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Assyrian Art

2600-609 BC: Neo-Assyrian palaces
Architecture, relief sculpture

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Summary

The ancient heartlands of Assyria lay in northern Mesopotamia, rubbing up against the Mittani in southern Anatolia (Turkey), who themselves acted as a bulwark against the Hittites in western and central Anatolia.

The city of Assur, founded in 2600 BC, was Assyria's first capital, but it remained under the sway of Sumerian culture, until the end of the Neo-Sumerian Empire around 2000 BC.

Like Babylonian art, Assyrian works never attained the heights of Egyptian art, but their contribution to Mesopotamian art and culture is undeniable.

In particular, during the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609), Assyrian kings created several magnificent palaces, whose monumental architecture was matched by its grandiose statues and intricate stone reliefs.

Assyria was essentially a military state, which developed more of an Iron Age culture than a Bronze Age culture, and paid more attention to terrorizing its enemies than improving the life of its people.

Its warrior god-kings lived by the code that 'might is right', and used their fort-like architecture and war-narrative sculpture, to promote themselves as pious but merciless strongmen.

See also: Ancient Art (3000 BC - 400 AD).

Historical Background

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Assyria's overseas conquests generated huge wealth for its kings, who were not reluctant to spend it.

They built huge palaces, temples and ziggurats and decorated them with reliefs illustrating their military prowess (and hunting skills).

They recorded their military campaigns in low reliefs on clay tablets or limestone slabs. They recorded them in repoussé on bronze gates, in panels and mosaics of glazed-brick; and in fresco wall paintings.

These narrative pieces are full of fascinating historical detail, but have less value as works of art, compared to (say) Egyptian art.

Characteristics of Assyrian Art

Assyrian art and architecture is commonly divided into four periods.

- Early Assyrian: 2600–2025 BC
- Old Assyrian: 2025–1364
- Middle Assyrian: 1363–912
- Neo-Assyrian: 911–609

Early Assyrian Period

Old Assyrian Period

Art finds from the Old Assyrian period (2025–1364 BC) are largely confined to seals and impressions of seals on cuneiform documents, but these too are reminiscent of foreign styles.

Royal seals from the Puzur-Ashur period, for example, are reminiscent of royal seals from the Neo-Sumerian Dynasty of Ur.

Other influences include Hittite art, for its relief sculptures, which the Assyrians took up and mastered.

Archaeologists have found various items of ancient pottery from the Old Assyrian era, as well as some examples of goldsmithing, and ivory carving, but in general, no significant art appeared until leadership of northern Mesopotamia passed to the Assyrians.

Even then, it wasn't until four more centuries had passed, that the era of Assyrian imperial magnificence and expansion, inaugurated by the god-king Ashurnasirpal II.

See also: Ancient Pottery Timeline (from 34,000 BC).

Middle Assyrian Period

Assyrian art gradually takes shape during the Middle Assyrian period (1363–912 BC), notably during the reign of Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244-1208).

Obelisks

Also in the 11th century, a new type of monument appears, known as the obelisk.

This was a 4-sided stone stele etched with both images and narrative text.

Only two complete Assyrian obelisks have been found: the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, and the White Obelisk of Ashurnasirpal.

Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III

This is a 2-metre high black limestone slab, etched with many low-reliefs commemorating the deeds of King Shalmaneser III.

It includes a long cuneiform inscription recording the annals of all campaigns conducted by Shalmaneser III, until the thirty-first year of his reign.

Also, it contains the earliest depiction of a biblical figure – namely, Jehu, King of Israel.

It was erected in 825 BC, in the central square of Nimrud. It is on display at the British Museum in London.

White Obelisk of Ashurnasirpal

The White Obelisk is a 2.8-metre high monolith from the ancient Assyrian settlement of Nineveh.

It dates to around the beginning of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and is attributed to either Ashurnasirpal I (c.1040 BC), or Ashurnasirpal II (c.870 BC).

The four-sided limestone pillar is covered with low-relief sculptures illustrating the campaigns and recreational activities of either Ashurnasirpal I or Ashurnasirpal II.

Digging Up the Past

For a short guide to the theory and practice of archaeological digs, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For an explanation of terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

Neo-Assyrian Empire

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Neo-Assyrian Palace Architecture and Art

Assyrian royal palaces were multi-purpose complexes - part-fortress, part temple, part town hall, and part luxury hotel.

Their grim fortified walls and towers were in vivid contrast with the pomp and splendour within.

The palaces catered for a whole cast of performers, including: the King and Queen, the royal family, nobles, high priests, politicians, favourites, and bodyguards.

