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College Intern Talk: Neo-Assyrian Reliefs
Explore stunning wall reliefs commissioned by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II nearly three thousand years ago in a special episode created by one of our college interns.


Kent Lydecker: As part of her summer 2006 internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Genevieve from Cornell University gave public tours in the galleries. Here is an excerpt:

Genevieve: My name is Genevieve. I go to Cornell University, and I will be talking about the Neo-Assyrian reliefs we have in the Near Eastern gallery. And I chose these reliefs to talk about because I am an archaeology major and these are a really beautiful example of monumental relief work done in the Assyrian period, and also because I think this is a part of the museum that doesn't get visited as much as it should.

So we're standing here in the Near Eastern galleries at the Met and we're looking specifically at these reliefs. They're Neo-Assyrian from the ninth century, and these are from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, who was a king in Mesopotamia, and these are from his palace in Nimrud, which is in present-day Iraq. And these reliefs are carved out of alabaster and they're monumental, so they're larger than life. And these reliefs—there are 22 of them here in the Met's collection—they would have been from all different parts of the palace, but these reliefs have been arranged in a style that sort of imitates or replicates what the reception room in Ashurnasirpal's palace would have been like. So when you enter this room, you sort of get the whole impression of what entering that reception room would have been like, even down to the size of the tiles on the floor, the beams in the ceiling—these are all purposely done on the part of the Museum.

So looking specifically at these reliefs, starting at the center. The central figure here is Ashurnasirpal himself, and you can tell it's the king because he's wearing this sort of conical hat that identifies his power and his prestige. And he's being depicted as a hunter, so he has an animal skin, and he has a weapon, so he's a hunter. And he's being attended to by two eunuchs of his court. You can tell they're eunuchs because they don't have beards, like the other figures in these reliefs do. And they're holding in their hands fly-whisks, which are a symbol of prestige in the Near Eastern culture, and also cups for libations. So a big theme in these reliefs is worshiping the gods, or divine power of kingship through the gods. So Ashurnasirpal is holding in his hand a bowl, and this bowl would have been used for libations, and he's facing these eunuchs.

And the other figures in these reliefs are genii. You can tell they're genii because they have these beautiful wings. Their faces are similar to humans, but they have these wings that show their supernatural powers. And the genii also have these amazing leg muscles, so if you look at them they're really highly stylized, with these very powerful sort of arm and leg muscles that show they're sort of supernatural beings and they're protecting the king. And in their hands they're holding tiny pine cones, and these pine cones represent the tree of life. So they're using these pine cones to plant this tree of life, which is a sort of motif that we see throughout Near Eastern art.

So these reliefs—although they are very plain now—they would have been very brightly painted when they were first created, and you can see traces of paint on them. Also on the reliefs we have this cuneiform inscription that goes across the relief, and it's the same inscription that basically talks about Ashurnasirpal and how when he came to Nimrud it was a city of mud brick, but he left it a city of alabaster. And I think that's really a powerful sort of statement, especially when you look at these really gorgeous reliefs. If you imagine an entire palace filled with these reliefs, it would have been very magnificent.

Kent Lydecker: Learn more about these Assyrian reliefs from the ninth century B.C. and about the Metropolitan Museum's internship programs on the museum's website at metmuseum.org. Each year, college and graduate students participate in internships that enable them to teach, to work in various departments of the Museum, and to take part in seminars and discussions.

This is Kent Lydecker, the Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Associate Director for Education at the Met, and this has been an Antenna Audio production.

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