I will have a lamassu with a side of asides, please

I  just can’t help it.  I have to write about the lamassu.  Here’s one from the Oriental Institute in Chicago:

Lamassu, Assyrian, c. 705 BCE, Khorsabad, Iraq

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.

Lamassu, Assyrian, 883-859 BCE, Nimrud, Iraq

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:

Mende people, Sande Society, Sierra Leone, early-mid 20th century

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:

Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

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:

Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, 1931

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):

Lamassu, Persepolis, Iran, around 470 BCE

And as long as we’re talking in situ, I particularly like this photo of the excavation by the Oriental Institute in Chicago:

Excavation of Lamassu, Oriental Institute, Chicago, 1929

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:

Lion, Processional Way, Babylon (Iraq), around 600 BCE

(a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, part of the Processional Way, made from original materials is in Berlin).

Ishtar Gate, Babylon, (Iraq) c. 580 BCE

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:


Dragon, Ishtar Gate, Babylon, c. 575 BCE (photo by John Kannenberg https://www.flickr.com/photos/jkannenberg/5804785094/)

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!

The Bayeux Tapestry and Its Many Magical Layers

Most art that I love appeals to me aesthetically first.  I can come to love an artwork the more I learn about it, but my top ten, let’s say, I love because I love the way they look.

This holds true for the Bayeux Tapestry, which is a fascinating piece of art in so many ways.  But deep down in that aesthetic place, I just love the way it looks.  For example, check out this armor.  Don’t you love it?  It’s made of circles.  It’s simple, but it gets the idea across. (And what’s going on in the margin underneath?  We’ll get back to that.):

The Bayeux Tapestry, Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France, 1070s

And this.  The water, the people wading in, the boat.  Magical.  How the artists/designers dealt with showing water in this flat rather narrow space is definitely something to think about:

The Bayeux Tapestry, 1070s

Again, aesthetically it just grabs me.  But time after time, artists had to deal with how to depict water, usually within the limits of their materials and available space.  And they so often come up with similar solutions.  For example, here’s what the Assyrians did.  You just know those lines are water, don’t you?  (He’s riding on an inflated animal skin.):

Assryian relief, British museum, 850-650 BCE

Or a much later baptism of Jesus.  Again, we get that the lines are water, right, even though the space doesn’t make much sense? (which, to be fair, was probably beside the point.  Naturalistic space not necessary.):

Jesus bapitzed by John the Baptist, Kongsted Workshop, Ballerup, Denmark, 1440

Or one more, a personal favorite:

Baptism of Christ, The Master of the Life of St John the Baptist, 1330-40, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Of course you probably already know it’s water, but again, how the artist deals with showing water is just plain interesting.

Ok, back to the Bayeux Tapestry. Why do I say it’s fascinating?  Well, the history of how it survived for over 1000 years in itself is fascinating.  It’s made out of fabric, after all.  And then there’s the fact that the Bayeux Tapestry isn’t a tapestry at all.   It’s huge piece of embroidery, possibly made in England by Anglo-Saxon seamsters (men who were famous for their sewing abilities), although my old stand-by medieval art history book says that it was made by seamstresses in Kent.  And some say it was created in France.  We just don’t know for sure.    Wikipedia has a good, detailed article about these theories and the Bayeux Tapestry in general, but I wonder about the author’s statement that the images in the border are purely decorative.  Is anything purely decorative, when you get down to it?  Why were the images that were put in the borders put there?  While they may appear decorative to us, some thought had to be put into what was depicted.  There are limitations of space and size, but there must be reasons why images in the borders were put there, even if that reason is as straightforward as it’s what I saw out my window.  It’s from a story I was told last night.  It fits in the with the main narrative for some reason that’s lost to us today.

As in many illuminated manuscripts, the borders are sometimes even more interesting than the main action, and give you information about what was going on at the time.  Since they’re not part of what was often a prescribed story, the designer/artists could let their imaginations out a little bit and/or depict what was going on around them.  In the Bayeux Tapestry, some of Aesop’s Fables are depicted, assorted animals and people, and scenes of daily life, like the one below showing men plowing and scattering seeds.  I honestly have no idea what’s going on in border of the scene above (the one with the water). It looks like one man’s pulling the armor off over another man’s head.  If you know, let me know!

The Bayeux Tapestry, 1070s

And speaking of borders, if you only know one thing about the Bayeux Tapestry, it may be that this is thought to be the first time that Halley’s Comet is depicted (top right of the image below).  And when Halley’s Comet came again in the mid 1980s, Sierra Leone used the Bayeux Tapestry on a stamp.  Holy cross-cultural, batman!

The Bayeux Tapesty, 1070s, with Halley’s Comet

So what’s depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry?  The events before and during the Battle of Hastings. The gist is this:   Edward the Confessor (the kind of England) died and Harold became king.  (At this time, heredity didn’t determine who the next monarch would be.  It was decided by a group of English nobles.  Hunh.  I did not know that.)   William of Normandy (of France, later William the Conqueror) thought that he should be king, so he invaded England.  In the end, William won, and Harold died, so England ended up with a Norman king.  He ruled from 1066 until 1087, when his son took over.   Supposedly Harold was killed when he was shot through the eye with an arrow (see figure on left of first image in this post), but it appears that this isn’t true.  A book just came out a month or so ago that debunks stories from history, some of which I’m pretty sure had already been debunked.  But anyway, it seems that the story about Harold being shot in the eye doesn’t show up anywhere until fifteen years after the Battle of Hastings: “An arrow in the eye was the punishment for perjury — the Norman invaders regarding Harold as a perjurer for breaking his promise to back William’s claim to the throne after Edward the Confessor’s death.  The Bayeux Tapestry — which enshrined the arrow myth — was intended to black Harold’s reputation and act as a lesson to anyone contemplating treachery against the new regime.”  Mark one down on the side of Anglo-Saxon production of the Bayeux Tapestry!

The Bayeux Tapestry dates to around 1070, making it over 1000 years old.  Wow. And today it’s in a museum in Bayeux, Normandy, France, the whole thing unfurled and visible at once.  Definitely on my list of must-sees. Even reproductions make me happy.  And even if you’ve never seen it before, come on, admit it.  You want to come with me, right?  (If you want to see the whole thing before we go, and trust me, you do, click here.  You can look at it panel by panel.  It’s awe-inspiring.)

Quote from “Lady Godiva never rode through the streets naked . . . and the other historical facts that aren’t true” by Harry Mount, Mail Online, October 25, 2011