Statue of Ashurnasirpal II, 883-859 BC.
The Flood Tablet, relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC, From Nineveh, northern Iraq, Length: 15.240 cm, Width: 13.330 cm, Thickness: 3.170 cm, Excavated by A.H. Layard, ME K3375.
Colossal statue of a winged lion from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, 883-859 BC.
Stone panel from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Iraq, Neo-Assyrian, 883-859 BC, Width: 22.500 cm, Height: 13.500 cm, Height: 13.500 cm, Width: 22.500 cm, The palace was excavated by A.H. Layard (from 1845), ME 124560.
Sardanapalus, King of Assyria, Stoke-on-Trent, England, around AD 1868-93, Inspired by Assyrian sculptures in The British Museum, Height: 30.500 cm, M&ME 1985,3-8,3;M&ME 1989,5-8,1.
The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, Neo-Assyrian, 858-824 BC, From Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Iraq, Stone panel from the Central Palace of Tiglath-pileser III, 730-727 BC.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Avenue of the Arts
465 Huntington Avenue
Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria
in the British Museum
September 21, 2008-January 4, 2009
“The former city of Kalhu I built anew. I built therein a palace with halls of cedar, cypress, juniper, boxwood, teak, terebinth, and tamarisk as my royal dwelling and for the enduring leisure life of my lordship. Silver, gold, tin, bronze, iron, my own booty from the lands over which I ruled, I placed it all therein.”
— From the Standard Inscription of Ashurnasirpal II
Ashurnasirpal II, Assyria’s self-proclaimed “great king, mighty king, king of the universe,” invited 70,000 guests to a 10-day housewarming in 860 BC to show off his new home at Kalhu. Constructed on 900 acres in northern Assyria — now modern-day Iraq — it was the most magnificent palace in the ancient Near East. Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum showcases 250 objects from the British Museum, which has the finest collection of Assyrian art outside of Iraq, found in palaces and temples dating from the 9-7th centuries BC located at Kalhu (present-day Nimrud) and Nineveh along the Tigris River in northern Iraq. Art and Empire is a collaboration between the British Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Art and Empire chronicles Assyria’s rise from a small landlocked kingdom in northern Mesopotamia to a magnificent empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Its territories encompassed all of present-day Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as large parts of Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Iran — the greatest dominion known until that time. The exhibition features artistry created for several great Neo-Assyrian kings, from the first, Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) of Nimrud, to the last, Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC), of Nineveh. Art and Empire brings the grandeur of this ancient Near Eastern realm to life displaying 30 monumental wall reliefs, numerous cuneiform clay tablets, sculpture — both in the round and in relief — and cylinder seals. Works on view range from The king on campaign (about 875-860 BC), a regal wall relief of Ashurnasirpal II going to battle in Kurdistan, to Dying Lion (around 645 BC), the moving image of a noble beast shot by an arrow, in the throes of painful death, created during the reign of Ashurbanipal. (Among the finest wall relief carvings from this period are those of the lion hunts created for Ashurbanipal’s North Palace at Nineveh.) These are some of the many objects that shed light on administration of the empire, culture, trade, personal beliefs, and interrelationships among religion, magic, and medicine. Military dress, equipment, and horse trappings illustrating army life, as well as decorative ivory pieces, furniture fittings, and metal vessels showcasing a luxurious royal, cosmopolitan lifestyle, are highlights of the exhibition.
“The reliefs from Nineveh and Nimrud are a visual encyclopedia of ancient Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of civilization,” said exhibition curator Lawrence Berman (the MFA’s Norma Jean Calderwood Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art). “Today we are particularly aware how vulnerable these archaeological sites are in Iraq, and we can appreciate better than ever the efforts of archaeologists and museums past and present to preserve this part of the world’s heritage.”
In the mid 19th century, the full scope of ancient Assyria’s grandeur and supremacy was revealed through the efforts of French and British explorers. Preeminent among them was Austen Henry Layard, a British archeologist, whose interest was piqued by a large mound near Mosul that he thought was ancient Nineveh. It proved to be Nimrud, the site of the ancient Assyrian city of Kalhu (known as Calhu in Bible references to Assyria), and his discoveries there and at Nineveh in the 1840s and 1850s form the core of Art and Empire. Later digs in the region by notables such as Hormuzd Rassam, George Smith, and Sir Max Mallowan, including finds made at Ashur and Khorsabad, complete the picture of Assyrians as mighty warriors and cultured sophisticates whose deeds were recorded in stone.
