Gesture and Alterity in the Art of Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria

By Cifarelli, Megan | The Art Bulletin, June 1998 | Go to article overview
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Gesture and Alterity in the Art of Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria


Cifarelli, Megan, The Art Bulletin


Long considered the hallmark of the art of the Assyrian Empire, the massive stone relief sculptures that decorated the interiors of ancient Assyrian palaces in northern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) appear to have been introduced to Assyria during the reign of a remarkable ruler, Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.E., Fig. 1).1 By the time he ascended to the throne in the ninth century B.C.E., the history of Assyria already spanned a millennium, from its mercantile roots in the early second millennium, to its rise to political and cultural prominence in the "international age" of the middle centuries of the second millennium, to its "dark age" at the turn of the millennium.2 The artistic florescence that characterizes the reign of Ashurnasirpal II accompanied the quickening of an era of military aggressiveness, territorial acquisitiveness, and a marked increase in the grandeur of the Assyrian capitals. In the course of his yearly military campaigns into neighboring territory, Ashurnasirpal forcibly collected enormous quantities of luxury goods, furniture, agricultural produce, raw materials for building, and perhaps most important, captive labor. A particularly grandiose gesture on the part of this Assyrian king was the removal of the primary center of the Assyrian government from the city of Ashur, where it had rested since Assyria's inception a thousand years earlier as a political and cultural entity. He founded a new capital further north on the Tigris River at the ancient city of Kalhu, which became known as Nimrud.3

The art that decorated the palaces created for Ashurnasirpal's new capital and provincial centers includes both narrative reliefs that lined the palace interior, particularly the Throne Room of the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud (Figs. 2, 3) ,4 as well as miniature scenes embossed on bronze bands decorating the gates of a royal palace and the Mamu Temple at the site of Balawat (Fig. 6).5 A variety of subjects are depicted in these expensive, labor-intensive media. Many feature mythical scenes of the king in the company of supernatural creatures, and others depict the king engaged in royal rituals. Of those representations that were historical narratives, however, the vast majority feature depictions of the Assyrian army on campaign in foreign lands, accumulating foreign prisoners and booty, and the Assyrian king receiving the tributaries and tribute of foreign lands.6 In other words, the narrative decorative programs in Assyrian palaces focus for the most part on the interaction between Assyrians and non-Assyrians, and they portray this interaction in terms of hostility and the ultimate subjugation of foreign lands and people.

The postures and gestures of non-Assyrians in these scenes, ranging from their crouching posture to hand gestures and the disposition of their weapons, made them appearespecially to the eyes of the Assyrians viewing this artstrange, contemptible, and out of step with Assyrian values.

Through the language of gesture, these images communicate the identification of intercultural difference with intracultural transgression and the subversion of Assyrian social codes. Moreover, within the context of the stories told in Assyrian narrative art, many of these strange non-Assyrian figures are shown meeting dreadful fates, ranging from capture (Fig. 2) to horrific mutilation (Fig. 3). The internal logic of these visual stories, then, often portrays a violent death as the natural consequence of the violation of Assyrian values that these strange gestures embody. The notion of the merciless punishment of transgressions and the wisdom of conformity serves as a powerful message for the foreign visitors to Assyrian palaces, as well as the members of the Assyrian court itself

The central assumptions brought to bear on the interpretation of the representations of non-Assyrians in this article are first, that palatial decorative schemes were carefully designed to function as a form of visual propaganda, and second, that the content and appearance of this art contributes to, promulgates, and is determined by a specifically Assyrian cultural ideology.

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