Furniture plaque carved in relief with lion-headed figure


Not on view

This ivory plaque was found in a storage room in Fort Shalmaneser, a royal building at Nimrud that was used to store booty and tribute collected by the Assyrians while on military campaign. It depicts a lion-headed figure who resembles the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, though this figure is shown as male. Before him is a monkey seated on a lotus flower eating or holding food, another motif adapted from Egyptian art. Together, the two seem to refer to the Egyptian story of the Eye of Re, in which the fierce lion goddess is pacified and peace and prosperity return to the land. Carved ivory pieces such as this were widely used in the production of elite furniture during the early first millennium B.C. They were often inlaid into a wooden frame using joinery techniques and glue, and could be overlaid with gold foil or inlaid to create a dazzling effect of gleaming surfaces and bright colors. This piece is one of many elaborately carved ivories with motifs adapted from Egyptian art that have been attributed to Phoenician workshops, as Phoenician art shows strong Egyptian influence. The fact that the carver chose to depict a male lion god, an unusual image in Egyptian art, shows that although Phoenician art draws heavily on Egyptian motifs, these images were not merely copied but could be adapted to express different ideas and themes in their Phoenician context. Unfortunately, much knowledge of Phoenician culture has been lost, so we no longer understand what an image like this was meant to express.

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.

Furniture plaque carved in relief with lion-headed figure, Ivory, Assyrian

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