King Ashurnasirpal was extremely brutal in wars, and at the same time he was able to inspire architects, and artists and sculptors to heights never before achieved. He built and enlarged temples and palaces in several cities. Most of the scenes there were done in relief, but painted murals also have been found. The reliefs from the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud are bright examples of portraying the power and importance of the Assyrian 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 Ashurnasirpal (whose name comes from the god “Ashur”, the Assyrian god Ashur was represented by the “ring with wings” symbol and was often depicted as a human figure carrying a bow and arrow within the solar ring) followed by a winged genius.
To portray the king’s god-like divinity, the reliefs represent the deities and Ashurnasirpal in a similar manner. First of all, hierarchic scale is almost absent since all the figures are closely related in size, with Ashurnasirpal 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.
In term of stylization, both the human headed deities and Ashurnasirpal 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.
Besides the use of pose 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 Ashurnasirpal 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. The pair of daggers and the symbolism of the bow are important to the Assyrian culture because they portray their war-like nature.
The most potent image among these reliefs is the depiction of a magic protective ritual, in which winged figures flanking a Sacred Tree, hold ritual buckets and cone-shaped objects that they use to sprinkle the tree. These Winged Deities are fragments of full-length figures that enacted this magic ritual, sprinkling or pollinating the central tree motif with some ritual substance from the bucket. As such, each figure would originally have held a bucket in his left hand and a cone in his right. The deities, marked as divine by their wings and horned helmets, are conceived in the image of the monarch, reflecting his own facial features, stance, and physical strength. Their exaggerated musculature and luxuriant, tightly curled hair and beards are typical of the Assyrian style.
The panel depicts a ritual scene as indicated by the presence of a winged deity following a royal arms bearer carrying the royal bow and quiver. Although the king is not visible, he is indicated by a commonly known divine figure on the left. This figure uses the sacred cone in his right hand to bless or purify the royal arms bearer as he approaches the king. The “anointment” of the king and his attendants by a protective deity maintained the potency of the royal figure.
A cuneiform inscription at the bottom of the relief proclaims Ashurnasirpal’s power as the supreme ruler not only of all Assyrian territories but also of the entire universe and a fearful leader in war and peace.
In conclusion, we find that the reliefs from the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II play an important role in exhibiting the power and importance of the king. 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 Ashurnasirpal.
In contrast to Assyrian palaces where kings lived and which were the deities served the role of protector, Greeks erected permanent stone buildings almost exclusively for religious monuments. Their temples were not large enclosures of space but statue chambers containing a god’s sacred image and were considered to be a “home” for gods. The first stone temples appeared some time during the 8th century BCE and, in the 7th century BCE.
The god or goddess was represented by a cult image— usually a seated or standing statue— which occupied the central place in the temple, while in Assyrian culture due to their protection role the reliefs depicting deity were located at the entrance to the palace. In the early days they would have been made of wood but, over the years, stone or cast bronze were preferred.
The most important architectural innovation of the Greeks was the external colonnade (pteron) which emerged in the seventh century BC. It formed a sort of curtain around the temple – solid but transparent – screening the sanctuary and the cult image from the outside world. Columns had been used for thousands of years in the ancient world but primarily inside buildings, to support the ceilings of large halls or to line the inside of open courtyards.
The ancient authors divided Greek architecture into two principal orders, the Ionic and the Doric – the former evolved in Asia Minor and the latter in the Peloponnesus. To these might be added two other, more localized styles, the Aeolic from the northern Aegean and the Corinthian. The principal distinctions among the various orders lay in the treatment of the column and entablature.
The Doric order was the predominant type of temple on the Greek Mainland and among the Western Greeks of Sicily and southern Italy. The essential elements of this style – the fluted columns had no bases and only very simple capitals. They supported an entablature which consisted of the architrave (stone cross beams) and the frieze which was essentially a decorative element. The frieze was composed of alternating metopes (stone panels) and triglyphs (carved, upright bars in groups of three). Above the entablature was a low, pitched roof decorated with moulded edges known as cornices. The triangular space at each end of the roof was known as the pediment and was often decorated with sculptures.
The Ionic order developed in Asia Minor and the Aegean islands over the period from about 550-450 BC— although many examples can be found on the Greek mainland. The principal differences between it and the Doric lie in the treatment of the columns and the more slender proportions of the whole structure.
Ionic capitals consisted of a very narrow echinus surmounted by a scrollwork volute and a relatively small abacus. All of these elements were decorated with increasingly elaborate carvings, most often with stylized plant motifs such as rosettes, palmettes, pendant leaves, etc.
Probably the most interesting attempt of adopting the Western Greek style of art on settlements in the Persian Empire can be seen on the façade of the Athena Temple at Assos of 525 BC. First, it is the first and a unique specimen, of archaic Doric architecture in Anatolia. Besides, it is the only example that the Doric architectural style was mixed with the Ionian architectural elements frieze relief and some ornamentations.
Although it is the only temple of the Doric order in Anatolia, it was adorned by an Ionic frieze showing adventures of Heracles. Rather than using limestone or marble, the architects constructed the building out of trachyte (a volcanic rock). The relief sculptures on the metopes and frieze show scenes of centaurs, Heracles, hunting, and even a set of sphinxes above the doorway. Each sphinx rests one forepaw on this capital, while the other foreleg is laid along the ground. Their wings curve upward and have rounded tips; their tails are S-shaped, with a tuft at the end. The heads are of a distinctly archaic type, with receding forehead, prominent nose, small, rounded chin, lips twisted up in a smile and large eye shown in nearly front view. Their hair is drawn back behind the ears and falls in a thick mass on the neck. Their placement is similar to those of Assyrian Protective Winged Deity and the similar is their function – to protect.
Architrave block from the Temple of Athena at Assos with facing sphinxes
MFA Boston – Online Collections Database
Among the subjects depicted on the friezes, the one most emphasized relates to the myth of the centaur. This myth has been symbolically depicted on the friezes. The corner acroterions are griffins, which is unusual for Doric architecture. The surfaces of the architrave, on the two narrow sides, are ornamented with relief sculptures. A boar, a centaur two male figures facing each other, a sphinx, horseman and competing athletes were depicted in reliefs on the metops.
In the left corner Heracles shooting a Centaur with his arrows and the Centaur running away were depicted.
Architrave relief from the Temple of Athena at Assos
with a scene of Heracles and Centaurs
MFA Boston – Online Collections Database
On the other sides, lions attacking a deer and a banquet scene (symposion) were represented.
It is thought that these later figures are of Assyrian influence, as there are many lions, a favorite of the Assyrians. Assurbanipal created and modified new motifs at that time. Bas-reliefs and orthostats in the form ritual lion hunting scenes, banquet scenes, and garden scenes abounded during his reign.
The relief below is one more example of Assyrian influence in architecture.
A banquet, probably in honor of Heracles
By the courtesy of Beazley Archive 1997 – 2002
Unfortunately, very few of the sculptures from Athena Temple at Assos have remained or survived. At first some of the reliefs were taken to the Louvre in 1838. Then an important part of the reliefs and the artifacts from minor excavations unearthed during the American operations in 1881, were transported to the museum of Boston.
Woolley, Leonard. The Art of The Middle East, including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine. New York: Crown Publishers. 1961
Frankfort, Henri. The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (Fifth Edition). The Yale University Press Pelican History.