This panel from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) depicts a winged supernatural figure. Such figures appear throughout the palace, sometimes flanking either the figure of the Assyrian king or a stylized "sacred tree." The reliefs were painted, but today almost none of the original pigment survives. However, the reliefs themselves retain incredible detail, including intricate incised designs on many of the figures’ clothing.
The protective figure on this panel originally stood back to back with another on one side of a doorway, with parallel figures on the other side, so that one pair of figures faced out toward a courtyard and the other into the room. The Museum collection includes fragments of all four figures. The figure is human-headed and faces left, holding in his left hand a plant and raising his open right hand in a beneficent gesture. The figure wears a horned cap, indicating divinity, and jewelry: visible are a large pendant earring, a collar consisting of two bands of beads and spacers, armlets with animal-head terminals, and bracelets, one artificially reversed so that the large central rosette symbols, associated with divinity and perhaps particularly with the goddess Ishtar, are visible on both. Although we cannot know how these elements were originally painted, excavated parallels include elaborate jewelry in gold, inlaid with semi-precious stones. A collar or necklace such as that shown here might have been made up of semi-precious stones separated by gold spacer beads. The figure carries three knives, tucked into a belt with their handles visible at chest level. One of these is also animal-headed, as are the tips of two of the sheaths visible below the belt. The heads at the sheath tips are apparently reptilian, possibly representing the Mushhushshu, a composite creature with multiple divine associations.
The figures are supernatural but do not represent any of the great gods. Rather, they are part of the vast supernatural population that for ancient Mesopotamians animated every aspect of the world. They appear as either eagle-headed or human-headed and wear a horned crown to indicate divinity. Both types of figure usually have wings. Because of their resemblance to groups of figurines buried under doorways for protection whose identities are known through ritual texts, it has been suggested that the figures in the palace reliefs represent the apkallu, wise sages from the distant past. This may indeed be one level of their symbolism, but protective figures of this kind are likely to have held multiple meanings and mythological connections.
Figures such as these continued to be depicted in later Assyrian palaces, though less frequently. Only in the Northwest Palace do they form such a dominant feature of the relief program. Also unique to the Northwest Palace is the so-called Standard Inscription that ran across the middle of every relief, often cutting across the imagery. The inscription, carved in cuneiform script and written in the Assyrian dialect of the Akkadian language, lists the achievements of Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.), the builder of the palace. After giving his ancestry and royal titles, the Standard Inscription describes Ashurnasirpal’s successful military campaigns to east and west and his building works at Nimrud, most importantly the construction of the palace itself. The inscription is thought to have had a magical function, contributing to the divine protection of the king and the palace.
1911, purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan from Galerie Alexandre Imbert, Rome; acquired by the Museum in 1917, gift of J. Pierpont Morgan.
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Stearns, John B. 1961. Reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnaṣirpal II. Archiv für Orientforschung, Beiheft 15, pp. 37-38, 62, 85, pl. 44.
Crawford, Vaughn, Prudence O. Harper, and Holly Pittman. 1980. Assyrian Reliefs and Ivories in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 19, fig. 10,9.
Paley, Samuel M., and Richard P. Sobolewski. 1987. The Reconstruction of the Relief Representations and Their Positions in the Northwest-Palace at Kalhu (Nimrud) II. Baghdader Forschungen, Bd. 10, Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, pp. 37, 47, 90, pl. 3,13, plan 2.5.
Paley, Samuel M., and Richard P. Sobolewski. 1992. The Reconstruction of the Relief Representations and Their Positions in the Northwest-Palace at Kalḫu (Nimrūd) III. Baghdader Forschungen, Bd. 14, Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, p. 32.