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9 Ancient and Historical Art Styles and their Visuals, Inspiration for Artists

Sphinx of Amenhotep III, possibly from a Model of a Temple, New Kingdom, ca. 1390–1352 B.C.

Today I will take you on an art journey through the ancient world. Yet this is not an art history lesson or tour, but an inspirational treasure trove for artists. Not to commit things to memory, but go on a visual journey that (hopefully) will inspire you to create with force and determination, like the best artists of times long past!

1. Mesopotamian Art: Relief sculptures, cylinder seals, depictions of daily life.

A place where the intertwining rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates nurtured not only the foundations of modern society, but also the seeds of much artistic innovation for many years to come. As one of the (or the one?) original birthplaces of writing, urban development, and complex governmental systems, Mesopotamia offers a treasure trove of inspiration for artists of today who seek to delve into the roots of early creative expression.

Mesopotamia offers the diverse cultures of Sumer (Sumerian), Akkad (Akkadian), Assyria (Assyrian), and Babylon (Babylonian) which flourished in this region, each contributing unique artistic styles, techniques, and motifs to the collective tapestry of Mesopotamian art.

From intricate cylinder seals to awe-inspiring ziggurats, the art of Mesopotamia reflects the ingenuity and varied lifestyles of its creators, as well as their deep connection to the spiritual, natural, and social realms.

Mesopotamian art encompasses the art of ancient civilizations that inhabited the region now known as Iraq today. There is so much amazing art that comes from the ancient world. I remember flipping through books and books of art and art encyclopedias that my grandfather had and just being in awe. It is difficult to cover it all or to highlight some things as more important to others. With that said, let us review various aspects I personally feel any visual artist should be exposed to.

Relief Sculptures: Relief sculptures were a common form of Mesopotamian art, and were created by carving images into flat surfaces. These works often depicted scenes from daily life, such as hunting and farming, as well as religious and mythological scenes. Assyrian art is particularly well known for its relief sculptures, which were often created to decorate the palaces of Assyrian rulers. These reliefs often depict battles, hunting scenes, and royal ceremonies, and are notable for their attention to intricate detail in clothing and hair, and use of narrative storytelling.

Cylinder Seals: Cylinder seals were another important form of Mesopotamian art, and were used as signatures or marks of ownership. These small, cylindrical seals were often decorated with intricate and detailed images, and were used to impress designs into soft materials like clay. All you had to do is roll the cylinder seal on the soft surface and watch the message or picture unfold in front of your eyes.

Title: Cylinder seal and modern impression: male worshiper, dog surmounted by a standard
Period: Kassite
Date: ca. mid-2nd millennium BCE
Geography: Mesopotamia
Culture: Kassite
Title: Cylinder seal and modern impression: banquet scene with seated figures
Period: Early Dynastic III
Date: ca. 2600–2350 BCE
Geography: Mesopotamia
Culture: Sumerian

Although engraved stones had been used as early as the seventh millennium B.C. to stamp impressions in clay, the invention in the fourth millennium B.C. of carved cylinders that could be rolled over clay allowed the development of more complex seal designs. These cylinder seals, first used in Mesopotamia, served as a mark of ownership or identification. Seals were either impressed on lumps of clay that were used to close jars, doors, and baskets, or they were rolled onto clay tablets that recorded information about commercial or legal transactions. The seals were often made of precious stones.

Source: The Metropolitan Musem of Art, New York

Here is a great article on Cylinder Seals from the Met by Associate Curator, Yelena Rakic. Cylinder seals are stamps basically used for the printing of specific inscriptions. I find them super cool and kind of hope they are brought back at some point soon.

Depictions of Daily Life: Mesopotamian art often depicted scenes from daily life, such as hunting and farming, as well as religious and mythological scenes. These works were created to celebrate and preserve the cultural traditions of ancient Mesopotamia, and were often seen (as they are seen today) to be important works of history and art.

Sampling of Sumerian Art:

Sumerian art is known for its use of cylinder seals. Sumerian cylinder seals were often intricately carved with images of gods, animals, and scenes from daily life.

