Compare and Contrast the Assyrian Lamassu With the Sphynx of Hatshepsut Term Paper

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Sphinx, Lamassu

Monumental and Mythological:

Assyrian and Egyptian Statuary

The great artistic traditions of the ancient world are often discussed in isolation. However, artifacts from Egypt, Assyria, and other early imperial cultures reveal symbolic and technical commonalities as well as discontinuities. While it would be naive to posit a unified artistic vocabulary stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates and beyond, monumental art from Egypt (for example, the New Kingdom sphinx of Hatshepsut) can still reveal some overlooked nuances of its Mesopotamian counterparts (for example, the "lamassu" excavated from Nimrud).

As is usual with objects of this age, the identity of the craftsmen who sculpted both of these sculptures has been lost to history, and indeed may never have been recorded; ancient work is rarely "signed" in anything approaching the modern sense. The sphinx in question dates from the Egyptian New Kingdom and specifically from the reign of Queen Hatshepsut (1479-58 BC), who likely commissioned it to guard the route to her funerary temple. Carved from seven tons of red granite, it is conventionally interpreted as representing the queen herself as a lion-bodied creature with androgynous features. The so-called "lamassu" of Nimrud (actually one of a pair), dates from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883 -- 859 BC) of Assyria and reflects what is sometimes referred to as a "Neo-Assyrian" style. It was carved from fine-grained gypsum and also depicts a mythological hybrid creature with a human head, a lion's body, and the wings of a great bird of prey. (Unless otherwise noted, all details on the format, provenance, and original setting of both works are taken from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's catalog entries, as are general impressions of each figure's subject matter.)

In terms of style, both figures are obviously monumental in scale. The sphinx is 343 cm long and 164 cm tall -- substantially larger than real lions -- and the lamassu is 313 cm tall and roughly the same length, having been conceived as a squared-off lintel support. However, because each work is carved from a different type of stone, their surface treatments vary significantly. Granite is a very hard, somewhat course-grained material that is more often used as a construction material; as such, the sphinx necessarily remaining somewhat abstract in form and texture while expressing the craftsman's naturalistic impulse and awareness of a lion's bodily contours. There is evidence that pigment was used to accentuate the otherwise smooth surfaces, especially where the lion's sleek flanks were concerned. By contrast, the relatively soft nature of gypsum lends itself to the intricate fine detail carving that adorns the lamassu's hair, beard, wings, and furry chest. Although this highly stylized work presents an almost overwhelming effect when viewed closely, it is best appreciated in something like its original architectural context, wherein it resolves into a surprisingly compellingly realistic illusionism.

Despite these divergent approaches to surface ornamentation, both works reveal their respective craftsmen's interest in a realistic treatment of their subjects' human characteristics. The sphinx is generally considered to be an accurate sculptural likeness of Hatshepsut, with a visage that not only intimates regal serenity in its own right but also participates in the already age-old tradition of Egyptian royal representation, in which realistic portraiture and religio-political ideal fuse (Russman, Garnet & James 38). Furthermore, while the underlying characteristics of the stone may have undermined any attempt to provide a naturalistic surface treatment, the sculptor clearly took special care to create visual interest around the royal visage by framing it against a vibrant pattern of banded volumes of higher and lower relief. Likewise, while the lamassu is not usually believed to represent any individual in particular (royal or otherwise), its execution concentrates attention on the human face -- a striking and uncanny element on both lion-bodied figures -- and may make it a royal portrait as well. The sculptor, working in a distinctive form of the "Neo-Assyrian" bas-relief style, lavishes additional naturalistic (as opposed to stylized) detail on that aspect of the composition, and by brilliantly employing a more high-relief style to the planes of the face. (Compare the relatively vague treatment of the creature's flank to the expressive shadows of the its eyes, much less its elegantly realized ear complete with earring.)