The richness of Assyrian culture is the subject of Art and Empire, which is organized to highlight such themes as King and His Court, Palaces and Temples, Assyria at War, Assyria Revealed, Administration and Culture, Magic and Religion, and the King in Recreation. The focal point of the Gund Gallery’s first room is the king himself, represented by a statue of King Ashurnasirpal II, surrounded by images of his courtiers and bodyguard — both human soldiers and divine protective spirits — evoking the drama and majesty of the king’s throne room. A look at palace life follows, featuring decorative objects, furniture fittings, and an intricately patterned stone carpet. The battle room includes large wall reliefs that highlight the king’s dominance in warfare, and adjacent to it is a presentation of archival materials documenting the excavation of ancient Assyria. Administration of the empire and Assyrian culture are examined in displays of cuneiform writing on clay tablets featuring public documents, scientific tracts, and works of literature, as well as royal seals. The importance of magic and religion in Assyrian society is addressed in an adjacent room. A special display case contains the exhibition’s most famous piece, the carved ivory furniture fitting, The Lioness and the African (9th-8th century BC). It provides entrée to the exhibition’s final room, where dramatic wall reliefs showcase royal recreation as seen in the lion and bull hunts that occupied the king during respites from war.
Wall reliefs such as these adorned the magnificent interiors of Ashurnasirpal II’s palace at Nimrud, as well as Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, where they were used as paneling along the bottom half of painted, mud-brick walls. Figuring prominently in the exhibition, these gypsum slabs were artfully carved with iron and copper tools. They average in size from about three-feet square, such as Three Protective Spirits (about 645-640 BC), to the immense and panoramic The Battle of Til-Tuba (about 650 BC) — composed of three panels, each roughly 6 feet square. (All are technically fragments, having been cut down from larger compositions and even entire walls.) They shed light not only on techniques of warfare, but also on daily activities, religion, and the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by Assyrian kings. Brightly colored (faint traces of the original paint are sometimes evident) so that they could be seen in the palace’s dimly lit staterooms and living quarters, the wall reliefs feature the kings as fierce warriors, hunters, and worshipers of Assyrian gods. Cuneiform inscriptions herald their conquests and achievements. Fantastic mythical creatures as well as protective winged genii ward away evil spirits. Such expansive wall reliefs were part of an elaborate decorative plan that glorified the king; they also served as propaganda — proclaiming his awesome majesty while warning of the gruesome death and destruction that would befall his enemies.
In addition to mandating a new look for Assyrian palaces, Ashurnasirpal II was responsible for the creation of Assyrian sculpture as we now know it. Carved in magnesite, an extremely hard stone, the Statue of Ashurnashirpal II (883-859 BC), stands approximately 6 feet tall with its original pedestal, and is the largest and best preserved Assyrian royal sculpture in the round. The ruler appears without a crown, but with long hair and an ornately curled beard. He wears a tunic and fringed shawl, and carries a ceremonial sickle to fight monsters, as well as a mace symbolizing his god-given authority. Inscribed on his chest is a list of his titles and ancestors. The statue was found in the Temple of Ishtar, where it was placed as a devotional piece.
Sculpture, in the form of monumental bas-reliefs, chronicled a king’s achievements, particularly on the battlefield, where wars were conducted in the name of the state god, Ashur, from whom the name “Assyria” is derived. Escape across a river (about 875-860 BC) dramatizes an incident during the reign of Ashurnasirpal II when, in 878 BC, the king and his soldiers encountered enemies near the Euphrates river. Assyrian archers along the river bank are seen in the relief shooting at the men, who are swimming away to safety with the aid of inflated animal skins. Another work, The Battle of Til-Tuba, dates to the reign of Ashurbanipal and its depiction of bloody warfare reinforces the Assyrians’ reputation for ruthlessness. Considered the finest large-scale composition in Assyrian art, the monumental relief shows the Assyrians defeating the Elamites of southern Iran. Scenes highlight the Elamite king’s chariot crashing down, the king’s flight from the wreckage, and his capture and beheading, with the severed head being carried back as a trophy to Assyria. The story unfolds amid a backdrop of horrible carnage and the
confusion of battle.
