“One of my favourite art styles of the ancient world is that of the Hittites. The ancient Hittites disappeared from the archaeological record and were only rediscovered in the late 18th century. Hittite relief panels depict the myriad of Gods and mythical beings they venerated and the creative minds of the Hittite artists produced strange beings using a simple naive style that is both direct and endearing to modern eyes. I really hope you enjoy my photos of Hittie art, probably the largest collection on the web”, Paul Williams.
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Photos of The Hittites Relief Panels and Sculptures
The Hittites are an enigmatic civilisation that disappeared from the historical record after its Empire collapsed around around 1180 BC, its remnants finally disappearing in the 8th century BC.
Nineteenth century archaeologists in Anatolia discovered rock sculptures and illegible hieroglyphs unlike any created by the know ancient civilisations at that time. They were further mystified by and clay tablet fragments excavated in the three Great Ancient Empire, Egypt, Assyria and Babylon that hinted at a fourth unknown Empire. In the early twentieth century the city of Hattusa discovered and excavated revealing thousands clay tablets written in two different languages, one in Mesopotamian Cuneiform and the other in hieroglyphs, neither of which could be understand. In 1915 the code of the cuneiform language was broken which allowed academics to start unravelling the history of a previously unknown civilisation they named the Hittites. The clay tablet writings allowed academics to slowly unravel the history of the Hittites and make sense of the artworks that were being excavated.
Very little art survives from the old Hittite Kingdom and most surviving Hittite artworks come from the Hittite Empire which dates from around 1400BC to 1200BC. The Hittite clay tablets revealed this Hittite civilisation as a highly bureaucratic state that controlled its citizens with an iron fist. The Hittites were cemented together by oaths to its vast pantheon of gods and by oaths of allegiances to its King, who was believed to be the gods representative on earth.
Depicting the Gods.
Hittite art focused primarily on its Gods and in the process created endearing artworks that to modern eyes look like scenes from a fairytale book, full of mythical figures. It is difficult enough today to understand the religious artworks of a culture from another part of the world, so how do you start to understand artworks from a civilisation that disappeared 3000 years ago?
To start with the world “art” is not really helpful because to modern ears it comes pre loaded with meanings and expectations. Hittite art was not made to exhibit in galleries nor was it a decorative art to brighten up Hittite homes and palaces. Like early Christian art, Hittite religious art was devotional art that was designed to depict the Hittite pantheon of gods in a clear direct way
The Hittites believed the world was populated by thousands of gods. Every mountain, animal, tree and insect had its own god. Gods were thought to be like humans but bigger. Gods had human emotions and needs and were not seen to be invincible spirits that were faultless. Like humans the gods were believed to like dancing, music, athletic contests, making love and good food. It was said “Are the desires of gods and men different? In no way! Do their natures differ? In no way!”
At the top of the Hittite pantheon was the Storm God who preserved order in the cosmos, the king being his representative on earth. The Storm God was not only an aggressive God responsible for thunder and lightening but he was also a gentle kind God responsible for the all important rain that watered the crops. The Hittites though did not have only one Storm God, they had Storm Gods of the armies, palaces, fields and meadows and even of the palace door locks. It was also quite acceptable to see the same god as being male and female because they often had two sides to their natures. To this vast pantheon of Gods the Hittites also added the gods of the peoples they conquered.
The Hittites worshiped their Gods in temples which were probably like medieval monasteries in the sense that they were dedicated to servicing a deity. Unlike churches though the Hittite temples were restricted to the priests that literally clothed, washed, anointed and fed the God.
Apart from the Royal family who could enter the temple on festival days, the punishment for trespassers was death. It was believed that a temple housed the God it was dedicated to. The God was summoned and was believed to enter a cult image in the temple. This image was not a statue in the likeness of the god but a simple stone pillar that was dressed, washed and anointed and provided with food.
Gods never manifested themselves so it was impossible to tell what they looked like. Hittite depictions of Gods focused on depicting the attributes of a God, which were many, so could take many forms. Gods were usually represented in human form which reflected their human natures and characteristics. Sometimes Gods were represented by simple icons, like a disk to represent the Sun God, but this was not part of a fixed iconographic system.
Gods can though be told apart from their mortal worshipers in artworks by a dress code. Generally Gods were depicted a lot bigger than mortals in Hittite art. The male Gods are dressed in short sleeveless tunics which ends just above the knee. they wear conical hats, some tapering to a point, others drooping over. Boar tusk horns protrude from the cap of the God to defined his status in the pantheon, the more horns protruding from the hat the more important the god was. The hat could also be decorated with a crescent which was the ideogram of the divine. The most common weapon of the Gods was the Sword which had a curved blade and crescent shaped pommel. Specific deities were depicted with maces, bows or spears. The Storm God for instance was often depicted carried a mace over his shoulder. Male Gods were depicted with their legs in profile, their torso facing frontal and their heads in profile.
