Assyrian Art


Assyrian Art Essay, Research Paper

The reliefs from the palace of King Assurnasirpal

II at Nimrud play an important role in portraying the power and importance

of the Assyrian king. These reliefs are similar to other Assyrian

reliefs in terms of their purpose; however, there is a contrast in the

methods used to glorify the king. By examining such factors as style,

iconography and historical significance, we find many similarities and

differences between the “ceremonial” reliefs and the more common reliefs

depicting war and hunting.

The reliefs belonging to the sacred or

“ceremonial” category consist of panels depicting a sacred tree, a human

headed genius fertilizing a sacred tree, a griffin fertilizing a sacred

tree, and a scene of King Assurnasirpal (whose name comes from the god

“Assur”) followed by a winged genius. Dating to about 870 B.C., these

reliefs were originally located in the antechamber to the royal throne

hall and in the living room where it would have been viewed by distinguished

guests. Because of their location and larger than life size, the

reliefs “?instill in the beholder a sense of awe and reverence for the

king?.” (Art History Anthology 28). Moreover, the reliefs overwhelm

the viewer by depicting the king’s power and god-like divinity through

propagandistic iconography and stylization.

To portray the king’s god-like divinity,

the reliefs represent the deities and Assurnasirpal in a similar manner.

First of all, hierarchic scale is almost absent since all the figures are

closely related in size, with Assurnasirpal being only slightly shorter

than the deities. In historical context, this shows that Assyrian

kings were closely associated with deities, but were not considered gods

themselves. This lack of hierarchic scale is also seen in the Lion

Hunt of Assurbanipal, where king Assurbanipal is shown slightly larger

than his servants.

Secondly, the deities and Assurnasirpal

are similar in stance and stylization. All the figures have their

head and legs shown in profile, while the torso is shown halfway frontal.

In addition, the figures maintain a stiff vertical stance with their arms

extended in either straight lines or are stiffly bent into a ninety-degree

angle. In the third panel, both a winged deity and Assurnasirpal

are depicted facing towards the right with their left feet forward; however,

in contrast, the human headed genius and the griffin genius are facing

towards the left with their right feet forward. Because of their

stiff stance, these figures highly contrast the movement and action shown

in the hunting scenes of Assurbanipal and war scenes of Assurnasirpal.

In term of stylization, both the human

headed deities and Assurnasirpal have very stylized hair falling in straight

locks to the back of their necks; furthermore, they possess highly stylized

beards of intricate waves and ringlets which end evenly at the bottom.

Because these features are similar to that of Assurbanipal and the mythological

bullmen at the palace at Khorsabad, it can be construed that it is “a coiffure

characteristic of royalty and divinity alike” (Art History Anthology 28).

Moving on to the facial expression, we find that all the human headed figures

contain large eyebrows, large eyes that are deeply undercut, an elongated

nose, conventionalized ears, and highly conventionalized lips which appear

as a simple slit. On the other hand, the beardless griffin has an

eagle’s head adorned with a feather headdress and a curved beak with a

long tongue. To show the strength of the deities and Assurnasirpal,

the artist depicts muscles within the arms and legs through simple lines

and curves. This style of depicting the facial and body features is common

in other Assyrian reliefs including the hunting scenes of Assurbanipal.

Although there are many similarities in body structure, there is also a

distinctive element that separates the deities and the king. Each deity

possesses a set of four highly stylized wings made up of very detailed

feathers. Besides the use of stance and stylization, clothing is used as

a means of displaying the king’s importance in relation to the gods.

Again a similarity between the deities

and Assurnasirpal is shown through their attire. Each one is dressed

in a similar fashion in both heavy short-sleeved tunics that come down

to the knees, and ankle-length shawls that contain geometric designs and

tassels along the hem. The figures also possess accessories such

as bracelets, necklaces, earrings and a pair of daggers. Also important

is the royal cap, which identifies Assurnasirpal as a king, as well as

the bow he holds, which is a symbol of “might and military prowess” (Art

History Anthology 28). The pair of daggers and the symbolism of the

bow are important to the Assyrian culture because they portray their war-like

nature. This war-like nature is a common factor that relates these

“ceremonial” reliefs to the reliefs described by Henri Frankfort in The

Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient. Another detail typical

of the reliefs from the palace of King Assurnasirpal II, are the sandals

that the deities and the king wear. In contrast to the war and hunting

scenes where the figures wear boots, the sandals worn express the peacefulness

in the “ceremonial” reliefs. As we can see, clothing and accessories

play an important role in depicting the king’s comparison to the gods as

well as the similarities and differences with other Assyrian reliefs.

Finally, the action taking place within

the “ceremonial” reliefs exhibit the power and importance of the king.

First off, the panels depicting the deities fertilizing the sacred tree

are important. The sacred tree is shown artistically in a symmetrical

manner with intertwining branches, stylized leaves, and a fan of leaves

above the trunk. The winged geniuses are fertilizing the sacred tree with

a date blossom in their right hand and holding a sacred bucket in their

left. In addition, panel three shows a winged deity following Assurnasirpal

with his right hand raised over the king “in a gesture of benediction and

divine protection” (Art History Anthology 28). By placing these reliefs

in his antechamber and living room, Assurnasirpal “emphasizes the sacred

character of the Assyrian king, elected by the gods, although not himself

of divine substance” (Frankfort 87).

In conclusion, we find that the reliefs

from the palace of King Assurnasirpal II play an important role in exhibiting

the power and importance of the king. While an Assyrian king’s power

can be depicted is a war-like manner by his military might, we learn that

“ceremonial” reliefs are also effective by placing the king in relation

to gods. The power and importance of the king is shown through a peaceful

manner that highly contrasts the scenes of death and fighting found in

such reliefs as the lion hunt of Assurbanipal and the battle scene of Assurnasirpal.

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