The White Obelisk and the Problem of Historical Narrative in the Art of Assyria

By Pittman, Holly | The Art Bulletin, June 1996 | Go to article overview
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The White Obelisk and the Problem of Historical Narrative in the Art of Assyria


Pittman, Holly, The Art Bulletin


The limestone slabs carved with reliefs that lined the walls of the Assyrian royal palaces are among the most admired works of ancient Near Eastern art. These often beautifully preserved sculptures, bearing scenes of royal conquest, accomplishment, ritual, and hunting, have been renowned since the mid-nineteenth century, when they were first uncovered and displayed before a European public hungry for exotica. The reliefs immediately fascinated scholars and laity alike because they confirmed-through words and pictures-stories from the foundational myths of JudeoChristian culture.

Not until almost a century after their discovery did these reliefs begin to be integrated into an art-historical discourse.1 Numerous studies have shown that the two-hundredand-fifty year development of pictorial narrative preserved in the reliefs holds a pivotal place in the study of Assyrian art.2 Despite serious gaps, a skeletal sequence exists for the visual programs of the Neo-Assyrian kings from Asssurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) until Assurbanipal (668-627 B.C.), just before the fall of the Assyrian empire at the end of the seventh century.3 Illustrations of narrative themes embedded in iconic series of apotropaic genii, sacred trees, and hieratic representations of the king confronting the numinous are typical of palace decoration in the ninth century. By the eighth-century reign of Sargon II (721-705 B.C.) the narrative component of the architectural program received greater emphasis. At the height of the Assyrian imperial reach, during the reigns of Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.) and Assurbanipal, entire rooms were lined, often in single compositions, with ever more lively, complex narrative representations of an increasing range of subjects glorifying the king and the empire.4

The beginning of this long tradition of wall reliefs is problematic owing to the lack of evidence. The earliest carved stone orthostats in Assyria date to the reign of Assurnasirpal II, who used them perhaps at Nineveh and certainly in his palace at Nimrud. Because the program at Nimrud is iconographically and compositionally complex, however, it is unlikely that this was the first attempt by court artists working under the Assyrian rulers to construct such a program. At issue in understanding the development of visual historical narrative in ancient Assyria is whether the earlier stages were native to Assyria as an integral part of the formative stages of the imperial strategy or whether the Assyrians appropriated it from foreign models.

Within the larger context of the relationship between visual and verbal expression in Assyrian art, this study examines specific examples of visual evidence for the early development of historical narrative. In particular, I present here a new interpretation of a single, much debated monument, the White Obelisk (Fig. 1), which has stood in the Assyrian galleries of the British Museum since shortly after its discovery in the middle of the last century. I believe that the White Obelisk carries on its sides a reduced copy of a narrative program that originally lined the walls of a long, narrow room, arguably the throne room of a palace in the Assyrian capital at Nineveh. Although the date of the Obelisk still cannot be exactly determined, there is no question that the original architectural program that it reproduces was earlier, probably dating from between the reigns of TukultiNinurta II (890-884 B.c.) and Assur-bel-kala (1074-1057 B.C.) or Tiglath-pileser I (1115-1077 B.c.). Accordingly, the White Obelisk becomes a critical piece of evidence for the reconstruction of the early stages of Assyrian historical narrative. Furthermore, I argue that the complex compositional and narrative form of Assurnasirpal II's program, evident in his Nimrud Throne Room, must have drawn directly upon lost Assyrian predecessors, one of which is indirectly preserved in the White Obelisk.

The White Obelisk

The White Obelisk was found in 1853 in the mounded ruins of ancient Nineveh, the oldest and one of the most important of the great centers at the heart of the Assyrian empire (Fig.

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