Furniture plaque carved in relief showing two winged, male figures flanking an infant on a lotus flower


Not on view

During the early first millennium B.C., ivory carving was one of the major luxury arts that flourished throughout the ancient Near East. Elephant tusks were carved into small decorative objects such as cosmetic boxes and plaques used to adorn wooden furniture. Gold foil, paint, and semiprecious stone and glass inlay embellishments enlivened these magnificent works of art. Based on certain stylistic, formal, and technical characteristics also visible in other media, scholars have distinguished several coherent style groups of ivory carving that belong to different regional traditions including Assyrian, Phoenician, North Syrian and South Syrian (the latter also known as Intermediate).

Several ivories in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection are from the Aramaean town of Arslan Tash, ancient Hadatu, in northern Syria just east of the Euphrates River, close to the modern Turkish border. French archaeological excavations at the site in 1928 revealed city walls and gates in addition to a palace and temple that were built when the Neo-Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (744-721 B.C.) turned the town into a provincial capital and military outpost. During the excavations, over one hundred ivory furniture inlays that can be attributed to the South Syrian and Phoenician styles were found in a building near the palace. One piece bears a dedicatory inscription in Aramaic to King Hazael, mentioned in the Bible, who ruled Damascus during the second half of the 9th century (ca. 843-806 B.C.), suggesting that this collection of ivory furniture inlays could have been taken by the Assyrian state as tribute or booty from Damascus. The Arslan Tash ivories share an amalgamation of Egyptianizing motifs typical of the Phoenician style and forms characteristic of North Syrian art that may indicate a South Syrian or Damascene origin of this group. Today, these ivories are housed in museums in Paris, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Karlsruhe, and Hamburg, as well as The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This square plaque is carved in low relief and depicts two standing, winged male figures facing each other, set within a thin frame and flanking a central infant sitting on a lotus flower. Both male figures hold lotus buds in each hand and raise one arm and wing to the upper edge of the plaque while lowering the other arm and wing so that their wingtips touch to frame the seated infant. The plaque can be attributed to the South Syrian style, drawing upon elements from both the Phoenician and North Syrian traditions of ivory carving. Aspects of the North Syrian style include large eyes and noses and fringed robes that leave one leg exposed. The Phoenician style incorporates Egyptian features such as the pschent crown (the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt), short wigs, incised broad collars, and the composition of the figures’ bodies: face and feet in profile with a frontal chest. Gold foil survives on the upper wing of the figure on the left. There are two West Semitic letters inscribed into the roughened reverse of the plaque, probably as a guide for the assembly of the piece of furniture to which it originally belonged. The motif of an infant sitting on a lotus flower is known from Egyptian art where it evokes the birth of Horus, the Egyptian sky god, or the birth of Ra, the Egyptian sun god. This imagery became significant in the Nile Valley during the Third Intermediate Period, a time that coincided with Phoenician presence in the Levant. On this plaque, the infant holds the flail, an emblem of Egyptian royalty that resembles the flywhisk. Another ivory plaque in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection that was found at the Neo-Assyrian capital of Nimrud bears similar imagery in a more elaborate Phoenician style (MMA 59.107.16).

Furniture plaque carved in relief showing two winged, male figures flanking an infant on a lotus flower, Ivory, Assyrian

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