I just can’t help it. I have to write about the lamassu. Here’s one from the Oriental Institute in Chicago:
Here’s what made me fall in love with it: It has five legs. I mean, this mythological creature actually only has four, but because you can see it both from the side and the front, it was sculpted with five, so that from both angles it looks like it has four. I just love that.
So a lamassu is a protective creature, part man, part bull, part bird (usually referred to as an eagle). There were usually two of them, one on either side of a gate. The hat indicates that he (or possibly she — the beard indicates royalty, not necessarily male-ness ) is a divinity, and the lines around the bottom of the hat are actually horns, again symbolizing divinity. The lamassu were first made by the Assyrians in Mesopotamia in around 1000 BCE under the reign of Tiglath-Pileser, which is one of my all time favorite names. Puzur-Ishtar (another Assyrian ruler) was another favorite name for me, but it looks like that’s become Puzur-Ashur. Not nearly as satisfying somehow.
Aesthetically, it’s the patterns that appeal to me — in the beard, the wings, the hair. The ear with the earring, the little curls next to the mouth, the shape of the eyes — none of it is particularly realistic. Patterns are sought out and created here in a way that is universal geographically and throughout history.
Check out this mask from 20th century Sierra Leone. The neck folds, the hair and ornamentation, are abstracted into patterns:
Or this image, the Arrest of Christ, in which his hair and clothes form patterns, from the 9th century manuscript, the Book of Kells (Have you seen the movie The Secret of Kells? If not, I highly recommend it. Not a huge fan of animation, but it is truly amazing):
Back to the lamassu. The lamassu at the Oriental Institute in Chicago is from the Palace of Sargon II in Khorsabad, Iraq and was sculpted by the Assyrians in around 705 BCE. The beautiful thing about the display at the Oriental Institute is that on either side of the lamassu are reliefs from the throne room at Khorsabad, so you get more of a feel for the space. Allow me to dramatize. You walk into the museum, which is in a Gothic building completed in 1930. The building itself evokes the Royal Geographic Society, and lectures given by Livingston and Stanley and Speke. You go through the foyer/gift shop, and enter the actual museum. At the end of the first gallery, past several display cases, this is what you see:
You avert your eyes, so you can focus on what’s in the cases first, which is in itself most interesting. Then you can no longer hold back. You walk up to the lamassu and your mouth drops. It’s gorgeous. I mean, gorgeous. And big — 16′ tall:
The reliefs on either side from the throne room facade (the lamassu would have guarded the gates and/or the door) contain traces of paint. I’m not sure why this always blows me away so much — traces of paint, I mean. Maybe because we (or at least, I) tend to forget that sculpture like this would have been painted. So would the Parthenon and other ancient Greek sculptures and temples. It has such a different feel, to imagine these painted, rather than white and pristine. As long as we’re imagining, check this out. It’s from Persepolis in Iran, so not Assyrian, but I love that these are lamassu in situ (and they make me appreciate how well preserved the lamassu in Chicago and New York are):
And as long as we’re talking in situ, I particularly like this photo of the excavation by the Oriental Institute in Chicago:
Doesn’t that just scream good-old-days-of-excavations?
So what is it about the lamassu? Well, it’s protective, intimidating, and mythological, maybe even magical. And the idea was to convey power. The Assyrians were not a people to be messed with. It is thought that Sargon II violently took control of the throne, and he spent most of his time as king in battle, expanding the Assyrian empire. When he died, his son, Sennacherib, took control, and he was in turn assassinated by two of his sons. I’m pretty sure that I would not lightly walk between the monumental lamassu without good reason, as much as I love to look at them in a museum.
Similarly, I’m thinking about the Processional Way of Babylon, one small part of which is also on display at the Oriental Institute. This lion is made of brick, and is in relief, too, like the lamassu, although much more shallow:
(a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, part of the Processional Way, made from original materials is in Berlin).
Same idea, in a way. Standing in front of something made by human hands thousands of years ago gives me shivers. But the intention here seems so different. These walls were along the street which led from the city, through the Ishtar Gate, to a temple, “The House of the New Year’s Festival.” The lions are the symbol of the goddess of love and war, Ishtar, and were supposed to protect the street. So here the intention was also protection, but in such a different way.
And I can’t resist one more:
You know, there are days when I wouldn’t mind some protective figures like this around. Maybe I’ll just have to head down to the Oriental Institute!