Their traditional architecture was derived from the Sumerian, by way of the Babylonian, so the ritual tower or ziggurat dominated.

But their guardian Lamassu statues were of Hittite origin from Anatolia, while Egyptian statues and decorative objects made of gold, lapis lazuli and glass, would also have been on show. (See also: Egyptian Architecture.)

Many of the palace designers and craftsmen would have been imported from other countries - such as, Phoenicia, Judah, Syria, Egypt and Persia - but the Assyrian king remained the conductor of the orchestra.

In any case, by the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, there was an established tradition of stone carving and relief sculpture, and a growing cohort of Assyrian stone carvers available, to create the numerous decorative reliefs needed for the palace walls.

Palaces aside, no other Assyrian building structures could compete with Ancient Egyptian pyramids, not even ziggurats.

Relief Sculpture

For 250 years, from 879 BC, when the capital moved from Assur to Nimrud, narrative relief sculpture was the main medium of Assyrian palace art.

It was carved on thin slabs (orthostats) of alabaster, around 2-metres high, which were sometimes painted, and arranged in continuous strips along the walls of the palace's main rooms.

Each slab contained between up to three registers of images, and their subject matter never changed. War narratives came first, along with hunting and diplomatic exploits a good second, and everything else a distant third.

Tiglath-Pileser Relief

An excellent example of Neo-Assyrian relief sculpture is the alabaster bas-relief of Tiglath-Pileser III.

He is identified by his conical cap encircled by a turban, and stands under a parasol in his royal chariot as he lifts his right arm in a gesture of greeting.

In his left hand, he carries a club. He has a long full beard, a moustache, and carefully curled hair.

The sides of his chariot are covered in intricate decorative patterns of zigzags, rosettes and concentric squares.

It was recovered from Tiglath-Pileser's Central Palace at Nimrud and dates to about 727 BC. It is now in the British Museum.

As in earlier Mesopotamian relief sculpture, heads and legs were rendered in profile, but torsos in a frontal or three-quarters view.

The king might be shown close to life-size, but other scenes might include dozens of small figures.

Two typical sequences of Neo-Assyrian narrative reliefs are:

Among the different images used in Assyrian reliefs, are images of supernatural beings, often referred to as "winged genies", who symbolize purification, blessing, or fertility.

The king is often shown attended by these genies.

An example is 'Four-winged genie with the Bucket and cone motif' (713–716 BC), from the north wall of the Palace of king Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin.

Images of women are comparatively rare. They usually appear as captives or refugees.

One notable exception is a 'picnic' scene showing Ashurbanipal with his queen (Feast of Assurbanipal, King and Queen at table: Brooklyn Museum).

Kings, on the other hand, are everywhere, mostly with courtiers. The figure closest to the king is usually the appointed heir.

The enormous surface area of the palace walls enabled the story of the military campaign to be displayed in a detailed manner, making it easy to understand.

Overall, Neo-Assyrian stone reliefs were not equalled for their military content, until the reliefs on Trajan's Column in Rome.

Statues

Few statues have survived from the Neo-Assyrian period.

In particular, large free-standing statues of Neo-Assyrian kings are extremely rare. The stone or precious metal used, would almost certainly have been looted centuries ago.

Two royal statues that have survived, include one of Ashurnasirpal II and one of Shalmaneser III. Both were erected in temples to demonstrate the king's piety.

Statue of Ashurnasirpal II

This rare magnesite statue, dated to 883-859 BC, was found in the Temple of Ishtar Sharrat-niphi, in the city of Nimrud. It depicts Ashurnasirpal II without his Assyrian crown, allowing us to see his long hair and beard. It is now in the British Museum.

Statue of Shalmaneser III

This is a large basalt statue of Shalmaneser III - the fourth king to reign over the Neo-Assyrian Empire - who stands with a mace in his left hand. There are two daggers under his belt, a club in his right hand, plus four symbols of the gods Adad, Shamash, Ishtar, and Sin. It is now in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul.

Lamassu

Lamassu are celestial beings from ancient Mesopotamia, each with a human head (to symbolize intelligence), a bull's body (strength) and wings of an eagle (to symbolize freedom).

Sometimes they were given the horns and the ears of a bull.

Pairs of lamassu typically flanked palace entrances (or city gates). Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh, for instance, had a total of ten lamassu, while Sargon II's palace at Dur-Sharrukin, was guarded by a pair of colossal human-headed winged bulls.

Massive lamassu were also used to guard the beginning of large canals. In the case of temples, pairs of colossal lions were sometimes used as guardians.

