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.