1 More
4 More


Finely carved in shallow relief with the figure of a bearded, winged Genius (Apkallu), wearing a horned miter and a heavy pendant earring, a rosette bracelet on his right wrist, armbands on both arms, dressed in fringed garments, with two daggers secured with a girdle under the left arm, kneeling to the right and with his arms held out touching the Sacred Tree before him.
26 ½ x 29 5⁄8 in. (67.5 x 75.2 cm.)
Room I-23, upper register, The Northwest Palace, Nimrud, Iraq.
Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894), excavated in the 1840s.
Likely removed from Nimrud circa 1845-1847 and shipped to Britain by Henry Rawlinson, the British consul at Baghdad (1810-1895).
London art market, by 1968; Egyptian, Western Asiatic, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Sotheby's, London, 26 November 1968, lot 38.
Acquired at the above sale, and thence by descent to the present owners.
J.E. Reade, The Neo-Assyrian Court and Army: Evidence from Sculptures, Iraq, 34, 1972, p. 109.
J. Meuszynski, Die Reliefs von Assur-nasir-apli II. Die Sammlungen außerhalb des Irak, 1976, p. 470.
S.M. Paley, King of the World, Ashur-nasir-pal II of Assyria (883-859 B.C.), New York, 1976, p. 61.
S.M. Paley and R.P. Sobolewski, The Reconstruction of the Relief Representations and their Positions in the Northwest - Palace at Kalhu (Nimrud) II, Mainz am Rhein, 1987, no. I-23 e ii (shema), pp. 5, 22 & 23, pl. 2,6.
Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, The University of California Los Angeles, the University of Oxford, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, no. P427105.
K. Englund, Nimrud Und Seine Funde: Der Weg Der Reliefs in Die Museen und Sammlungen, Orient‐Archäologie, Band 12, Rahden/Westf, 2003, p. 115.

Brought to you by

Keith Gill
Keith Gill Head of Department

Lot Essay

The Assyrian sculptures are among the most remarkable antiquities surviving from ancient Western Asia. Stone panels carved in low relief, they mostly emerged during a short period of sensational discoveries made by French and British archaeologists between 1843 and 1854, when the former kingdom of Assyria was part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled from Constantinople (Istanbul).

The city of Ashur on the west bank of the Tigris in northern Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, gave Assyria its name. The city was occupied as early as 2600 B.C., and the people spoke a dialect of Akkadian, a Semitic language, which they wrote in cuneiform script. The chief god of the Assyrians, known by the name Ashur, became the figurehead of their growing empire. Similar to the Romans several millennia later, the Assyrians often assimilated the religious practices of the people they conquered. Ashur, for instance, took on the family of the Sumerian deity Enlil. During most of the 3rd millennium, the Assyrians were subordinate to the Akkadians in central Mesopotamia, and later the third Dynasty of Ur in southern Mesopotamia.

The Assyrians during 2000-1750 B.C. operated trade colonies over all of northern Mesopotamia and built trade colonies in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) to the north. This long-distance trade network of finished goods, which included textiles and raw materials such as copper, tin, gold and silver, is well documented thanks to the survival of thousands of cuneiform tablets found at Kültepe and elsewhere. It was a prosperous period, which ended when Assyria was dominated by the Hurro-Mittanians from the north and the Babylonians from the south.

The Middle Assyrian Period (1392-934 B.C.) began as a time of conquest and expansion for the Assyrians, first towards the Euphrates and eventually into neighbouring regions. They defeated the Hurro-Mittanians, the Hittites and the Babylonians, and even reached the Mediterranean coast. The most powerful kings were Adad-nirari I (1305-1274 B.C.), Shalmaneser I (1273-1244 B.C.) and Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 B.C.).

As evidenced through excavated wall-painting fragments, relief sculptures on cult pedestals, and especially the glyptic arts, either as seen on stone cylinder seals or their impressions on clay tablets, the arts flourished during this period. However, the collapse of cultures across the Mediterranean towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, possibly precipitated by climate change and mass migrations, such as the invasion of the Sea Peoples from Northern Europe, had a significant impact on the end of the Middle Assyrian Period. The disruptions were far worse in the Eastern Mediterranean region, but after the reign of Tiglathpileser I (1114-1076 B.C.) Assyria was inundated by displaced tribes of Aramaic speakers from the south and west.

