Winged, human-headed bulls served as guardians of the city and its palace—walking by, they almost seem to move.
Lamassu from the citadel of Sargon II Khorsabad
The architecture and sculptural decorations of Neo-Assyrian palaces dating to the first half of the 1st millennium B.C.E. are not only unique in the Ancient Near East but exceptionally powerful and beautiful. Huge courtyards and halls led the visitor deeper and deeper into the king’s realm, revealing more and more complex sculptural programs along the progression. Images depicted the brutal destruction of enemy cities, the ruthless extraction of natural resources, the king hunting lions with a bow and arrow, and sacred spirits (winged men call genii) tending a tree of life.
Between these courtyards and halls, punctuating these scenes of power and prestige are massive pairs of doorway sculptures called Lamassu. The Lamassu are distinctive to Neo-Assyrian architectural sculpture (although the creatures which they represent have a long history in the Ancient Near East, dating to the Early Dynastic period) and several pairs of them survive to this day. The remains of more than 100 Lamassu have been identified at Neo-Assyrian palace sites. Because of their massive size and formidable form, since the discovery of Neo-Assyrian palaces in the 19th century, they have been a source of awe and fascination, even living on in art deco architecture of the 20th century.
A hybrid monster
A lamassu (also called a šedu, aladlammû or genii) is an apotropaic or protective hybrid monster with the bearded head of a mature mane, crown of a god, and the winged body of either a bull or lion. They are massive, up to 20 feet tall and weigh as much as 30–50 tons. Remarkably, each is carved from a single slab of limestone, gypsum alabaster, or breccia.
This pair at the Louvre is from the Palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad and dates from 720–705 B.C.E. and represents a winged bull with the bearded head of a man wearing a double horned crown. The face of the Lamassu is broad, with a strong nose and thick eyebrows which are double arched across his whole forehead. The massive beard is represented as thickly curled and braided, nearly doubling the size of the Lamassu’s face. His wide eyes look straight out over the head of the viewer, as if engaged in matters beyond the human realm. His crown, feather-topped, is decorated with rows of rosettes (a motif associated with divinity and possibly the goddess Ishtar) and set with a double-horned crown, marking the Lamassu as divine. His pointed bovine ears, ringed with gold hoops suspending beads, emerge from beneath the crown as well as long flowing locks which end in rows of tight curls giving a sense of buoyancy. The fur of the bull’s body is also richly curled, although in very organized straight rows which run along its breast, back, side and rear flank. Even the Lamassu’s tail is curled and braided.
Huge cloven feet
The huge cloven feet of the Lamassu show him both standing and walking, courtesy of the carving having five legs instead of four. This is to present a kind of split view: when one approaches the Lamassu from the front, they look as if they are standing still guarding the door, but when you pass between them, you see all four of their legs walking forward. This odd detail, which is not common to all Lamassu, is done for two reasons. Firstly, because as much of the bulk of the stone must be left intact as possible to help support the weight of arch of the doorway. To carve out the space around the legs of the Lamassu, which would make the fourth front leg visible while passing between them, would weaken the arched doorway. The other reason is to ensure that no matter from what angle one sees the Lamassu, it looks formidable. The legs of the Lamassu are not only massive but very muscular, giving a clear sense of the power of this hybrid creature. Added to this complex sculptural representation, we must recall, was color. Several examples of Neo-Assyrian sculpture have been examined for the remains of their pigment and have been found to still hold microscopic traces of white calcium carbonate and calcium sulfate, bone black and charcoal, hematite red, cinnabar red, and cobalt blue.
On two panels between the hind legs of the Lamassu is a long inscription in cuneiform called the standard inscription. This is a statement listing the victories and virtues of King Sargon, his piety and the ways in which the gods have favored him. It also threatens a curse on whomever should seek to harm his palace. This kind of standard inscription is common on many Neo-Assyrian wall reliefs and Lamassu and can be seen as a scriptural representation of the images they are layered upon.
What is so awe-inspiring about these sculptures is not only their size but the powerful clarity with which they are sculpted and the terrifyingly precise repetition of forms. Curls and horns are incised with deep, powerful cuts in high relief and smoothed into sharp readability. The strict linear, mathematical arrangement of feathers, curls, and rosettes gives the Lamassu a perfected restraint, humanizing the frightening and chaotic hybridity. Possibly the most terrifying and impressive aspect of the carving of the Lamassu, however, is the precision of its sculptural repetition. Dating to an era much before “cut and paste” or any sort of mechanical reproductive methods in sculpture, we find the craftsmen of the Lamassu were masters of scrupulous and endlessly repetitive imitation.
The lamassu in museums today (including the Louvre, shown in our video, as well the British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, and others) came from various ancient Assyrian sites located in modern-day Iraq. They were moved to their current institutional homes by archaeologists who excavated these sites in the mid-19th century. However, many ancient Assyrian cities and palaces—and their gates, with intact lamassu figures and other sculptures—remain as important archaeological sites in their original locations in Iraq.
In 2015, a chilling video circulated online, showed people associated with ISIS destroying ancient artifacts in both the museum in Mosul, Iraq and at the nearby ancient archaeological site of ancient Nineveh. Their targets included the lamassu figures that stood at one of the many ceremonial gates to this important ancient Assyrian city. Scholars believe that this particular gate, which dates to the reign of Sennacherib around 700 B.C.E., was built to honor the god Nergal, an Assyrian god of war and plague who ruled over the underworld. Islamic State representatives claimed that these statues were “idols” that needed to be destroyed. The video features footage of men using jackhammers, drills, and sledgehammers to demolish the lamassu.
The Nergal gate is only one of many artifacts and sites that have been demolished or destroyed by ISIS over the past decade. Despite the existence of other examples in museums around the world, the permanent loss of these objects is a permanent loss to global cultural heritage and to the study of ancient Assyrian art and architecture.
Backstory by Dr. Naraelle Hohensee
“Historians Pore Over ISIS Video of Smashed Statues for Clues to What’s Been Lost,” The New York Times, February 26, 2015.
“ISIS Destroys Mosul Museum Collection and Ancient Assyrian Statues,” Hyperallergic, February 26, 2015.
“Isis fighters destroy ancient artefacts at Mosul museum,” The Guardian, February 26, 2015.
“ISIS has turned the destruction of ancient artifacts into entertainment,” Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2015.
J. P. G. Finch, “The Winged Bulls at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh,” Iraq, volume 10, number 1 (Spring, 1948), pp. 9–18.
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
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