an inch tall and one-half inch in diameter--sometimes considerably less--into which has been cut an intaglio design, more often than not a scene of combat between men, or some fantastic creature, and animals. When rolled across soft clay, the image would appear in relief, quickly forming a repeat pattern if the seal was rolled over any length. They functioned the way rubber stamps or even one's signature does today, authenticating documents and protecting commercial goods from theft. Thus each image was, as it had to be, distinctive and unique.

Despite the fact that some of the greatest museums here and in Europe have extensive collections of seals, they tend to be known only to specialists. This is not only unfortunate, it's surprising, because there is much about them that speaks to our modern sensibility across the gap of five millennia, however accidental these affinities may be. The repetitive imagery finds resonance in the serial imagery of late-twentieth-century art, particularly that of the likes of Donald Judd and other Minimalists. And because of the seal cutters' considerable descriptive gifts, which allowed them to endow their depictions of animals with such vitality, there is a Muybridge-esque, even cinematic, quality to these rolled-out pictures, particularly when the seal design consists of a frieze of coursing antelopes or similar creatures. Indeed it was this suggestion of motion that most attracted the British art critic Herbert Read when he discussed seals in his 1954 Mellon Lectures, "The Art of Sculpture," at the National Gallery in Washington. Of a seal in the Louvre showing a line of running horned animals he wrote (in the lectures' published form), "We must imagine the cylinder moving rapidly across the soft clay and leaving a trail of animals. The animals would actually seem to move as the cylinder left its trace." And lest his point be lost on any readers, Read chose to illustrate his cylinder seal alongside reproductions of Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" and a Futurist painting by Giacomo Balla.

Fortunately, two recent events have lately brought cylinder seals to a wider audience. As part of the series of small exhibitions it has mounted to celebrate its reopening, the Morgan Library and Museum has placed an abundant selection of its own large holdings of seals on view through next spring. (1) It gives admirers of these extraordinary objects a chance for some in-depth study and members of the general public an opportunity to discover them--as they are doing with delight, to judge by audience reactions I overheard during my own visits to the exhibition. In addition, the British Museum Press this summer published a revised paperback edition of the British Museum curator Dominique Collon's First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East, a book which, within the modest compass of some two hundred pages, manages to be the definitive study of this subject. (2)

Seals have long provided a trove of information to archaeologists about the civilizations that occupied or ruled over the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, chief among them the Sumerian, Akkadian, and Assyrian. We know the details of their religious beliefs and rituals, what their temples looked like, what they wore and how fashions changed. We know details of everyday life, such as the musical instruments they played and the animals they hunted and husbanded. And we know a very great deal about their worldview. They saw themselves locked in a pitched battle for survival against the powerful and capricious forces of nature, and they propitiated their gods in order to win this struggle. Egyptian art is informed by a pervasive serenity derived from its focus on the afterlife. But the images on Mesopotamian cylinder seals are intense and energized, miniature epics depicting a life-and-death struggle.

Yet this focus on archaeology can easily blind us to the seals' other source of interest: they are simply extraordinary works of art, blending closely observed naturalism with decorative patterning in a seamless unity. No detail seems too small for the seal cutter: leaves and branches are readily discernable, musculature is clearly articulated on man and beast, and the cutters take particular delight in differentiating textures--the varied fabrics in a personage's clothing, or the contrast between a lion's taut skin and furry mane.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, since their lives depended on it, nature and, in particular, the animal kingdom are keenly observed. One seal in the Morgan depicts a winged demon pursuing an ostrich. It's a rather humorous scene--the terrified, fleeing ostrich and its young look back at the knife-wielding demon who has grabbed the larger bird by the tail. Its feathers are picked out to the last detail. Another of the Morgan's seals simply depicts a deer leaping over a bush next to a tree. Caught on its descent, with rear legs still splayed up to clear the obstacle, with the forelegs being readied for the impact of landing, it's a powerfully immediate image that conveys not just the look but the feel of the animal's action.

At the same time, the seal cutters possessed an equally keen sense of the decorative. Figures and animals shown in a clinch of combat are arrayed in a heraldic symmetry that imposes a unity and stability on a given composition. And animals' appendages such as horns and tails form taut arabesques that impart an overall linear energy that plays across the surface of these compositions. And we will often see a hero or demon holding a conquered beast by its rear hooves so it is upside down. A true gesture of triumph, of course, but also a way for the seal cutter to balance his composition.

One cannot look at seal impressions for very long without wondering how the seals themselves were made, for they are the product of innumerable challenges faced and overcome.