Goddesses also were also depicted with a cylindrical hats called a polos and wore full length garments which have loose fitting sleeves and were belted at the waist which fell in pleats to the ankle. Goddesses were depicted in profile only and both Gods and Goddesses wore the iconic Hittite shoes with upturned toes.
Unlike the painted friezes of ancient Egyptians that had great detail, the low relief sculptures of the Hittites used a graphic simplicity and a restrained form of line to create powerful iconic images. Often images of Gods were mirrored on the same panel which suggested their duality or were represented in what appears to be long processions, both styles creating graphic images. But just as the Hittites sculptors were not artists in the modern sense of the word, nor were they designers and it is wrong to view their work from a modern aesthetic or artistic point of view. It is also wrong to compare their work to other ancient civilisations like the Egyptians as the Hittites were not concerned with realistic representations their representational problems were far harder than that.
Hittite sculptors had to solve the problem of clearly depicting a huge pantheon of Gods none of whom had no fixed iconic representations. Each God had a written set of attributes and a hierarchical standing in the pantheon lists. When the Gods appear together in groups as in the Yazilikaya temple rock carvings, each God has to be portrayed at a scale that reflects its status. At Yazilikaya what appears to us to be a series of processions moving across the rock faces towards the heart of the temple, are in fact a series of static Gods, unrelated to each other, each depicted in its correct place in the pantheon. They are almost a visual list. The sculpture had to convey with absolute clarity, to Hittite eyes, which Gods were present in the Temple and their attributes. This has resulted in enigmatic images that have probably only ever been fully understood by the Hittite temple priests then and by Hittite academics today.
To modern eyes these depiction of Gods look like endearing fairytale characters from a land full of half man, half beast beings who play out an unknown mythical story. It can now be seen though that these mythical beings are the attempts to depict a God by its attributes rather than by fixed rules of depiction of a clearly defined iconographic symbol system.
Animal depiction is important in Hittite art and Gods are often depicted standing or seated on them. The Storm God is sometimes associated with the Bull but this is not a fixed association and Gods are associated with different animals at different periods of the palace inventory of Gods. Animals characteristics were used to depict the attributes of a God which is why Gods were often depicted as half man and half animal. The creative possibilities of combining men with animals are endless in Hittite art. Deer, bulls and lions are extremely popular depictions which suggests that cults to these animals were important in the Hittite pantheon. Deer and lion hunts scenes also suggest that there may have been some religious connection may have been associated with them.
The Hittites were a great waring nation. Its bureaucratic state created a formidable war machine that scythed a huge Empire out of the Middle East. The Hittites therefore followed the bombastic convention of the time, set by Assyrian art in particular, and depicted their soldiers going into battle as well as their legendary chariots. The Hittites were clever engineers and innovators and they worked out that if they moved the wheels on their chariots from the rear, where they were traditionally placed in ancient times, to the centre of their chariots, they could create a stronger chariot that could also carry three men, as was seen with devastating effect at the battle of Kadesh. Unlike the Assyrians the Hittites depicted war in their simple inimitable style avoiding huge battle tableau.
Hittite art is naive in style when compared to the fine detailed orthostats of the Assyrians or the detailed frescoes of the Egyptians, but what Hittite art lacks in craftsmanship it more than makes up for in creativity, which probably reflects their innovative nature. Assyrian art is relentless in its bombastic tableau designed to intimidate the viewer. It screams out power and subjugation with endless scenes depicting Assyrian battles and the ensuing violence the Assyrians rained down on those they conquered. Assyrian Gods are depicted as fully formed beings leaving little to the imagination of the viewer. Hittite art works much more at a spiritual level and in this way can be said to have comparisons with modern art. By trying to depict the essence of a God Hittite artists have created a world which our modern imaginations can still explore. Non academic viewers may not get the full meaning of Hittite artworks but, because they are not based on a rigid framework, there is enough room to manoeuvre for modern viewers to be compelled by Hittite imagery.
Sadly the vast majority of Hittite art has been lost. Very little of the great monumental art described on the Hittite writings survive and there are few statues left. Hittite artefacts are rare in the great museums, the British museum for example only has a small orthostat fragment. One of the finest collections of Hittite orthostats and clay tablets is in the Museum of the Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara, Turkey.