Ornamental Wall Painting in the Art of the Assyrian Empire

Article excerpt

Ornamental Wall Painting in the Art of the Assyrian Empire. By PAULINE ALBENDA. Cuneiform Monographs, vol. 28. Leiden: BRILL/STYX, 2005. Pp. xiii + 148, illus. $135.

Pauline Albenda has performed a service to the study of Assyrian art by insisting upon the importance of painting as a significant category of artistic production (pp. 129-36). Building upon the cited works of Y. Tomabechi and A. Nunn, she gathers the known corpus (chapters one and two), devotes a full discussion to the best-known and most elaborate finds from the provincial Assyrian site of Til Barsip (chapter three), and then examines what she calls the "ornamental painted designs" by motif and compositional devices (chapter four). Throughout, she acknowledges the limited number of locations and finds preserved in the archaeological record, yet feels able to argue for a relative chronology of exempla, often based upon parallels with datable relief carvings and painted glazed ceramics, the repertoires of which have much in common with wall-paintings.

One of the principal contributions of this study is that the author has gone back to original field drawings and descriptions to correct or amend homogenization in restoration drawings (e.g., Pis. 9 and 10); another is that she brings to the discussion the importance of outline, design, and alternation of colors as part of the effect of the paintings, in order to stress the visual impact they would have made upon the viewer (pp. 75-81, 135). Albenda relies upon her own earlier work to stress aspects of symmetry in composition and the visual interplay it stimulates (e.g., pp. 82ff., 130). Particularly useful is her introduction of the less-well-known painting remains from Tell al-Rimah/Arana and Tell Sheikh Hammad/Dur Katlimmu into the more usual focus upon Nimrud and Til Barsip (pp. 75, 92-100, 129, 132) and her investigation of the possibility of continuities from earlier periods, via the Middle Assyrian Period painting fragments preserved at Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta (thirteenth c. B.C.E.) and those from Nuzi (fifteenth c. B.C.E.) (pp. 75-84, 129).

Quibbles that require further analysis are as follows:

1. Over-determination based upon single or limited samples (e.g., the contrast between Gordion and Til Barsip) to argue for a regional style (i.e., a black and white ornamental style as a North Syrian phenomenon during the seventh century B.C.E., p. 32), when other factors, such as taste and/or wealth, status, and function represented by the buildings housing the paintings should also have been considered.

2. Division of the Til Barsip paintings into three phases, rather than the two suggested by the original excavators, with only one access corridor belonging to the earliest phase ("Room" 26, discussed pp. 36-37), the chronological anchor for the hypothesis itself being highly tenuous.

3. Redating of the Til Barsip painting of the enthroned ruler from Room 24 to Sargon II, based upon isolated textile patterns, rather than the close parallel to the same overall motif of the seated king in the reliefs of Tiglath-pileser III (p. 71).

4. Dismissal of the usual dating for the Til Barsip lion hunt painting to the reign of Assurbanipal, and attribution of it to that of Sennacherib (pp. 71-73), based upon a minor detail of the king's headband, rather than analysis of the theme as a whole, for which the lion hunts of Assurbanipal, particularly those of Room C in the North Palace at Nineveh, remain by far the closest parallels and for which there are no close parallels among the works dated to Sennacherib.

5. Inconsistent use of ancient and modern names for sites (e.g., Til Barsib paired with Dur Katlimmu, rather than Tell Sheikh Hammad (p. 75), or Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta paired with Aqar Kuf, rather than Dur Kurigalzu (p. 3).

6. Absence of any discussion of the paintings from Mari, an especially egregious omission if one is to discuss continuous traditions vs. …