Cylinder seal impression. Probably Dumuzid imprisoned in the underworld. He is flanked by two snakes.

Dumuzid or Tammuz, known to the Sumerians as Dumuzid the Shepherd, is an ancient Mesopotamian god associated with shepherds, who was also the first and primary consort of the goddess Inanna. In Sumerian mythology, Dumuzid’s sister was Geshtinanna, the goddess of agriculture, fertility, and dream interpretation.

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumuzid)

Ziggurat Architecture: The Sumerians were also known for their monumental architecture, including the ziggurat, a type of stepped pyramid that was used as a temple or palace.

Ziggurat of Ur. (2023, February 18). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziggurat_of_Ur

Ziggurat of Ur. (2023, February 18). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziggurat_of_Ur

The Ziggurat (or Great Ziggurat) of Ur (Sumerian: 𒂍𒋼𒅎𒅍 é-temen-ní-gùru “Etemenniguru”, meaning “temple whose foundation creates aura”) is a Neo-Sumerian ziggurat in what was the city of Ur near Nasiriyah, in present-day Dhi Qar Province, Iraq. The structure was built during the Early Bronze Age (21st century BC) but had crumbled to ruins by the 6th century BC of the Neo-Babylonian period, when it was restored by King Nabonidus.

Drawing of original ziggurat design by Leonard Woolley.

Just check out the incredible geometrical forms. This Ziggurat is approximated to have been started in circa 2050–2030 BC, completed in circa 2030–1980 BC. Meaning it is over 4000 years old. The shapes are … completely bonkers for lack of a better word.

The Ziggurat was excavated in 1920s, and a lot of geometric shapes are approximated and reconstructed, but the look is magnificent. Given how big the structure is, even if the top shapes looked different in antiquity, it would have looked magnificently exceptional as a structure far beyond the ordinary at the time. You know what Gvaat is going to say – if you wanted inspiration, here it is!

We also now know that this Ziggurat excavation in Iraq made an impression on the world. Below is a submission to the competition for the proposal of a structure for the Lincoln Memorial, also made around 1920s.

John Russell Pope’s Competition Proposal for a Ziggurat Style Monument to Abraham Lincoln

Sampling of Akkadian Art:

Title: Cylinder seal and modern impression: hunting scene
Period: Akkadian
Date: ca. 2250–2150 BCE
Geography: Mesopotamia
Culture: Akkadian

What in the world is a Stele? A stele is a large stone monument produced by Akkadian culture. Akkadian artists created large stone monuments which were often used to commemorate important events or honor powerful figures.

The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin is a stele that dates to approximately 2254–2218 BC, in the time of the Akkadian Empire, and is now at the Louvre in Paris. The relief measures 200cm in height (6′ 7″)[1] and was carved in pinkish sandstone,[2] with cuneiform writings in Akkadian and Elamite. It depicts the King Naram-Sin of Akkad leading the Akkadian army to victory over the Lullubi, a mountain people from the Zagros Mountains.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin – Wikipedia

Sampling of Babylonian Art:

Again there is not much that I do not love about ancient art. Just take a look at this Stele made out of basalt rock.

The lunette of the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1750 BC), depicting the king receiving his law from the sun god Shamash

So is it a lunette or a stele? The lunette spatial region in the upper portion of a stele. For our purposes however, I would invite you to forget the terminology for a second, and look at how impressive this looks when made out of basalt rock. Basalt is formed from rapid cooling of low-viscosity lava. The image is nicely lit, but look at the choice of how the figures are carved, enough for the light to shine upon the shoulders of the figures. There is a narrative, there is a great visual. The visual stands as a call to action to read the inscription. Many things are going right for this piece and it shows. Magnificent!

Mythological Creatures: Babylonian art is known for its depictions of mythical creatures such as lions, bulls, and dragons. These creatures often had cultural significance and were used to represent powerful forces or divine beings. Often as relief on walls and gates.

