Openwork furniture plaque with a cow suckling a calf


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This fragmentary plaque depicts a cow suckling a calf. Carved in the openwork technique, characteristic of the Phoenician style, the lower legs of both animals do not survive. The cow’s raised, incised eyebrow accentuates an originally inlaid eye. Large ears and curved horns rest against the upper body in relief. The cow turns and lowers her head, detailed by carved dewlaps, licking the tail of the calf she suckles. Shallow incisions mark the ribs of both animals. Another openwork ivory plaque with the same motif found at Arslan Tash in Syria is also in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection (MMA 57.80.5).

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 furniture plaque with a cow suckling a calf, Ivory, Assyrian

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