The Mesopotamian ruler Gudea, who reigned from roughly 2144–2124 BC, provides a stunning early example of personal, religious, and kingly patronage. Though Gudea only ruled a section of Sumeria for 20 years, 27 statues of the king have been found and classified by archaeologists. They are among the most cherished artifacts of the Ancient Near East, and nearly half of them are in the collections of major museums, including the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Though each statue is unique, they all share the same style and have recognizable facial features, dress, and an upright, broad-shouldered pose with clutched hands.
Based on where they were found and the inscriptions they bear, we know that these statues functioned as standins for Gudea in temples, serving as evidence of his piousness to the gods and, as importantly, of his wealth and power to temple visitors. The inscriptions themselves also reflect Gudea’s ability to command expensive materials and sponsor talented artisans.
Most of Gudea’s statues were carved from diorite, the dark, hard-to-work stone that the Egyptian pharaohs also used to render their portraits immortal. Diorite was both notoriously difficult to carve and quite rare, requiring expensive quarrying and transport to obtain. Gudea’s marshaling of the stone served not only to honor the gods, but also to heap glory on himself. And in the end, the gambit worked: much of what we know about Gudea comes to us from his statues and where they were found. Despite only ruling one portion of the Fertile Crescent for just two decades, his patronage of the arts has furnished him with a tidy 4000-year legacy.