Cuneiform Writing: Babylonian art also includes cuneiform writing, an early system of writing that was used to record laws, stories, and other important information.

Title: Panel with striding lion
Period: Neo-Babylonian
Date: ca. 604–562 BCE
Geography: Mesopotamia, Babylon (modern Hillah)
Culture: Babylonian
Medium: Ceramic, glaze
Dimensions: 39 1/4 × 90 3/4 in. (99.7 × 230.5 cm)

What did Cuneiform really look like? It looked like this:

Trilingual cuneiform inscription of Xerxes I at Van Fortress in Turkey, written in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian forms of cuneiform

Incredible right? Each form appears rigid but together written out forms a pattern very pleasant to the eye. It almost looks like an alien language written out, yet this is the earliest known written system on Earth.

Cuneiform is a logo-syllabic script that was used to write several languages of the Ancient Middle East.[4] The script was in active use from the early Bronze Age until the beginning of the Common Era.[5] It is named for the characteristic wedge-shaped impressions (Latin: cuneus) which form its signs. Cuneiform was originally developed to write the Sumerian language of southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Cuneiform is the earliest known writing system.

Source: Wikipedia

Wall Reliefs: Babylonian artists also excelled in creating large-scale wall reliefs, which depicted important events or honored powerful figures. These reliefs were often painted in bright colors and used to decorate palaces and temples. However, the colors faded over time and it appears that only fragments of color are present for modern testing. Judging by the the Ishtar Gate that had glazed and very colorful blue bricks, it is very likely that walls were adorned with very bright and lively colors.

Molded plaque: king or a god carrying a mace, ca. 2000–1700 B.C. Isin-Larsa–Old Babylonian, Isin-Larsa–early Old Babylonian Ceramic; H. 12.1 cm, W. 7.1 cm The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1932 (32.39.2) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/322603

Ishtar Gate depiction – source: https://www.dkfindout.com/uk/history/mesopotamia/babylonian-monuments/
Wall of Ishtar Gate with colored enamel – photograph.
Wall of Ishtar Gate – this image gives us some idea of size.

The Ishtar Gate was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon[citation needed] (in the area of present-day Hillah, Babil Governorate, Iraq). It was constructed circa 575 BCE by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II on the north side of the city. It was part of a grand walled processional way leading into the city. The walls were finished in glazed bricks mostly in blue, with animals and deities in low relief at intervals, these were also made up of bricks that are molded and colored differently.

The German archaeologist Robert Koldewey led the excavation of the site from 1904 to 1914.

After the end of the First World War in 1918, the smaller gate was reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum. The gate is 50 feet (15 meters) high, and the original foundations extended another 45 feet (14 meters) underground.

Source: Wikipedia

Assyrian Art:

Human-Headed Winged Bulls: One of the most iconic symbols of Assyrian art is the winged bull, a powerful creature that was often depicted at the entrance of important buildings such as palaces and temples.

Human-headed winged bull (lamassu)
Period: Neo-Assyrian
Date: ca. 883–859 BCE
Geography: Mesopotamia, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu)
Culture: Assyrian
Illustration of.a winged bull (source: Botta, Paul Emile; Flandin, Eugène: «Monument de Ninive» (Band 1): Architecture et sculpture, 1849)
Lamassu (Human-headed winged bull) heading left. Relief from tking Sargon II’s palace at Dur Sharrukin in Assyria (now Khorsabad in Iraq), ca. 713–716 BC.

Intricate Reliefs: Assyrian artists were known for their ability to create intricate and detailed reliefs, which depicted battles, hunting scenes, and other important events.

Assyrian art was often created to demonstrate the power and control of the Assyrian empire which has a long and interesting history, and was used to intimidate enemies and signal a message of strength and dominance.

2. Ancient Egyptian Art: Hieroglyphics, profile view, idealized forms.

Illustration of Egyptian court, lithograph after a watercolor by Eduard Gaertner

Ancient Egyptian art is characterized by the use of hieroglyphics, profile views, and idealized forms. Egyptian artists often depicted gods, pharaohs, and common people in stylized, two-dimensional forms.