To begin with, there was the narrative challenge. It's no exaggeration to say that in formulating and depicting their epics, the Mesopotamian artists were addressing--several centuries ahead of time--the same set of problems that artists such as Giotto and Masaccio faced at the dawn of the Renaissance, namely, how to tell complex stories in a nonverbal language within a limited space. The difference, of course, was that Renaissance artists had walls to work on whereas the seal cutters were confined to surfaces little more than one inch square. Their solution was to limit themselves to very few characters--rarely more than three or four personages and animals to a seal--and rely on their highly sophisticated understanding of the language of pose and gesture to communicate the story. Humans tend to be stiffer and more stylized than animals, but I suspect this has to do more with the dictates of legibility than any artistic failing. The premium was on letting us see the animal being stabbed, the blessing being given and so on, in order to be able to grasp the story.

More formidable were the technical challenges. Seal cutters had to think in the negative. Printmakers have always had to do this but only in a passive way. They understand the image they are drawing on, say, and etching plate will register in the opposite direction once printed. But that only becomes something they really have to think about if some detail of that image--say a man's pocket handkerchief--requires a specific orientation. Seal cutters, however, always had to think in the negative. There was no one-to-one correlation between the object in nature and its depicted image. On the contrary, this is turned on its head in cylinder seals. What protrudes in nature must, in a seal, recede. To emboss the rounded forms of a haunch or crown on the soft clay, the seal cutter had to excavate depressions into his stone. Moreover, just as a sculptor carving in the round must, as he works on one particular side or face of the block, keep in mind its relation to all other aspects of the sculpture, most of which he cannot see, so did the seal carver have to maintain the proper relation of all parts to the whole, half to three quarters of which would, at any one time, have been invisible to him.

The stones themselves did not make the seal cutters' task any easier. To withstand repeated use and to ensure the forms stood out with maximum clarity, these seals had to be very hard and were cut using a bow drill and an abrasive such as emery powder. The process was a long one. Images we savor for their spontaneity and vivacity were the product of protracted labor. As Ms. Collon wryly notes in her book, "The all-important ingredients were the abrasive and patience."

The color of the stones posed an additional challenge. A draughtsman, laying down dark fines on white paper, has conventional figure-ground relationships to guide him. He can clearly measure his progress--determine where he is going right and where wrong--by seeing his evolving image contrasted against the fight background. But seal cutters had no such rudimentary advantage. They were in a sense working blind because the stones they used were often dark (lapis lazuli), mottled (banded agate), translucent (chalcedony), or transparent (rock crystal), which means their incisions read simply as so many indistinct pools of shadow on an already dark ground. There was no contrast. Looking at the seals cut into these materials in the cases at the Morgan, they are completely illegible--we rely on the clay impression (or the photographic enlargement next to it) to know what they represent. One wonders how the seal cutters were able to keep track of what they were doing. The light-colored abrasive dust settling into the recessed nooks and crannies of a seal during drilling would have established a helpful figure-ground relationship. More likely, the cutters kept some soft clay nearby as they worked and would roll out the seal repeatedly during the process of cutting, the only real way they could check their work.

By far the greatest challenge, of course, was the seals' size. Just as we marvel at how these societies created works as monumental as a ziggurat, so it is equally astonishing that they produced such detailed, animated images on such a diminutive scale without magnifying glasses. How are we to account for it? Ms. Collon argues that the seal cutters were all short-sighted and that "the craft would have been passed down from father to son and myopia, transmitted as a dominant, would have been inherited as well." While some, no doubt, were shortsighted, Ms. Collon's thesis assumes that in each generation at least one child would have inherited both myopia and artistic talent, which seems rather long genetic odds.

Perhaps, as with other masterpieces, the explanation is simply the mystery of artistic talent. Looking at the seals in the Morgan and wondering how they ever could have been made, I was reminded of an incident in a graduate course on early Netherlandish painting I took at Columbia in the early 1980S, taught by the legendary Howard Davis. We were studying Jan van Eyck, and to demonstrate the artist's mastery the professor ran through a series of slides of a particular painting, each one revealing a finer detail than the last with no loss of clarity. The sequence culminated with a slide showing the artist's microscopic self-portrait reflected in a figure's armor. At the end of the class one of my fellow students asked our teacher if van Eyck had used a magnifying glass when he painted.

"No," said Professor Davis. "Just a keen eye and a sure hand."

(1) "Ancient Near Eastern Cylinder Seals" part of the "Masterworks from the Morgan" opening exhibition, through April 29, 2007.

(2) First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East, by Dominique Collon; The British Museum Press, 208 pages, $30.
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Author:Gibson, Eric
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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