Lion's head carved in the round


Not on view

This ivory lion’s head, carved in the round, was probably part of a piece of elite furniture. Carved ivory pieces like this one were often inlaid into a wooden frame using joinery techniques and glue, and could be overlaid with gold foil or inlaid with colored glass or stone pieces to create a dazzling effect of gleaming surfaces and bright colors. The eye sockets are hollowed out to receive inlays in contrasting materials, now lost. The roaring mouth is open to show the teeth. Tufts of hair around the edge of the head indicate that the lion had a mane, and thus is intended to be male. The head was likely joined to the rest of the lion’s body via a dowel, inserted in the hole drilled at the back of the piece. Lions, which were associated with royalty and with the warlike goddess Ishtar, seem to have been frequently depicted in ivory and used as the support for elaborate chairs or thrones. Many large pieces of carved ivory representing the legs or heads of lions have been found in royal storerooms at the Assyrian capital of Nimrud, including several examples in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (57.27.14, 62.269.1, 62.269.7).

Built by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II, the palaces and storerooms of Nimrud housed thousands of pieces of carved ivory. Most of the ivories served as furniture inlays or small precious objects such as boxes. While some of them were carved in the same style as the large Assyrian reliefs lining the walls of the Northwest Palace, the majority of the ivories display images and styles related to the arts of North Syria and the Phoenician city-states. Phoenician style ivories are distinguished by their use of imagery related to Egyptian art, such as sphinxes and figures wearing pharaonic crowns, and the use of elaborate carving techniques such as openwork and colored glass inlay. North Syrian style ivories tend to depict stockier figures in more dynamic compositions, carved as solid plaques with fewer added decorative elements. However, some pieces do not fit easily into any of these three styles. Most of the ivories were probably collected by the Assyrian kings as tribute from vassal states, and as booty from conquered enemies, while some may have been manufactured in workshops at Nimrud. The ivory tusks that provided the raw material for these objects were almost certainly from African elephants, imported from lands south of Egypt, although elephants did inhabit several river valleys in Syria until they were hunted to extinction by the end of the eighth century B.C.

Lion's head carved in the round, Ivory, Assyrian

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