This panel from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) depicts a winged supernatural figure. Such figures appear throughout the palace, sometimes flanking either the figure of the Assyrian king or a stylized "sacred tree." The reliefs were painted, but today almost none of the original pigment survives. However, the reliefs themselves retain incredible detail, including intricate incised designs on many of the figures’ clothing.
The figure depicted on the panel is human-headed and faces left, holding in his left hand a mace and in his right a plant whose meaning is not known. The figure wears a horned cap, indicating divinity, and jewelry: visible are a large pendant earring, a collar consisting of two bands of beads and spacers, armlets with animal-head terminals, and bracelets, on one of which can be seen a large central rosette symbol associated with divinity and perhaps particularly with the goddess Ishtar. Although we cannot know how these elements were originally painted, excavated parallels include elaborate jewelry in gold, inlaid with semi-precious stones. A collar or necklace such as that shown here might have been made up of semi-precious stones separated by gold spacer beads. The figure carries three knives, tucked into a belt with their handles visible at chest level, and one of these is also animal-headed.
The tree represents no real plant, and the form in which it is depicted varies within Neo-Assyrian art. The tree is generally thought to be a symbol of the agricultural fertility and abundance, and probably the more general prosperity, of Assyria. If this is so, then in protecting the tree and the king the winged figures of the Northwest Palace are all engaged in the protection of the Assyrian state.
The figures are supernatural but do not represent any of the great gods. Rather, they are part of the vast supernatural population that for ancient Mesopotamians animated every aspect of the world. They appear as either eagle-headed or human-headed and wear a horned crown to indicate divinity. Both types of figure usually have wings. Because of their resemblance to groups of figurines buried under doorways for protection whose identities are known through ritual texts, it has been suggested that the figures in the palace reliefs represent the apkallu, wise sages from the distant past. This may indeed be one level of their symbolism, but protective figures of this kind are likely to have held multiple meanings and mythological connections.
Figures such as these continued to be depicted in later Assyrian palaces, though less frequently. Only in the Northwest Palace do they form such a dominant feature of the relief program. Also unique to the Northwest Palace is the so-called Standard Inscription that ran across the middle of every relief, often cutting across the imagery. The inscription, carved in cuneiform script and written in the Assyrian dialect of the Akkadian language, lists the achievements of Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.), the builder of the palace. After giving his ancestry and royal titles, the Standard Inscription describes Ashurnasirpal’s successful military campaigns to east and west and his building works at Nimrud, most importantly the construction of the palace itself. The inscription is thought to have had a magical function, contributing to the divine protection of the king and the palace.
1854, gift of H.C. Rawlinson to Rev. William Frederick Williams; 1854, gift of Rev. W. F. Williams to Union College, Schenectedy, NY; 1931, purchased from Union College by C. E. Wells for J. D. Rockefeller; acquired by the Museum in 1931, gift of J. D. Rockefeller.
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Crawford, Vaughn, et al. 1966. Guide to the Ancient Near East Collection. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 21, fig. 31.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1972. Guide to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 50, fig. 16.
Crawford, Vaughn, Prudence O. Harper, and Holly Pittman. 1980. Assyrian Reliefs and Ivories in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 18, fig. 10,15.
Hibbard, Howard. 1980. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Harper and Row, pp. 53, 56, fig. 113.
Paley, Samuel M., and Richard P. Sobolewski. 1987. The Reconstruction of the Relief Representations and Their Positions in the Northwest-Palace at Kalhu (Nimrud) II. Baghdader Forschungen, Bd. 10, Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, pp. 38, 48-49, 90, pl. 3,16, plan 2.5.