Assyrian Reliefs LACMA Reliefs Palace Assurnasirpal II Nimrud Gypsum Assyrian, ca. 883-858 BC
The Divine Right to Rule
It is extremely apparent that the reliefs taken from the Northwest Palace of King Assurnasipal II are expressions of power. One can ascertain this information without the images by simply reading the cuneiform text that accompanies them, which asserts the prowess of the king, his right to rule, and his favor from the gods themselves that bestow this ability upon him. Yet the images themselves reinforce many of these notions by providing illustrations that visually depict the same concepts explained in writing. Moreover, the specific placement and location of these reliefs also adds to the conviction and their ability to proclaim the right of kingship that Assurnasipal II claimed. By examining the placement of this art and the specific images depicted within it, one can understand that its expression of divine favor dispelled the notion that this particular king was chosen for this position.
The central notion to this particular interpretation of the reliefs depicted within Assurnasirpal II's palace has to do with their proximity within the kingdom as related to the intentions of the ruler himself. These reliefs were found in the king's palace, which is highly significant since the palace itself is the ultimate architectural expression of kingship, serving as both his personal quarters and the chief site in which most governmental affairs were conducted. Furthermore, the Northwest palace was a relatively new construction which Assurnasirpal II began and completed during his reign in approximately 867 B.C. (Porter 129). These reliefs, then, helped to validate the royalty of the construct itself and served as expressions of the ruler's right to create such a structure for kingly purposes. This aspect of their purpose is largely alluded to by their content, and the symbolism it contained. However, within the palace itself, the reliefs were placed in strategic locations that helped to denote the exact function of those rooms.
This concept is known as "conspicuous consumption," which relates to the art work discussed in this document since "relief carving served as an expression of conspicuous consumption by being carved in conspicuous locations" (Russell 655). The general idea of conspicuous consumption is that artwork is strategically located to maximize its viewership. The aforementioned artwork, of course, reinforces the divine right of Assurnasirpal II to rule -- which is why it was located within his palace. Yet even within this palace, which was a veritable labyrinth containing hundreds of chambers, rooms, suites, etc., these reliefs were displayed in places in which viewership was maximized. To that end, it is important to note that these reliefs were not located, for example, in the servants quarters -- especially not in light of the significance of the imagery they represented. Instead, there is convincing evidence that alludes to the fact that these reliefs were located in more than one location, all of which was in the king's antechambers. This facet of the location of these reliefs reinforces the notion that they asserted Assurnasirpal II's right to room because the antechamber is where his most distinguished guests and visitors (those relating to governmental work and otherwise) would view them.
Prior to discussing how the specific visual elements and motifs depicted within the reliefs contribute to the idea that they serve as expressions of power and the divine right of Assurnasirpal II to rule, it is necessary to provide a description of their visual qualities. Three of the panels depict trees -- two of these panels (which were placed in corners) form a single image which "appeared as the main motif in the massive stone carvings lining the walls of the state apartments in the center of the palace" (Porter 129). The tree itself is vast and shows an interconnection of limbs and branches, virtually all of which are flowered with a minimum of seven petals. Significantly, the tree is depicted vertically, which symbolizes a strength and growth to the celestial where the gods dwelled. The trunk is columnar while the tree itself has "the profile of an atypical rosette" in which "the surrounding palmettes match closely with the trees crown and are linked by a pair of serpentine stems," which are tied to the tree's central axis (McDonald 116).
The other relief in which a tree is depicted features another vertical tree that is extremely similar to the aforementioned one. The branches and their multi-tiered flowers extend horizontally towards the image of an eagle -- headed figure who holds a cup of water in one hand while his other hovers just before the tree, as though he were sprinkling it with something (the water perhaps). He stands erect like a man and his wings are highly stylized with an abundance of detail that is reflected in his sandaled feet (down to his individual toes) to the ripples on the robed garment he wears. He stands straight like a man and is obviously some sort of deity.
Another panel shows an image very similar to the previously mentioned one, complete with double wings, a jug of water perhaps in one hand and his other hand upraised against as though he were sprinkling water. This bearded figure appears to be a deity as well and is highly stylized, particularly in his wings (in which the individual feathers are depicted) and in the ripples of his robe. These two respective figures are facing in opposite directions; the latter one wears some type of head garb and has facial features like a man. Other than the eagle head -- the principle difference between the two is the eagle-headed figures appears much more robust and muscular; one of his feet extends beyond his robe which is not the case with the latter figure. The final picture details Assurnasirpal II standing beside a deity; the former is hatted and bears a bow in one hand and a cone shaped bowl of some sort in the other. The deity is bearded, and appears to hold the same sort of container that the other two deities did, while his other hand is raised in a similar gesture to the other two deities who made that gesture in front of the tree.
The tree appears in several of the reliefs, as do a variety of winged deities. It is fairly apparent that the tree depicted in these reliefs is the mythical and religious tree of life, an eternal symbol thought to represent "a vegetative entity that governs solar and lunar cycles, the changing of the seasons, and annual cycles of plant growth" (McDonald 115). The vitality and the significance of the tree is alluded to by several aspects of its representation in these motifs. One is the sheer magnitude of its depiction in the reliefs, which are as big as the deities and as the king himself. The other is the apparent vitality that it depicts with its myriad branches, flowering petals and healthy sized crown atop it, all of which alludes to the existence of salutary life. The tree is ultimately emblematic of nature itself, or as life conceived by the Assyrians. This tree is the principle motif of the reliefs, a notion which is evidenced by the fact that "the tree itself was depicted ninety-six times, both as part of the scene and as a spacer between tree scenes, which were the room's sole motif" (Porter 129). In this respect Assurnasirpal II's royal antechambers depicted the very nature of life itself, attended in certain instances by powerful deities and by images of himself -- all of which reinforced the tenet of his divine right to rule.
This divine right is reinforced by the appearance of the several deities who, in two of the five reliefs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, are tending to the tree itself. In the relief that depicts the eagle-headed deity, he is holding a pine cone in the hand that is not containing the water container. Although the relationship between the deity and the tree itself has been debated by a number of scholars, it is generally accepted today that the deities are delivering some sort of protection to the treat itself (Porter 139). This protection, of course, can account for the tree's prodigious growth and sustenance of life. The principle debate about what exactly the deities are doing to the tree involves whether or not they are bestowing it with water or some other substance to promote its growth, or extracting something from it with which to anoint upon Assurnasirpal II (Porter 132), which is a fairly common interpretation of the scene in which he is depicted. The prevalence of this particular theory is supported by the relief because the king, denoted by his fez with a ribbon extending from it, has his back to a winged deity whose hand is extended in the same pose as it was before the tree of life in other reliefs, as though anointing the king.