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Work Royal head, known as the "Head of Hammurabi"

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia

Royal head, called "Head of Hammurabi"

© Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN / Raphaël Chipault

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Iselin Claire

This small sculpted head of a man is one of the world's most famous works of ancient oriental art. The exceptional quality of the sculpture and the advanced age of the person depicted have led some to believe that this is a portrait of Hammurabi, King of Babylon (1792-1750 BC). However, the work probably predates that ruler's reign. Indeed, some details, such as the manner in which the hair is arranged on the forehead and around the neck, allow the sculpture to be dated to around 2000 BC.

An atypical work

This head of a statuette was discovered in Susa, Iran (modern-day Shush), where it had probably been taken as booty in the twelfth century BC, together with other plundered works of art, by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte I. The head represents a Mesopotamian sovereign with a hairstyle and wearing high-brimmed headgear characteristic of the end of the third millennium and beginning of the second millennium BC. The face is an astonishing mix of conventional features and realism. The eyebrows, represented with the traditional fishbone motif, and the beard, consisting of a multitude of superimposed and carefully arranged ringlets, follow contemporary models. However, the expression on the face, which reflects the age of the person depicted, his character, and state of mind, is different from the static and impersonal appearance of the royal figure sculpted on the Code of Hammurabi (Louvre, Sb8), which shows a sovereign engaged in an official act and is designed to be seen from a distance. The half-closed, almond-shaped eyes, with bags under them, and the prominent cheeks underline the austere side of this man with pronounced features, and the self-possession he has attained from the experiences of a long and full life; Hammurabi would have been just such a man at the end of his life. The naturalistic, almost expressionistic style stands out among Mesopotamian works sculpted in the traditional manner. It may be compared with the roughly contemporary representations of the Middle Empire Egyptian pharaohs, also shown as old men, such as Sesostris III (1887-1850 BC) or Amenemhat III (c. 1850-1800 BC). This head was perhaps sculpted in a workshop open to foreign influences, away from normal production centers and therefore less subject to sculptural convention.

An accomplished monarch

This work is of exceptional quality, but we should guard against viewing it as a portrait in the modern sense of the term. The notion of a personal portrait is foreign to art of the Near East. This face of an aging man, imbued with gravitas, is the face of a sage, a prince selected by the gods, whose lengthy experience of the world and of men guarantees just and equitable government. It also reflects the new ideas that were circulating in cultural circles at the period: pessimistic reflection on the precariousness of the human condition and the idea that the fate of every man, even if he is an all-powerful prince, is ineluctable death. The inscription identifying this man would have been on the body of the statue, which is now lost. This small head was long considered a portrait of Hammurabi, King of Babylon; however, it probably predates his reign. In fact, certain stylistic details, such as the form of the beard, the way in which the hair is arranged on the forehead, or the ringlets around the neck, indicate a date of about 2000 BC.

Bibliography

Pezard M., Pottier Edmond, Musée national du Louvre. Catalogue des antiquités de la Susiane (Mission J. de Morgan), 2e édition, Paris, Louvre, 1926, n 84 b.
Spycket A., La statuaire du Proche-Orient ancien, Handbuch der Orientalistik, Leyde-Cologne, 1981, p.245.
Harper P.O., The Royal City of Susa, New York, Harper P.O., Aruz J., Tallon F. eds., 1992, n 113, p.175-176.
Exposition des quatre grandes civilisations mondiales : La Mésopotamie entre le Tigre et l'Euphrate (Exposition itinérante), Musée d'art de Setagaya, 5 août 2000 - 3 décembre 2000 ; Musée d'art asiatique de Fukuoka, 16 déc. 2000 - 4 mars 2001 ; Tokyo : NHK, 2000, Cat. n 140, p.223.
Demange F., La sculpture mésopotamienne du IIe millénaire, dans Dossiers d'archéologie, n 288, nov.2003, p.14-15.
André-Salvini B., Le Code de Hammurabi, collection solo (27), Département des Antiquités orientales, Paris : R.M.N, p.17-18.

Technical description

  • Royal head, called "Head of Hammurabi"

    Early 2nd millennium BC

    Susa

  • Diorite

    H. 15.20 cm; W. 9.70 cm; D. 11 cm

  • J. de Morgan excavations

    Sb 95

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Display case 1: Mesopotamia, 1st half of the 2nd millenium BC; Hammurabi of Babylon and his age

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