Human interactions are overseen by the protective spirits and demons associated with Assyrian magic and religion, who guarded the palace against harmful influences. Set of protective spirits (about 645-640 BC), from Ashurbanipal’s North Palace in Nineveh, is a wall relief of three magical figures who protected the king as a set: a lahmu, or Mesopotamian deity; an ugallu or “Great Lion;” and what appears to be a House God. Their features conform to precise rules of design, carved as though viewed from the front, while their heads are in profile — a standard Assyrian convention for representations of the human body. Clay tablets and amulets inscribed with magical spells to deter demonic spirits are included in Art and Empire, as are amulets inscribed with incantations worn as protective devices. Stone head of Pazuzu and Bronze head of Pazuzu, both from the 8th–7th century, show the mythical evil creature, known as the “scary demon,” whose image could be used for good, especially in the instance of protecting expectant mothers and newborns.
Large wall reliefs also were used to document the kings’ preoccupation with bull and lion hunting. Lion hunts provided an outlet for non-wartime combat, as Assyrians saw lions as savage enemies representing untamed nature. Royal lion hunt (about 875–860 BC) shows the king with bow drawn, ready to shoot once more at a fallen lion about to be trampled by the king’s horses. At one point in Assyrian history, it was decreed that only royalty could kill lions.
Such rules and regulations, as well as public documents (tax rolls, agricultural records, and treaties), religious rituals, and literary texts were written in cuneiform script and preserved on clay tablets, many of which were discovered by Layard’s protégé, Hormuzd Rassam, from the extensive library at Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh. (In the 19th and 20th century, more than 20,000 cuneiform tablets were excavated by the British Museum.) Ashurbanipal asserted that he could read the wedge-shaped cuneiform script, and his desire to preserve in one place all of the world’s important works of literature and science has been called visionary.
Some of those collected by Ashurbanipal were 1,000 years old at the time. Included in the king’s library were numerous copies of The Epic of Gilgamesh (7th century BC), considered the most important work of Mesopotamian literature. One tablet of Gilgamesh is featured in the Administration and Culture section of Art and Empire, as are intricately carved cylinder seals used by the royal household; when rolled out over clay, the impressions they made served as official seals. Often crafted from semi-precious stone, the cylinders featured scenes of kings, warriors, gods, as well as animals. Such cylinders were used to form a parure, or jewelry set, commissioned by Layard as a wedding gift for his wife, Enid. After wearing her grand necklace of Assyrian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Achaemenian seals, Lady Layard later wrote in her diary that it was “much admired” by Queen Victoria when the Layards dined with her in 1873.
While stone wall reliefs served as the primary aesthetic enhancement in Assyrian palaces and temples of the 9th -7th century, other objects in Art and Empire highlight the refinement of their decorative arts. Intricately carved ivory pieces often were used to embellish royal furnishings, sometimes accented with semi-precious stones and gold leaf, such as in The Lioness and the African. The panel, which depicts a lion mauling a man in front of a beautifully carved floral background, is most likely Phoenician, acquired through trade or as war booty. (The only other plaque of this kind, one of the treasures of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, has been missing since 2003.) Another ivory panel is Woman at the window (9th –8th century BC), which captures the contemplative expression of a woman in Egyptian headdress staring out the window.
Other decorative items found during excavations by Layard include intricately incised bronze bowls and plates. In 1849, he discovered at the Nimrud site the so-called “Room of the Bronzes” containing hundreds of objects, about 150 of which were sent to the British Museum. Called the Nimrud Bowls, they were most likely acquired as war booty or royal tribute. Bronze also was used to decorate wooden doors erected by Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC) at his palace at Balawat. Sixteen embossed and chased bands from the Balawat Gates, approximately 10 inches tall by 70 inches wide, were discovered, documenting in exacting detail various incidents from the king’s campaign in 859 BC. Two of the Balawat Gate bands are included in the exhibition.
Also on display in Art and Empire are archival materials that offer a fascinating look at the excavations of Assyrian palaces, temples, and treasures by British archeologists, in particular, Austen Henry Layard. Featured are portraits of Lord and Lady Layard, a copy of Layard’s 1854 book, The Monuments of Nineveh, and photographs and descriptions of Assyrian excavations. Discoveries made in this ancient land created a sensation back at home in England, where the public clamored for all things evocative of this culture. The exhibition includes an Assyrian-style revivalist bangle bracelet from a private collection made of 18k gold and enamel. It incorporates in its design a colossal gateway figure with a human head and winged-lion’s body flanked by protective genii, which found expression in all forms of the decorative arts in the late 19th century.