Examples of Historical Ornament, Egyptian

The Power of Hieroglyphics: Ancient Egyptian art is famous for its use of hieroglyphics, which were not just decorative but also served as a means of communication. Hieroglyphics were used to convey important information and were often used to tell stories and record historical events. They are also beautiful to look at in their own right and carry with them ornamenting qualities.

Temple of Kom Ombo: hieroglyphs

The Role of the Pharaohs: Ancient Egyptian art was deeply connected to the pharaohs, who commissioned many of the most famous works of art. From the Sphinx to the pyramids, these works were meant to commemorate the pharaohs and their reigns and to serve as a lasting testament to their power and greatness.

The Afterlife Obsession: Historians often describe the Ancient Egyptians as being obsessed with the afterlife and many of their works of art were created with this in mind. A design history teacher once told me a joke about how life insurance would do really well in Ancient Egypt. I am not sure how true that is, but insurance of a good afterlife would certainly do well. Preparations for the afterlife were extremely elaborate for those who could afford it, and especially for the pharaohs.

From elaborate tombs to intricate sarcophagi, these works were meant to help the deceased on their journey to the afterlife and ensure their safe passage to the next world.

Statuette of a Scribe, New Kingdom, Egypt, 1550 -1070 BC

The pharaoh Nectanebo II often invoked a very close connection–even a merging–between himself and the falcon god of kingship, Horus. In fact, Nectanebo II was the focus of a cult in which he was referred to as “Nectanebo-the-Falcon,” which could indeed be what is represented by this striking conjunction of a powerful falcon and the monarch. This idea seems to be supported by the fact that Horus is not named on the base, only Nectanebo and the god Osiris-Mnevis, at whose sanctuary in Heliopolis the statue may have been erected.

Source: https://www.metmuseum.org/

3. Early Chinese Art: Calligraphy, ink wash painting, porcelain, traditional themes.

Early Chinese art is known for its calligraphy, ink-wash painting, porcelain, and traditional themes. These works often depict landscapes, historical events, and daily life, and were created using traditional techniques passed down through many generations.

Calligraphy: Calligraphy is a revered art form in early Chinese culture, and was often used to write poems, inscriptions, and official documents. Calligraphers used ink and brushes to create delicate, flowing characters that are considered works of art in their own right.

Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River
Calligrapher Mi Fu Chinese
ca. 1095

Sun Guoting’s Manual on Calligraphy (687) states that calligraphy reveals the character and emotions of the writer. Few works demonstrate this principle as clearly as this handscroll by Mi Fu, the leading calligrapher of late Northern Song. Mi wrote Sailing on the Wu River with a suspended arm, working from the elbow rather than the wrist. It was not his aim to form perfect characters; instead, he entrusted his writing to the force of the brush, giving free reign to idiosyncratic movements, collapsing and distorting the characters for the sake of expressiveness. Su Shi (1036–1101) likened Mi’s writing to “a sailboat in a gust of wind, or a warhorse charging into battle.” Traditionally, calligraphy has been more highly esteemed in China than painting. In the 1950s when John Crawford began collecting it, most American scholars were unaware of its importance and the authenticity of many Crawford pieces was questioned. Today, these works are regarded as national treasures and the Metropolitan is the only leading museum in the West able to present major examples of this quintessential Chinese art form.

The Met / Metropolitant Musem of Art, New York

Ink Wash Painting: Another iconic form of early Chinese art is the ink wash painting. These works are characterized by their use of black ink, which is applied in delicate washes to create landscapes, portraits, and other images.

Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River
Calligrapher Mi Fu Chinese
ca. 1095

Porcelain: Porcelain is a type of fine china that was first developed in China and was highly prized for its beauty and durability. Early Chinese porcelain was often decorated with intricate designs and patterns and was used for everything from household items to religious objects.