During the Neo-Assyrian Period (911-609 B.C.), the Assyrian empire reached the pinnacle of its power, becoming the most powerful state in the Near East. Successive kings were relentless in their annual campaigns, motivated in part by the lack of raw materials in the Assyrian heartland. Vast amounts of treasure flowed into the capitals, as evinced by the surviving cuneiform texts and the rich archaeological discoveries, many clearly originating from the far reaches of the empire. Control over the territories was in part maintained by mass deportations and resettlement and Aramaic became the common language. It was during this time that Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) moved the capital from Ashur to Nimrud – ancient Kalhu or Biblical Calah –where he built a palace unparalleled in its day. It is in this palace where the present relief was discovered.

The work was continued by his son and successor Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.), who added religious structures to rival any others in Assyria or Babylonia, and most notably built a structure known as Fort Shalmaneser, part palace, factory, warehouse and arsenal. The capital would be moved twice more, first to Khorsabad by Sargon II (721-705 B.C.), although his new city was abandoned shortly after its inauguration when he was killed in battle. His son Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.) moved the capital to Nineveh, where he built a city even larger and more impressive than Nimrud.

The surviving works of art from the Neo-Assyrian period, including the impressive large-scale reliefs adorning the palaces and temples, such as the example presented here, demonstrate the high level of artistic achievement of the period and confirm it as the golden age of the Assyrian civilization.

During the 7th century B.C., the empire came under threat from all corners, including from the Nubians in Egypt, Phrygians in west Turkey, Urartians to the north, tribal peoples united by the Medes in Iran, the Elamites in southern Iran, and the revived Babylonians to the south. The combined forces of Babylonians and Medes sacked the Assyrian city of Arrapha in 615 B.C., followed by Ashur the following year, and Nineveh in 612 B.C. The last Assyrian king, Ashur-uballit II (611-609 B.C.) ultimately moved the capital to Harran and that city fell in 609 B.C., and with it, the Neo-Assyrian empire was extinguished.

During the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883- 859 B.C.), the Assyrian king undertook a number of successful military campaigns, from which he acquired a vast amount of wealth. The capital was moved from Ashur, some fifty miles north, to Nimrud, which had previously been only a modest settlement. Ashur remained an important religious centre but was soon eclipsed by Nimrud, which became the largest and most splendid Assyrian city. Ashurnasirpal II embarked on an enormous building project, which included new defensive walls for both the city and citadel, and on the citadel itself, four major palaces, three smaller palatial buildings, approximately five temples, a ziggurat or temple tower dedicated to Ninurta (the patron god of the city), and several residential townhouses.

The new city had a population of more than 60,000 people including the temporary workforce. The Northwest Palace was the crowning achievement, occupying approximately six acres of the citadel. It was the largest and most ornamented building in the Assyrian Empire, surpassing anything that yet existed in the entire Near East. The palace consisted of numerous suites of rooms around several open courts. The largest area – the Central Courtyard – could have held 1,000 people. The enclosed interior spaces were mainly rectangular in form; their maximum width determined by the span of the trees used for roof beams, harvested in Lebanon or the mountains to the north. These rooms served various functions, including residential, ceremonial, administrative, and for storage purposes.

The walls of the palace were built of mud-brick and most of the interior walls were adorned with large stone slabs called orthostats, of locally-quarried gypsum, which were exquisitely sculpted in shallow relief and highlighted with applied pigments. The walls above these seven feet tall orthostats were painted, their subject matter like that of the reliefs or consisting of ornamental bands of palmettes, pomegranates and other motifs.

Major gateways were frequently flanked by pairs of colossal stone figures, typically human-headed bulls or lions. See for example the pair of human-headed winged lions, called lamassu, now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The use of orthostats and monumental gateway figures have not been discovered in any Assyrian palace dated prior to the reign of Ashurnasirpal II, and it is thought that the inspiration may have come from structures encountered within the Syro-Hittite world. Many of the gates would have had large double doors of wood reinforced with bronze bands embossed and chased with figural scenes, similar to the examples excavated at Balawat, from the reign of Ashurnasirpal’s successor Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.), now in the British Museum.

