5 minutes with... A 3,000-year-old Assyrian relief

Retrieved from Nimrud in modern-day Iraq in the mid-19th century, this Assyrian relief sold for $30,968,750 to become the second-most expensive piece of ancient art ever sold at auction


Standing more than seven feet high, this proud figure was once part of an elaborate decorative scheme that covered the walls of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud in modern-day Iraq, which was constructed some 3,000 years ago. On 31 October at Christie's New York, it sold for $30,968,750, the second highest price for any work of ancient art and the highest ever for an Assyrian relief.

‘These huge slabs of gypsum, sculpted in relief, were designed to impress and overwhelm,’ explains G. Max Bernheimer, International Head of Antiquities at Christie’s in New York. ‘Every aspect was related to the strength and power of the king. 

‘If you’re studying ancient art from the textbooks you don’t get a sense of the monumental scale of these things until you’re standing in front of them. When you look at this relief and you imagine the size of the room that it was once part of, and the size of the relief itself, it must have just been absolutely overwhelming.’

The palace — at 120m by 200m, one of the largest known in antiquity — was commissioned by King Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned from 883-859 BC. Ashurnasirpal was a tyrant who ruthlessly expanded his kingdom, conquering much of the ancient Near East including modern-day Syria and the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — an area referred to today as ‘the cradle of civilisation’. The palace reflected Ashurnasirpal’s newfound status as the most powerful ruler of the largest empire ever seen. 

There are approximately 400 of these carved relief panels that would have filled the interior, which depicted narratives of Ashurnasirpal’s military triumphs, as well as animal hunts and courtly scenes.

‘This relief is adorned with these winged figures, which were called apkallu  or “genius”,’ Bernheimer continues. ‘They have the portrait-like quality of the king, but here he's a god, and he’s anointing this sacred tree with a pine cone-shaped object. It’s all about fertility and protection for the king.’

The wings of the apkullu, or genius, are exquisitely detailed

Fine rows of cuneiform script run across the relief, recalling Ashurnasirpal’s achievements

The apkallu  has finely feathered wings and wears elaborately detailed robes, a horned headdress, an earring, a necklace and armlets, and has two daggers and a whetstone tucked into fabric folds at his waist.

The stone’s surface is also covered in the so-called ‘Standard Inscription’, a cuneiform incantation that recalls Ashurnasirpal’s achievements: ‘Fierce monarch, merciless hero, the word of whose mouth destroys mountains and seas… He was the king of kings.’

A number of surviving reliefs from the palace show traces of original paint on the surface, and our film uses digital technology to spectacular effect to recreate the colours of this apkallu’s skin, jewellery and tightly curled beard. 


Traces of the original pigment allow us to see how the relief would have appeared during the reign of Ashurnasirpal

This superbly preserved frieze was acquired in Mosul in 1859 by an American missionary named Dr Henri Byron Haskell from the English archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard, who had unearthed the royal palace at Nimrud. In addition to this relief, which has been housed at the Virginia Theological Seminary since its crossing of the Atlantic, Haskell also sent five others to Bowdoin College in Maine and another, which is now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Around 60 other museums around the world contain reliefs from Ashurnasirpal’s palace, including the British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and the Yale University Art Gallery. Without question, this relief represents the finest example of Assyrian art to have come onto the market in decades, and was sold on behalf of the Virginia Theological Seminary to underwrite a scholarship fund. 

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