Assyrian Art Assyrian Art 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.