The scenes sculpted in relief on the orthostats depict military conquests, religious occasions, royal hunts, and courtly banquets, all with the intention of glorifying the King and generating an overwhelming sense of awe in the visitor. By far the most common subjects are the repeating scenes of a Winged Genius, either human- or eagle-headed, known as an Apkallu, who anoints the sacred tree or the King himself. The Genius was apotropaic in function and created a perpetually-protected space. The frequency in which it appears indicates the high level of superstitious fear that dominated Assyrian religious thought. Cut in a band over most of the orthostats was a cuneiform inscription known as the Standard Inscription, detailing Ashurnasirpal’s lineage, distinguishing his most favoured status amongst the gods, outlining his military accomplishments and describing the construction of the palace.

After Assyria fell in 609 B.C., the palace became overgrown and eventually completely buried, in which state it remained for nearly 2,500 years. The Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal was excavated by Sir Austen Henry Layard between 1845 and 1851, and Sir William Kennett Loftus from 1854. They uncovered many rooms with carved stone reliefs. Many were brought back to the British Museum and other institutions around the world, while only a handful now remain in private collections.

The beautiful relief presented here, depicting a winged Apkallu before the Sacred Tree, was originally positioned in the Eastern suite of the palace in Room I. This area of the palace included two L-shaped rooms (known as rooms I and L), with stone slabs marking the location of bath tubs along the outer wall of the buildings, which may have served for the ritual purification of the king and his weapons.

The reliefs in Room I are placed in two registers, with a single band of inscription between. The upper registers portray Genies kneeling on either side of the sacred trees, as with our example. They each wear a knee-length tunic covered by a robe, likely a fleecy leather garment worn in Mesopotamia from the third millennium B.C., draped over one shoulder. The lower registers depict eagle-headed Genies with the sacred tree. It has been suggested that Room I was one of the first rooms of the Palace to have been decorated and inscribed (for an in-depth discussion, see S.M. Paley, King of the World, Ashur-nasir-pal II of Assyria (883-859 B.C.), New York, 1976, pp. 115-121).

Today, the neighbouring relief, directly to the left of our example, can be found in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum, Mumbai, which houses eight reliefs from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II. They were gifted by Sir Henry Rawlinson, British army officer, diplomat and brilliant academic, to the Governor of Bombay, Sir George Clerk, in 1847, who in turn gifted them to the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1848.

Rawlinson started his diplomatic career in Persia, where he developed a passion for the Elamite and Babylonian cuneiform scripts, which he deciphered. In 1843 he became the British consul at Baghdad and from 1851 he succeeded Henry Austen Layard in the task of obtaining ancient Assyrian sculptures for the British Museum, to which he had already donated his collection of antiquities.

Another part of the panel is now in the British Museum (BM.118921); its date and mode of acquisition are unknown. The fourth part of the panel is still in situ at Nimrud. In view of the history of the Mumbai fragment and the direct connection with Rawlinson, it is likely that our fragment, along with the British Museum relief, were removed from Nimrud at the same time and sent back to the UK soon afterwards.

Other reliefs from this room can be found in museums around the world, including the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (ANE.1.1908 and ANE.2.1908) donated in 1908 by G. E. Wainwright; the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon (Inv. 118) purchased from the dealer Paul Mallon in Paris in 1920; the Museo di Scultura Antica Giovanni Barracco, Rome; the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts (inv. no. 47.181) originally from the Seymour Family in Wiltshire and then donated to the museum in 1947 by Leslie H. Green; the Warsaw Museum Nordowe (acc. no. 199335) acquired in 1878 by Prussian diplomat Wilhelm von Perponcher-Sedlnitzky; and the Royal Ontario Museum (inv. no. 939.11.2).

More from Masterpieces from the Collection of Sam Josefowitz: A Lifetime of Discovery and Scholarship

View All
View All