Bronze altar set , China, late 11th century BCE

4. Greek and Roman Art: Classical forms, marble sculptures, narrative reliefs.

Greek and Roman art is known for its classical forms, such as marble sculptures, narrative reliefs, and architectural elements. These works often depict myths, battles, and daily life, and were created with a focus on harmony, balance, and proportion.

The Perfection of the Human Form: Ancient Greek and Roman art is renowned for its depiction of the human form, which was often idealized and portrayed in perfect proportion. This focus on the human body led to the development of classical forms that have influenced art in the West for thousands of years.

Mythology and the Gods: Greek and Roman art often depicted the gods and goddesses of mythology, as well as scenes from famous myths and legends. These works served as a way to bring the gods to life and understand their stories and perhaps they also reminded the people of the time that there is more to life than the things in front of them.

Architecture and Engineering Marvels: Greek and Roman art also had a significant impact on architecture, with many iconic structures such as the Parthenon in Athens and the Colosseum in Rome still standing today as a great testament to the prowess of engineers of the time. These buildings were not only functional, but also incorporated intricate sculptures and other forms of art, making them true works of art in their own right.

Greek Temple to Artemis (Diana to the Romans) in Ephesus, twice the size of the Parthenon, now destroyed, was considered one of the Ancient Wonders of the World.
The Acropolis of Athens
The student’s manual of ancient geography, based upon the Dictionary of Greek and Roman geography
Year: 1861 (1860s)
Authors: Smith, William, 1813-1893, ed
Publisher: London, J. Murray
Contributing Library: The Library of Congress

Athletic Beauty: Greek artists celebrated the human form, especially when it came to athletes. They often portrayed athletes in various stages of competition, capturing their grace, power, and beauty in stone, bronze, and other materials. This celebration of physical strength and beauty carried with it a visual representation of not just the physical but everything that lies beneath. Greek and Roman cannons of beauty continue to influence art and culture today.

Naturalism and Idealization: Greek art was a masterful blend of naturalism and idealization, capturing the essence of the human form and also striving to represent it in its ideal and most harmonious state – artists were striving to capture the Platonic Ideal of their subjects. This is seen in iconic works like the Venus de Milo, which depicts the goddess of love and beauty in a stylized, idealized form.

5. Early Indian Art: Rock-cut temples, elaborate carvings, use of color and storytelling.

Early Indian art is known for its rock-cut temples, elaborate carvings, and use of color and storytelling. These works often depict Hindu gods and goddesses, scenes from religious texts, and royal life. Early Indian artists utilized various mediums, including stone, bronze, and paint, to create intricate and richly detailed works.

One of the most iconic forms of Indian artistic expression is the rock-cut temple. These structures were carved directly into mountainsides, and feature intricate carvings, sculptures, and paintings. Some of the most famous examples of rock-cut temples include the Ajanta and Ellora caves in India.

Stepwells are wells or ponds with a long corridor of steps that descend to the water level.

Stepwells played a significant role in defining subterranean architecture in western India from 7th to 19th century. Some stepwells are multi-storeyed and can be accessed by a Persian wheel which is pulled by a bull to bring water to the first or second floor.

Chand Baori is a stepwell situated in the village of Abhaneri in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It extends approximately 30m (100ft) into the ground, making it one of the deepest and largest stepwells in India

Located in Abhaneri village near Jaipur, Rajasthan, Chand Baori was built over a thousand years ago and is one of the largest step-wells of the world. It was built by King Chand Raja from the Gurjara-Pratihara clan during the eighth and the ninth centuries for water harvesting. It has 3,500 narrow steps descending 20 meters to the bottom of the well and 13 floors.

Step Wells In India That You Need To Visit At Least Once In Your Lifetime
Rani Ki Vav (lit. ’The Queen’s Stepwell’)

Rani Ki Vav (lit. ’The Queen’s Stepwell’) is a stepwell situated in the town of Patan in Gujarat, India. It is located on the banks of the Saraswati River. Its construction is attributed to Udayamati, the spouse of the 11th-century Chaulukya king Bhima I. Silted over, it was rediscovered in the 1940s and restored in the 1980s by the Archaeological Survey of India. It has been listed as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India since 2014.


