Visual Formula and Meaning in Neo-Assyrian Relief Sculpture

Article excerpt

Palace reliefs of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (883-612 BCE) have a long-acknowledged content of a "historical" or "historicizing" character, especially visible in many scenes of battles and sieges. They are, however, also characterized by a distinctive manner of formulaic representation focusing especially on the ruler figure and his associates.1 Chains of visual formulas sometimes run through entire series of panels, as is the case in Room G of the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE) in Nimrud (Fig. 1). Sometimes such formulas appear individually and discretely, tucked in scenes that otherwise have a "narrative" or "historicizing" character, such as the scene of "encounter" between the enthroned Sennacherib (704-681 BCE) and a royal associate wearing a headband in the panoramic relief series of Sennacherib's Southwest Palace in Nineveh depicting the historically identifiable siege of the Judean city of Lachish.2 Such visual formulas in Assyrian reliefs have a distinct semantic capacity and their deployment is a conscious and wellcalculated device on the part of the designers of relief programs to create a visual language of a "hieratic" character.

This hieratic visual language seems to pertain to fundamental philosophical and religious notions that permeated Assyrian kingship and theocracy, many aspects of which are still relatively obscure to us/ Even though a definitive interpretation of these visual configurations may not be possible, their consistent and almost mathematically thought-out design, treatment, and occurrence in the reliefs should be taken as indications that what one faces here is a special system of visual denotation and connotation, not unlike the ancient Egyptian visual formulas such as the sema taïuy, "union," which refers to the unification of the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt, or the Egyptian king smiting captured enemies with a mace (Figs. 2, 3). These designs have a standardized emblematic quality that takes them out of the ordinary realm of pictorial representation, placing them in a timeless rhetoric of hieratic or cosmic character.

One could think that Neo-Assyrian art has a semiotic dimension analogous to the aforementioned Egyptian formulas, an understanding of which need not be contingent on explicit textual parallels found either inscribed on the reliefs themselves or in other contemporary literary or "historical" sources. This semiotic element has autonomous dimensions, as it were, which render Assyrian visual culture a mode of signification or communication almost independent from writing and texts.

Learning from Egypt

In the studies of both ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art, mention is often made of a semantic and functional relation between art and writing in dealing with the formative periods of the visual cultures of the two geographic areas, both of which can roughly be dated about 3000 BCE.4 The combination, or coextensiveness, of art and writing in the earliest phases of ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian art is a complex topic, a full treatment of which would go beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, one aspect of this phenomenon is extremely relevant to my inquiry: in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, elements of visual representation of the emblematic type referred to above appear on elite art objects far earlier than actual mature writing or script enters the artistic and intellectual sphere.'" In the absence of continuous texts or written literature, these earliest formulaic images may be thought to have addressed and recorded certain fundamental philosophical and religious concepts that could not otherwise have been recorded in any permanent format.1' It is precisely this quality or potency of emblematic or formulaic representation that constitutes the bedrock for the kind of "scriptual" or "semiotic" element examined here in relation to the art of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

I should also like to stress that this formulaic representation has nothing directly to do with text-image problems, and that this examination makes no attempt to "read" art as if it were a text. …