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Ashurnasirpal II's Palace in Nimrud

Sennacherib's Southwest Palace in Nineveh

Sennacherib’s most important construction project was the Southwest Palace in Nineveh, known as the 'Palace without Rival.'

He chose to make Nineveh his capital to avoid cities associated with earlier kings, and thus create a distinctive image for himself.

The Southwest Palace was bigger than any other Assyrian royal palace, up to then, but according to cuneiform documents it was built in a remarkably short period of eight years, between 701 and 693 BC.

Its decorations were conventional enough - its walls were covered with alabaster reliefs, while colossal winged bulls and lions guarded key gateways.

There was no shortage of subjects - construction of the Southwest Palace coincided with the zenith of Neo-Assyrian fortunes, so the reliefs lining the walls depicted Assyrian military campaigns throughout the Middle East and the Levant.

They showed military battles, sieges of cities, some overseas landscapes, as well as enemy soldiers and captives.

Other reliefs show royal ceremonies and religious processions, plus numerous 'winged genies'.

In a tablet dictated to one of his scribes, Sennacherib himself describes how he built his palace at Nineveh:

"Cedarwood, cypress and pine, from Sinai, and thick bars of bronze, did I set in the doorways, and in the dwelling-rooms did I leave openings like lofty windows. Great statues of alabaster wearing crowns with thorns did I set on either side of the doorways, and great winged bulls of white stone did I carve for the great gates, and great trees did I cut from the neighbouring forests to build rafts on which to transport them. With much effort and amid many difficulties were they brought to the gates of my palace."

The temple wing of the Southwest Palace was especially ornate. Sennacherib described it as: "rooms of gold and silver, of precious metalwork, crystal, alabaster, and ivory, built for the dwelling of my God."

Full marks for ambition and project management, but whether Sennacherib succeeded in welding this material into a unified creation with a unique style, is open to doubt.

After all, the winged bulls that he went to such efforts to get installed at his front gate, were dull and lifeless enough.

And one suspects a very mixed effect as far as interior decoration is concerned. No doubt the halls and chambers were colourful and showy, with sculptured alabaster panels, glazed-brick and tile insets, mural paintings, and lots of furnishings. But none of the archaeological replicas and restorations have so far succeeded in presenting an ensemble of any great subtlety, or distinctive beauty.

For example, the positioning and grouping of background figures rarely approaches the intuitive compositional skill displayed in earlier Egyptian sculpture and stonework.

As well as this, the obsession with pain, torture, and grisly violence - as illustrated so graphically in the alabaster reliefs and terracotta sculpture of the interior - can be something of an aesthetic downer.

Nonetheless, the stone murals constitute a remarkable historical monument of compelling realism. They convey in no uncertain fashion the indisputable successes of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, even if the artist's vision rarely transcends his mission and materials.

Ashurbanipal's North Palace in Nineveh

Sennacherib's grandson Ashurbanipal also contributed to the Southwest Palace, but he built a new palace of his own - known as the North Palace - which contained a similar set of campaign scenes along with a series of famous lion-hunting scenes.

Famous scenes from stone reliefs at the Northwest Palace in Nimrud, dating to c.645 BC, include:

Ashurbanipal's Library

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal - a cultural cache of exceptional value which was recovered from the ruins of the North Palace in Nineveh - is a collection of more than 30,000 clay tablets and fragments, containing texts of all kinds from the 7th century BC.

The tablets included 'The Epic of Gilgamesh' - a masterpiece of ancient Babylonian poetry, and also the Enûma Eliš creation story, and the myth of Adapa, the first man.

The tablets covered a very large number of subjects, including: diplomatic correspondence, financial subjects, divinations, omens, and hymns to various gods, as well as religious traditions, scientific discoveries, history, medicine, astronomy, and literature.

Many contained a stamp stating they belonged to the royal palace.

The texts were mostly written in Akkadian cuneiform script, although many were composed in Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian scripts.

NEXT: see World's Oldest Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) Cohen, Ada, and Steven E. Kangas, eds. Assyrian Reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II: A Cultural Biography. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2010. ISBN 9781584658177.
(2) Collins, Paul, Assyrian Palace Sculptures, 2008, British Museum, ISBN 0714111678, 9780714111674.
(3) Kertai, David, The Architecture of Late Assyrian Royal Palaces, 2015, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0198723180, 9780198723189.
(4) Reade, Julian, Assyrian Sculpture, 1998 (2nd edn.), The British Museum Press, ISBN 9780714121413.
(5) Russell, John M., Sennacherib's ‘Palace without Rival’ at Nineveh, 1991, Chicago.
(6) Radner, Karen. Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
(7) Reade, Julian E., and John E. Curtis, eds. Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.

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