900-640 BCE – Assyrian Art

Lamassu (man-headed winged bull), from the citadel of Sargon II, Dur Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad), Iraq, ca. 720-705 BCE.  Limestone, 13′ 10″ high.  Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The fearsome Assyrians took their name from Assur, the city on the Tigris River in northern Iraq that was dedicated to the god Ashur.  At the height of their power, they ruled an empire that extended from the Tigris River to the Nile and the Persian Gulf to Asia Minor and the kings cultivated an image of themselves as merciless to those who opposed them but forgiving to those who submitted to their will.  The rulers were always weary of attack and erected palaces that acted as fortified citadels and Sargon II even built colossal limestone monsters to guard the gates.  Possibly called lamassu, these monsters were winged, man-headed bulls that were so difficult to move that the feat was celebrated in several reliefs in the palace of Sargon’s successor.  The lamassu are partly in the round and combine the frontal view of the creature standing still with the side view of the monster in motion.  The statues have five legs each, two static in front with side having three more representing the animal walking forward.

Ashurbanipal hunting lions, relief from the north palace of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik), Iraq, ca. 645-640 BCE.  Gypsum, 5′ 4″ high.  British Museum, London.

The conqueror of Elamite Susa, Ashurbanipal’s name means “Ashur is creator of the son;” the greeks called him Sardanapalus.  This relief is from the Nineveh palace and provides insight into the Assyrian’s value in hunting.  They regarded good hunting skills as a manly virtue as important as success in warfare; which creates a bit of disconnect since the royal hunt was not in the wild, but in a controlled environment to ensure to safety and success of the king.  This relief shows a trail of pathetic and dying animals that have been pierced by far more arrows than necessary.  Ironically, the lions’ plight comes off as a kind of heroic tragedy since they seem to be continuing to struggle against the odds to attack and refuse to die.  Obviously the relief was not meant to portray the lions as protagonists but to show the king pitted against and continually besting the king of beasts.

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