Early Indian art often tells stories and depicts scenes from Hindu mythology and religious texts. These narratives were a way for artists to preserve cultural traditions and pass them down from generation to generation.

Rani Ki Vav (lit. ’The Queen’s Stepwell’) – detail depicting Kalki incarnation (centre), women with lipstick or twig (left) and with monkey (right)
Terracotta work on Shyamrai Temple, Bishnupur, depicting Raas-Leela.
Terracotta work on Shyamrai Temple, Bishnupur, depicting Raas-Leela.
Indian art. (2023, April 23). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_art

6. Native American Art: Pottery, textiles, totem poles, geometric designs.

Native North America, Northwest Coast, British Columbia and Alaska, Haida, Raven Rattle
late 1800s–early 1900s

Early Native American art is characterized by its pottery, textiles, totem poles, and geometric designs. These works often depicted nature, spiritual beliefs, and cultural traditions, and were created using natural materials such as clay, stone, and wood. Some of the highlights include:

Diversity of Style: Early Native American art was not limited to a single style or medium, but instead varied greatly from tribe to tribe and region to region. Different tribes had their own unique styles and techniques for creating art, including pottery, textiles, carvings, and paintings.

Spirituality and Storytelling: Early Native American art was often deeply connected to spiritual beliefs and served as a means of storytelling. Masks, totems, and other objects were used in religious ceremonies and also served to preserve cultural traditions and historical events.

I hope you are also seeing a parallel here, much of human art is about storytelling in one way or another. Keep your eye out for more art centered around narrative throughout this article!

Use of Natural Materials: Early Native American artists utilized a wide range of natural materials in their works, including clay, stone, wood, and animal hides. These materials were often selected for their cultural significance or spiritual properties, and were shaped and decorated with intricate designs and patterns.

Native American water jar - Zuni Pueblo artist, Water Jar (Olla), circa 1875, earthenware, white slip and pigments, Gift of the Women’s Art Association, 1885.48
Zuni Pueblo artist, Water Jar (Olla), circa 1875, earthenware, white slip and pigments, Gift of the Women’s Art Association, 1885.48

Louisa Keyser (Dat So La Lee) (Washo, 1850-1925). Basketry Vessel, 1900. Willow, bracken fern, red bud, 8 x 10 1/2 x 10 1/2 in. (20.3 x 26.7 x 26.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, By exchange, 72.5.2.

Arrowlike forms on this basket signify ripe grains ready for harvesting, with the points on the ends representing hunting arrows. Louisa Keyser (Dat So La Lee) was the most renowned basket weaver in Nevada. Realizing that her family needed income, she invented new designs on tightly coiled, nonutilitarian baskets such as this style, called a degikup

Brooklyn Museum
Sun stone, at National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, Mexico
Material	Basalt
Created	Sometime between 1502 and 1520
Discovered	17 December 1790 at El Zócalo, Mexico City
Present location	National Anthropology Museum (Mexico City)
Period	Post-Classical
Culture	Mexica

Sun stone, at National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, Mexico
Material Basalt
Created Sometime between 1502 and 1520
Discovered 17 December 1790 at El Zócalo, Mexico City
Present location National Anthropology Museum (Mexico City)
Period Post-Classical
Culture Mexica

7. Early Jewish Art: Illuminated manuscripts, intricate calligraphy, use of gold.

Early Jewish Art refers to the artistic expressions and traditions of the Jewish people during ancient times. It encompasses a wide range of styles and media, including pottery, textiles, metalwork, and illuminated manuscripts, among others. This art form reflects the cultural, religious, and historical influences of Jewish communities, and often features symbols and motifs that are important to their beliefs and traditions. The themes and styles of Early Jewish Art were largely shaped by the political, social, and economic conditions of the time, as well as by the influence of neighboring cultures, particularly the Persians, Greeks, and Romans.

Illuminated Manuscripts: Early Jewish art often took the form of illuminated manuscripts, which were books decorated with intricate designs and gold and silver lettering. These works were often used to tell stories from the Torah, and were often seen as precious works of art in their own right.