The sphinx explicitly looks back to its antecedents in Egypt's Old Kingdom, with its smooth granite construction, pleasing semi-abstract composition, and balanced pose -- not to mention the use of the lion-hybrid or "sphinx" form as royal subject. Even the treatment of the nemes head covering reminds the educated viewre of the sphinx at Giza and similarly ancient essays on the theme. As is usual with the exquisitely "conservative" Egyptian production (Lucie-Smith 36), continuity with earlier canons is emphasized, making the truly innovative iconographic details of a given piece like this one even more noteworthy. However, while the lamassu looks back to earlier Mesopotamian sculpture with the conventional Babylonian "high relief" or undercut sculptural approach to the body (Marquand and Frothingham 42-3), the treatment of the head is distinctive in that the artist frees it almost entirely from the purely architectural plane. The noteworthy "five-legged" design plays into this transitional sculptural aesthetic by presenting an almost proto-cubist effect: seen from various direct angles, the figure appears to present various poses and thus the illusion of animation. Given contemporary inscriptions (Russell 27), both the subject matter and material may have also been innovative or at least noteworthy; while various lion-hawk-human hybrids are well-known in local iconography, this particular iteration may be one of the earliest occurrences of this particular configuration functioning as palace guardian. Some sources (Madhloom 101) explicitly consider Ashurnasirpal II the first to adopt the trope from Syrian models.)

Discussion of the similarities and differences between these figures is especially apt given their shared function as monumental pieces. Both were used to encourage a sense of religious or royal awe (or both) as the viewer approached a privileged site: the temple/tomb complex of Hatshepsut in death or the palace Ashurnasirpal II in life. As such, the figures may have had subsidiary ritual purposes, but were almost certainly not the focal point of specialized religious interest in their own right. Instead, each was created to guide the onlooker into the space where the more central activities of court or cult were carried out. (Significantly, neither was unique in its original setting, but existed as one of either a matched pair or a series. In the sphinx's case in particular, this series of duplicates likely fed a sense of ritual progress as well as serving the more prosaic function of showing pilgrims where to go.)

Because these figures were not central to cult iconography, their specific symbolic import is somewhat diffuse. Nonetheless, each draws heavily on local mythology by portraying a hybrid creature whose form is fantastic, but familiar to its original audience. Since the Old Kingdom, royalty had been portrayed with leonine physiognomy, nominally as a tribute to the lion- and avenger-goddess Sekhmet (Thomas 75), and the Sekhmet connection indicates that these may have been guardian figures as well as mere entrance decor (Kaper 124). Likewise, while Mesopotamian art is punctuated with supernatural hybrids, the "lamassu" as a specific type appears to be specifically associated with domestic guardianship in Babylonian culture (Morgenstern and Tice 25) and only becomes part of royal iconography in the Nimrud complex.

As hybrids, both of these artifacts also serve as threshold objects that sometimes radically juxtapose symbolic elements drawn from different spheres. Both treat the human aspect of the composition with noticeably greater interest than the animal components: In both cases, the face and head are sculpted with extraordinary care, while the leonine hindquarters are simply rounded off with a few polished gestures. This may point to some humanistic or spiritual aspiration; it may also simply reflect a desire to achieve a recognizable portrait of a patron -- the queen or, in the case of the lamassu, a generic royal visage if not that of the king himself. While Egyptian sphinxes were explicitly personal representations, it is possible that the lamassu likewise depicts Ashurnasirpal II given contemporary statuary likenesses (British Museum).

In cultural context, both works also serve to commemorate (and thus consolidate) royal prestige following a period of imperial fragmentation and decadence. Hatshepsut was one of the first New Kingdom rulers and the first woman to rule alone; as such, while her reign was prosperous and artistically brilliant, it was also on somewhat uncertain ceremonial grounds. Figures like this demonstrate her efforts to promote her own legitimacy within the conservative Egyptian tradition, as well as the androgynous persona (with full beard) that her negotiation with that tradition entailed. She ruled as "king," and her funerary regalia reflect this. Likewise, Ashurnasirpal II presided over the renovation of Assyrian power and cultural confidence after centuries of relative obscurity. His conquests both enlarged the scope of Assyrian prestige and exposed the court to foreign artistic influences in Syria and elsewhere. While Ashurnasirpal II's monumental building program indicates that he, too, was interested in… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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