Neo-Assyrian Art

An Assyrian artistic style distinct from that of Babylonian art, which was the dominant contemporary art in Mesopotamia, began to emerge c. 1500 BC, well before their empire included Sumer, and lasted until the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC. It had a much greater use of stone and gypsum alabaster for large sculpture.

The best-known works are the huge lamassu guarding entrance ways, and Assyrian palace reliefs on thin slabs of alabaster, which were originally painted, at least in part, and fixed on the wall all round the main rooms of palaces.

Lamassu

Lamassu, from the entrance into the kings private apartments; 865-860 BC. British Museum.

Lamassu were protective minor deities or spirits. They have wings, a male human head with the elaborate headgear of a divinity, and the elaborately-braided hair and beards shared with royalty. The body is that of either a bull or a lion, the form of the feet being the main difference. Prominent pairs of lamassu were typically placed at entrances in palaces, facing the street and also internal courtyards.

Palace Reliefs

The palace reliefs contain scenes in low relief which glorify the king, showing him at war, hunting, and fulfilling other kingly roles.

Relief of the Lion hunt of Ashurbanipal. British Museum.

The royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal is shown on a famous group of Assyrian palace reliefs from the North Palace of Nineveh. They are widely regarded as masterpieces of Assyrian art. They show a formalized ritual ‘hunt’ by King Ashurbanipal in an arena, where captured Asian lions were released from cages for the king to slaughter with arrows, spears, or his sword. They were made c. 645–635 BC.

Reliefs of minor supernatural beings, called winged genies, are also commonplace. The genies often perform a gesture of purification, fertilization or blessing with a bucket and cone; the meaning of this remains unclear.

Winged genie, Nimrud, c. 870 BC, with inscription running across his midriff.

Other Sculpture

Nimrud Ivories

The Nimrud ivories are a large group of small carved ivory plaques and figures dating from the 9th to the 7th c. BC that were excavated from the Assyrian city of Nimrud.

Nimrud ivory lion eating a man.jpg
An ivory plaque which depicts a lion devouring a human.

The ivories mostly originated outside Mesopotamia and are thought to have been made in the Levant and Egypt from the extinct Syrian elephant. They are carved with motifs typical of those regions and were used to decorate a variety of high-status objects, including pieces of furniture, chariots and horse-trappings, weapons, and small portable objects of various kinds.

Many of the ivories would have originally been decorated with gold leaf or semi-precious stones, which were stripped from them at some point before their final burial. A large group were found in what was a palace storeroom. Many others were found at the bottom of wells, having apparently been dumped there when the city was sacked during the poorly-recorded collapse of the Assyrian Empire between 616 BC and 599 BC.

The majority are housed in the British Museum.

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