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Assyrian Art and the Lamassu sculpture
Recently I lectured to a group of students on Ancient Near Eastern Art and since then have been thinking about a work of art that generated quite a large discussion: the Lamassu. The Lamassu were human headed winged bulls, sometimes with the paws of a lion, which were considered guardian figures to the king.

The Lamassu figures are a very interesting example of Neo-Assyrian Art.  For several hundred years (934-609 BC) Assyria was the most important and influential empire in the Mesopotamian region.  The kings at this time used art as a way to make certain everyone knew of their importance.  The figures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art measure 122.5 x 24.5 x 109 in. (311.15 x 62.23 x 276.86 cm), which means they stand over 10 feet (3 meters) tall and would have been quite an imposing presence for visitors.  At the same time they were meant to protect the kingdom from demonic forces.


Neo-Assyrian Gateway Human Headed Winged Lions ‘Lamassu’ from the North West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud, (883-859 BC) British Museum

photo- © Mujtaba Chohan/ public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  

The Lamassu Guardian figures were sculpted in pairs so that they were flanking the entrance to the king’s throne room.  There are many pairs of these sculptures that are still in existence including those in the British Museum (London), Louvre (Paris) and Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) as well as several in Iraq.

Even though each of these come from different centuries in the Neo-Assyrian period, the style of these sculptures doesn’t change much.  The examples seen here are either from the reign or Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) or Sargon II (721-705 BC).   Let’s first look at those from the British Museum from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II.
“These composite creatures combined the strength of the lion (or in this case, the bull), the   swiftness of birds indicated by the wings, and the intelligence of the human head. The helmet with horns indicates the creature’s divinity.”*

The sculptures were meant to be seen in one of two ways- from the front looking directly at the face, or from the side as the viewer entered the king’s throne room.  Therefore the figures are sculpted with five legs- two that can be seen from the front view and four that can be seen from the side.  This would indicate that the figure was a four legged beast, but the extra leg was added so that the side view made visual sense.

Winged human-headed bull (Lamassu)

Neo-Assyrian Period, reign of Sargon II (721-705 BC)

Khorsabad, ancient Dur Sharrukin, Assyria, Iraq

photo- © Luidger/ public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  

This version of the Lamassu has the paws of a lion rather than the hooves of a bull.  Interestingly enough the pair from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (also from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II) each has a different set of feet, one with paws and one with hooves.

The figures were carved in relief, that is they were not free standing sculptures but rather only part of the figure was carved and they needed a wall to support them.  Stylistically they are a mix of realism (note the careful portrayal of the legs) and flattened abstraction (such as the stylized portrayal of the wings and the hair).

The Lamassu in the British Museum are followed by many relief panels of the king’s lion hunts.  These relief panels were also a mix of realism (seen in the lions) and stylized art (usually seen in the human figures).

For more information I posted a link to the Smart History/Khan Academy website (Jan 6 blog posting) with a short and informative look at the Lamassu sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I recommend watching it, it is just over 4 minutes long and quite interesting.