Intricate Calligraphy: Calligraphy was also an important aspect of early Jewish art, and was used to create beautiful and ornate writing in religious texts and other works. The style of this calligraphy was often highly stylized, and was used to create beautiful and meaningful lettering.

Use of Gold: Gold was often used in early Jewish art, including in illuminated manuscripts and other works. This rich and shining material was seen as a symbol of the divine, and was often used to create striking and beautiful designs.

Master of the Barbo Missal (Italian) Mishneh Torah, ca. 1457 North Italian, Tempera and gold leaf on parchment; leather binding; Binding: 9 7/16 × 8 3/16 × 3 1/4 in. (24 × 20.8 × 8.2 cm) Leaf (of 346 leaves): 8 15/16 × 7 1/4 in. (22.7 × 18.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

8. Early Arabic and Islamic Art: Calligraphy, abstract geometric patterns, tile work.

Calligraphy is one of the most important elements of early Arabic and Islamic art, and was used to create beautiful and intricate writing. Arabic calligraphy was used to write religious texts, poems, and other works, and was often highly stylized and ornate.

A copy of the Qur’an by Ibn al-Bawwab in the year 1000/1001 CE, is thought to be the earliest existing example of a Qur’an written in a cursive script.

Abstract Geometric Patterns: Early Arabic artists were known for their use of abstract geometric patterns in their art, including in tile work and textiles. These patterns were often used to create intricate and mesmerizing designs, and were often seen as symbols of the divine.

Tomb towers of two Seljuk princes at Kharaghan, Qazvin province, Iran, covered with many different brick patterns.
Tiled dome and minarets, with cupolas, of the adobe Shrine of Shah Nematollah Vali — in Mahan, Kerman province, southern Iran.

Tile Work: Early Arabic artists were also skilled in tile work, and used this medium to create intricate and colorful mosaics. These works were often used to decorate homes, mosques, and other buildings, and were created by arranging small, glazed tiles in complex designs.

Zellij (Arabic: الزليج, romanized: zillīj; also spelled zillij or zellige) is a style of mosaic tilework made from individually hand-chiseled tile pieces.[1]: 335 [2]: 41 [3]: 166  The pieces were typically of different colours and fitted together to form various patterns on the basis of tessellations, most notably elaborate Islamic geometric motifs such as radiating star patterns.[1][4][5][6] This form of Islamic art is one of the main characteristics of architecture in the western Islamic world. It is found in the architecture of Morocco, the architecture of Algeria, early Islamic sites in Tunisia, and in the historic monuments of al-Andalus (in the Iberian Peninsula). From the 14th century onwards, zellij became a standard decorative element along lower walls, in fountains and pools, on minarets, and for the paving of floors.[1][5]

Source: Wikipedia

Islamic Art and tilework

Shah Mosque (Tehran) Iran.

Early Islamic art refers to the art produced during the Islamic Golden Age, a period of great cultural and intellectual growth in the Islamic world, which lasted from the 7th to the 17th centuries. It encompasses a wide range of art forms, including architecture, ceramics, calligraphy, textiles, metalwork, and manuscript illumination. Early Islamic art is known for its intricate geometric patterns, lavish use of gold and silver, and its influence by the cultures of Persia, Byzantium, and ancient Greece.

Photo by Soroush Zargar

Geometric Designs and Calligraphy: Islamic art is characterized by intricate geometric designs and calligraphy, both of which are inspired by the tenets of Islam and play a central role in the decoration of buildings, textiles, ceramics, and other objects.

Multicultural Influences: Islamic art is a blend of cultural influences from regions including Persia, India, and the Byzantine Empire, and reflects the empire’s broad geographic reach and cosmopolitan society.

The three madrasas at the Registan of Samarkand, built during the Timurid Renaissance (14-15th centuries).
Artist depiction by Vasily Vereshchagin  (1842–1904)  depicting Sher-Dor Madrasa in Registan, the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand of the Timurid Empire, now in Uzbekistan.

