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Bas-relief perforé orné de scènes de banquet

© 1999 RMN / J. Galland

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Demange Françoise

This relief, with its central perforation, depicts banquet scenes, including a banquet in a boat, which is seldom represented. These liturgical banquets were the occasion of a communion with the god and seem to have been one of the main forms of worship during this period.
The crude stylization of the figures, champlevé relief, and incised details are characteristic of art in the oldest phase of the early dynasties of Sumer.

A decorative and votive plaque

The new society emerging in the early 3rd millennium was dominated by an elite whose desire for ostentation stimulated the arts, especially sculpture. Alongside statues of orants that the worshippers customarily deposited in the temples were plaques decorated with historiated reliefs and drilled with a hole in the center. Both decorative and votive, these plaques also had a functional role as door catches.
The decoration of this plaque, divided into three registers, depicts banquet scenes, the most frequently illustrated theme at the time these reliefs were made. In the upper register, two guests, a man on the right and a woman on the left, are holding conical cups. Between the attendants waiting on them, a musician is playing a harp. In the lower register, a single guest is enthroned on a boat rowed by three sailors. This "banquet in a boat" is the only known example of a complete scene. The goat and the heifer on either side of the hole in the middle perhaps refer to the animals that will be eaten during the meal.

A monument characteristic of the early dynasties of Sumer

The figures are portrayed with broad shoulders seen from the front, while the head is in profile; the face has an enormous nose and is filled by a wide-open eye. The men are bearded and have shoulder-length hair. They are wearing skirts with a tufted hem, probably the "kaunakes," the characteristic garment of the Sumerian period made from a sheepskin or a woollen fabric.
The crude stylization is not necessarily to be assimilated to clumsy attempts at relief. The artist has expressed reality through a whole system of conventions. He has put the accent on the hair, beard, and skirt, which are all sexual markers. He has emphasized the powerful shoulders, a symbol of strength, and the eye, which indicates life and human intelligence.
This strange stylization, the flat champlevé relief, and the incised details are characteristic of the oldest phase of the early dynasties.

Liturgical banquets

The so-called "banquet" plaques have been found in both northern and southern Mesopotamia. Do they illustrate a ceremony common to all the Sumerian city-states, such as the New Year festival celebrated during the spring equinox? A ritual banquet took place after the sacred wedding of the god, represented by the king, and the goddess, incarnated by a priestess. This explanation is based on much later texts, but it is nonetheless likely that these reliefs depict liturgical banquets, a sort of communion with the god, which seem to have been one of the main forms of worship during this period.

Bibliography

M.-L. Et H. Erlenmeyer, "Cerviden-darstellungen auf altorientalischen und ägäischen Siegeln" in Orientalia, vol. 26, fasc. 4, 1957, p. 323, pl. XVI-XVII, fig. 8-9
J. Boese, Altmesopotamische Weihplatten, Berlin, 1977, pp.209-210, pl. XXXVIII
P. Amiet, La Glyptique mésopotamienne archaïque, Paris, CNRS, 1980, pl. 93, n 1225
F. Demange, "Acquisitions", in Revue du Louvre, 1988, pp. 80-85

Technical description

  • Bas-relief perforé orné de scènes de banquet

    Vers 2700 - 2650 avant J.-C.

    Mésopotamie

  • Calcaire

    H. 0.27 cm; W. 0.24 cm.

  • Acquisition 1997 , 1997

    AO 31015

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Ancient Mesopotamia, 3rd millennium BC
    Room 1 c
    Vitrine 8 : Epoque des dynasties archaïques de Sumer, vers 2900 - 2340 avant J.-C. Antiquités mésopotamiennes de diverses provenances.

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