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Assyrian Art: war and cruelty!

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Assyrian have been a population become sadly famuos for their ferocity and cruelty. Everything that they conquered was looted and destroyed without any mercy murdering women, children and old people  without remorse! All this was happening in so called  “New Empire” since in the first two historical periods that have characterized history of this ancient people,which is the Old Assyrian Period or Ancient Empire(1950 b.C-1365 b.C.) and the Middle Assyrian Period or Middle Empire(1365 b.C.-932 b.C.), Assyrian empire was not yet fierce power who managed to subdue even part of Egypt! Unfortunately there were not many discoverie about art of first two historical periods,besides sporadic fragments and  representations in the seals from which historians have been able to piece together story and art of first periods. Fame of firce and merciles conquerors was consolidated only under the reign of famous Assurnasirpal II which was considered the most cruel and ruthless monarch of Assyrian history. There are several artworks as statues and bas-reliefs that represent in detail terrible torture that were imposed to people which did not bend to Assyrian hegemony.Thus it was born the idea that Assyrian art has produced just cruel artworks but of course it is not so since Assyrian empire was not always so powerful and ruthless and even though art of such ancient population, as always, was affected by several rulers that have taken place throughout its history. Over the course of time Assyrian empire passed through moments of glory and power mostly in “the New Empire” but also of decadence and disgregration. Apogee of Assyrian empire occurred ,as said, in the New Empire during which monarch Assurnasirpal II changed the historic capital Assur, that gave the name to Assyrian people,announcing Nimrod city as new capital of empire. Does really Assyrian art talk about only to torture,war and domination? Obviously no,as civilizations that preceded them even Assyrian art is characterized by representations of divinities as well ass bas-reliefs that glorified various rulers and their victorious battles against people which subjugated,but there was no lack of big ziggurat and religious buildings and royal as well, the most famous of which is that of Sargon II. These big palaces were built according to mesopotamian tradition,by using unbaked bricks and with the support of stone for the foundation,doors and terraces. In addition these big building were composed by a large number of rooms divided: cerimonial rooms were built around a large central courtyard while private environments  could be reached through inner courtyards.

Generally speaking we can affirm that both sculptures and reliefs had as ultimate goal the celebration of power of the emperor with skillful representations of propaganda. Emperor was depicted often void of expression with the purpose to be closer to divinity than an human being,so much that emperor was represented while presiding over religious rites along with divinities. All Assyrian art is imbued with violence and harsh reality even when emperor were depicted during his hobbies as for istance hunting scenes.

Thec culmination of Assyrian sculpture occurred  during the empire of  Assurnasirpal II and it is represented by remarkable all-round statue which represents precisely the cruel emperor and now is preserved in British Museum of London. Assyrian art was affected in large part by Babylon which was totally destroyed by Assyrian emperor Sennacherib(689 b.C.) which boasted the title of “Lord of the four parts of the World“. An example about the influence of Babylon on Assyrina art is represented by statues of winged bulls with human face called lamassu that meant to protect the entrance of the court of the king as well as shedu  which had an apotropaica since they had to drive away evil spirits.

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Assurnasirpal II

Palaces and temples of Assyrian New Empire were decorated not only by enormous stone statues that often represented bulls and lions,but also by metal statues as well as coppery and  bronze stautues not to mention large columns. There were several findings of reliefs that come from New Empire while unfortunately discoveries of  Old and Middle Empire are very limited. Even in these riliefs the topics dealt in large part are military campaigns victories of emporor over enemies as well as lion hunting. These  works had to gloryfy power and divinity of ruler to be handed down to the posterity but not only, since they were made to intimidate foreign ambassadors visiting court. Originally  bas-reliefs  of palaces were painted, as testified by rare finds found and some historical sources. Have been found finds about these paintings both in middle Assyrian period and new Assyrian one but main and most important pictorial cycle was discovered in the palace of  Til-Barsip dates back XIII and XII century b.C. Regretfully large part of original cycle of painting has been lost due to the time that spares no one fading and degrading these precious artworks indeed we know them because of replicas made during the completion of the archaeological excavations in 1930.

As all empires even Assyrian one fell into ruin and soon was partitioned between Medes and Chaldean. The end of Assyrian empire was extremely sudden as sources testify; indeed they switched to greatest splendour period artistic and civil,with empire of Assurbanipal, “Sardanapalus” for the Greeks and that ended up with his death in 627 b.C., to the conquest of Ninive new capital of empire which in 612 b.C. was destroyed by Persian. The definitive end of Assyrian empire occurred in 609 b.C. just 18 years after the flourishing empire of the last great assyrian emperor,namely Assurbanipal! Actually this event can be explained by the fact that Assyrian empire was never homogeneous and united since it was built and maintained by blind terror towards the winner for which people oppressed did not have to resist; this fact was like a boomerg for empire though,since subject peoples were always ready to revolt and to create disorder so as to weaken an empire whose fate was already sealed.The legacy of Assyrian was learned from Lydians and Phrygians which conquered Anatolia and invented money but this is another story.

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