Object of Devotion: Many works of Islamic art, such as ornate mosque decorations, illuminated manuscripts, and intricate ceramics, were created as objects of devotion and to evoke a sense of the divine, serving to inspire and uplift the viewer.

Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699). Public domain
Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

9. Art of the Steppe, Nature-inspired, Functional and decorative, Influenced by many cultures

The Eurasian steppe is one of the largest biomes on earth, it is a vast grassland that stretches from Hungary in the west to Mongolia in the east. It covers over 6,000,000 square kilometers (2,300,000 square miles) and is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species.

Title: Belt buckle with paired felines attacking ibexes
Period: Xiongnu
Date: ca. 3rd–2nd century BCE
Geography: Mongolia or southern Siberia
Culture: Xiongnu
The Xiongnu (Chinese: 匈奴; pinyin: Xiōngnú, [ɕjʊ́ŋ. nǔ]) were a tribal confederation of nomadic peoples who, according to ancient Chinese sources, inhabited the eastern Eurasian Steppe from the 3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD.

The steppe has played a significant role in world history. It has inhabited by nomadic peoples for thousands of years, and has been the site of many important historical events, including the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. It has also been a major trade route for goods and ideas between Europe and Asia.

Title: Casting Model for Belt Plaque
Date: 2nd–1st century BCE
Culture: North China
Medium: Clay
Dimensions: L. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm)
Classification: Ceramics

Steppe art refers to the art and artistic traditions that have emerged from the vast Eurasian grasslands known as the steppe. This region stretches from Eastern Europe to Central Asia and is characterized by its vast open plains, nomadic populations, and rich and varied cultural heritage.

Steppe art has a long and diverse history that reflects the various cultures, religions, and political systems that have emerged in this region over time. For example, the art of the Scythians, who lived in the steppe region from the 9th to the 3rd centuries BCE, reflects a mix of influences from Greek, Persian, and Central Asian cultures. Similarly, the art of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia has been influenced by Islamic, Chinese, and Mongol traditions. Some of the earliest examples of steppe art can be found in the petroglyphs and rock paintings of the region, which date back to the Bronze Age (about 3200–900 BC).

One of the most significant art forms to emerge from the steppe is the art of the Scythians. The Scythians were a nomadic people who lived in the steppe region between the 9th and 3rd centuries BCE. Their art was characterized by intricate gold and silver jewelry, elaborate clothing and headdresses, and finely crafted weapons and horse trappings.

Scythian, end of the 7th century B.C.
Northern Caucasus, Kostromskaia kurgan
Gold; 7 1/2 x 12 1/2 in. (31.7 x 19 cm)
The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

The art of the steppe is characterized by its close relationship with nature: Many forms of steppe art, such as traditional textiles and ceramics, feature designs that are inspired by the natural world, including animals, plants, and landscapes. This reflects the close relationship that nomadic peoples of the steppe have with their environment.

Scythian gold comb with the image of a battle scene, from the Solokha kurgan (430-390 BC)

The art of the steppe is often functional as well as decorative: Many forms of steppe art, such as jewelry and horse trappings, are not only decorative but also serve practical purposes. For example, elaborate headdresses worn by traditional nomadic women are not only beautiful but also protect them from the sun and wind.

In addition to these traditional art forms, steppe art has also been influenced by the various empires and cultures that have swept through the region over time. For example, the art of the steppe was greatly influenced by the Islamic Golden Age, which saw the rise of sophisticated scientific, literary, and artistic traditions throughout the Muslim world.

This is it for now. Of course, many (hundreds?) of styles of the ancient world are missing from this list. However, my goal was not to give a comprehensive overview but to juxtapose certain pieces of ancient and historic artistic expression that are seldom seen side-to-side, so that artists of today could use this as a visual bank for inspiration. I hope I succeeded in this regard, but I certainly would love to hear from you, contact me here and let me know your thoughts.

You know what I am going to say next! It is time to step away from inputs and use your own creativity to create! Good luck!