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 through the display of 30 monumental wall reliefs, as well as 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 a 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 the 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 the luxurious cosmopolitan lifestyle enjoyed by royalty, are among the highlights of the exhibition.
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.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
ART AND EMPIRE: The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has an exhibition on the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Excerpt from the Art Daily article: