Furniture plaque carved in relief with a “woman at the window”


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.

Depicted on this rectangular plaque is one of several variations of the “woman at the window” theme found at Arslan Tash and other sites in Mesopotamia and the Levant. The head of a female wearing a diadem and loop earrings is surrounded on three sides by a frame with two recessed bands. Below, four columns terminating in volute capitals support a balustrade. While such imagery appears to have a Phoenician derivation, this plaque can be attributed to the South Syrian style, expressed by a combination of North Syrian and Phoenician elements. Aspects of the North Syrian tradition include the woman’s large, round face, large ears, small mouth and receding chin. Drawn from the Phoenician style is the short, Egyptian-style wig. Two mortises cut into the roughened back of the plaque indicate that it was probably made to receive pegs for insertion into a piece of furniture. There is a West Semitic letter inscribed into the right side of the upper edge, probably as a guide for the assembly of the piece of furniture into which it originally belonged. There is no conclusive interpretation of whom these plaques were meant to represent; some scholars associate them with the Levantine goddess Astarte.

Furniture plaque carved in relief with a “woman at the window”, Ivory, Assyrian

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