The Assyrian Artistic Period in the Great Metropolitan Museum of Art


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At the entrance of the gallery dedicated to the evocation of the Assyrian artistic period in the great Metropolitan Museum of Art, huge reliefs engraved in the walls are certainly the first to notice. Of those reliefs, two mythical creatures stand out, winged lion and a winged bull. Although at one might think these are two exactly the same reliefs, looking at details the difference becomes more obvious especially because one creature has claws characteristic of lions and the other has hooves that are characteristic for bulls.With their astonishing dimensions of more than 9 feet in height and almost 2 feet in width, they are situated one next to another separated by a vast passage in the middle.

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These reliefs are significant indicator of Assyrians’ beliefs in the power of mythical creatures and the existence of their protective role to the king and the royal family, suggesting king’s power and high status in society. In a similar way these figures were found in today’s Iraq, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art we see that the composition of these creatures is designed so that some kind of a passage or a gate exists between them. They are presented as guardians of those gates. By observing the lion with bird wings, details portrayed in a naturalistic manner can definitely be noticed, one of those being lion’s claws. This was not unusual for Assyrians as naturalistic details were one of the primary features of their artistic style. However, besides naturalism, traces of the abstract artistic style can be noticed, especially by looking at the human like head and detailly portrayed bird wings on what is obviously a lions body.

When it comes to the movement, the artists obviously had a dualistic idea as the winged lion is represented as a composite figure. Looking from the frontal perspective, this lion is static, devoid of any signs of movement, proudly standing still. However, if the observer moves into a profile perspective, the dynamic momentum can be noticed, and we see that the figure is presented as moving forward. This was achieved by adding the fifth leg to a creature, which combined with bird wings and human head, makes it look supernatural. Perhaps the idea was to make the figure look as a fearful guardian from the front, giving the permission to enter only to certain people. If they had however earned this right, they would become docile to those who belonged in the kingdom. This winged human-headed lion was made of a heavy limestone, a very durable material which might be associated with the thinking that they were the ones protecting the king and thus represented a very important part of the kingdom’s architecture and deserved to stay well-preserved. This great mythical creature was carved out on a spacious stone block, making it look massive and powerful, with many visible details on it. As this relief was very decoratively enriched, the human-like head draws most of the attention. The cap on its head with triple-row horns may suggest divinity of the creature, adding this good-like characteristic to what is portrayed as a powerful and strong animal. The face stands out with its large eyes, connective eyebrows just above them and the detailly presented three-layer beard which was enhanced with small circular shapes making it look very decorative. The decorative momentum is passed on the wings of the creature, where the artist largely emphasized the feathers and the spirally shapes that cover the body might suggest the fur.

All these elements, combined with strong claws at the bottom, might be the representation of different characteristics of the creature, from its power and fearlessness to its divine and godlike features, all pointing out its importance and relevance to the king and the royal family. In the artistic period of the Mesopotamia, various of artistic directions existed, representing different parts of Mesopotamia during this long period in history. In the period of Akkadian art, one of the most famous reliefs, the relief of the Stele of Naram-Sin carved out of limestone, had many similarities and differences with the winged lion figure from the Assyrian period.

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