Openwork plaque with a striding sphinx


Not on view

Sphinxes, creatures that combine a lion’s body, often winged, with a human head, appear frequently on the ivory plaques from Nimrud. Because this sphinx combines Egyptian elements typically found on Phoenician style ivories, such as the wig and solar-disc headdress, with the arresting frontal gaze characteristic of North Syrian ivories, it has been classified as South Syrian, a style that occupies an intermediate position between the two. Considerable carving skill is evident in the elongated feline body and extended curving wings. The figure is carved in high relief in the openwork technique, in which the background is cut away, giving it nearly the depth of a sculpture in the round. The Egyptian style wig suggests a female face, while the body is male, creating an image of elegant androgyny.

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.

Openwork plaque with a striding sphinx, Ivory, Assyrian

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