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The Stele of Hammurabi

October 5, 2011

The Stele of Hammurabi (c. 1792-1750 BCE) is both a piece of art and a code of law commissioned by the 6th King of Babylon, Hammurabi. The sculpture is a 7.4 ft. tall piece of diorite, the lower 3/4 of the stone smoothed as to allow The Code of Hammurabi (the laws and punishments he set forth) to be inscribed on it. The top quarter of the piece is a relief sculpture depicting Hammurabi receiving the code orally from the god of justice, Shamash. Many different aspects of the piece come together to create a sense of respect or fearful awe around this ancient Babylonia ruler.

The Code of Hammurabi has been found on various artifacts throughout Babylon and surrounding areas inscribed not only on stone, but on clay tablets. This statue then served as a functional piece of art, much like the inscriptions and text that can surely be found in the halls of the U.S. Supreme Court. This piece was meant to be viewed not only for it’s detailed carvings, but also (and maybe more importantly for Hammurabi) for its intellectual content. The visual design qualities of the piece then act primarily to emphasize and deliver the intellectual content.

The first thing I notice about this sculpture visually is the sheer size. From base-to-top it is 7.4 feet, so the relief sculpture scene starts at or just above eye-level. It is sculpted in the round and has inscriptions on both the front and the back requiring you to pace around the object. The effect that the height of this piece has then, is that while you are reading the text the scene of Hammurabi receiving this divine instruction is hovering above you, watching you almost.

In the relief sculpture, there are other elements to suggest the respect that Hammurabi and these laws deserve. In terms of size, Hammurabi and Shamash are nearly equal; one is not noticeably bigger than the other. It is not uncommon for artists to use hierarchical scale to suggest the relative importance of one element over another (especially in religious/devotional works depicting a diety). Although Shamash may be sitting, the decision to make the two figures visually at the same height shows both the artist’s care to visual balance as well as the concept of relative importance.

The lines of this sculpture also help convey the commissioner’s motives. The inscriptions are placed on a very well kept horizontal grid which helps to stabilize and give the composition weight/grounding. In fact, horizontal lines and vertical lines are all over the place in this piece. Shamash’s beard, Shamash’s robe, the designs on the chair; the only curvilinear lines are on the hats of both the figures and the rays coming of of Shamash’s shoulder. There are a few horizontal lines, but the overall direction of the lines convey a static, motionless scene, which is an effective visual compliment to the gravity of the laws being laid out.

Overall, the visual elements in this sculpture do a wonderful job at delivering the Code of Hammurabi in a way that suggests Hammurabi was a ruler worthy of the company and blessings of the gods.

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8 Comments
  1. I like that your analysis not only discussed the relief scene with Hammurabi and Shamash, but you extended your ideas to include the way that the cuneiform appears on the piece.

    I think that your ideas can also extend to the hard medium itself: diorite. The weightiness of these laws (and the fearful awe inspired by such weight) are visually emphasized in the heavy, hard stone. Even the dark color of the stone could arguably instill fear or respect.

    -Prof. Bowen

  2. Crystal Lindberg permalink

    The first thing I notice in this statue is also the size, so tall! …and demanding. I think the way you described the face looking down on you as you read the ‘divine instruction’. I honestly don’t think I would have thought of it that way, but looking at it now, it definitely seems like he is hovering. The fact that the writing is so important I think it is also the part of the sculpture that holds the most value. Great description. This piece definitely makes me want to look around the sculpture and look at the detailed inscriptions.

  3. I liked your description of the hierarchical scale is used in the Stele of Hammurabi. Hammurabi standing at full height is as tall as the Sun God Shamash. Shamash is seated and his feet are one step above Hammurabi’s feet. If Shamash were to stand up toe-to toe with Hammurabi he would be taller; therefore the most important figure in the stele. Hammurabi being almost as tall would be seen as almost a god or god-like.

  4. This is awsome

  5. I like this article

  6. This is the most helpful information I’ve gotten, ever, for my History fair.

  7. Reblogged this on Artful Purpose and commented:
    Wonderful description. Will be used to introduce art writing styles. Great example of how to integrate form and function.

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