Guardian Figure, 883–859 BC
Assyrian
Gypsum
relief: 42 1/8 × 26 × 1 1/2 inches (107 × 66 × 3.8 cm) width of stone and attached backing material: 2 5/8 inches (6.7 cm) 130 lbs.
Museum purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Eagle-Headed Winged Deity

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

GRADE LEVEL

6

SUBJECT AREA

Science

Social Studies

HABITS OF MIND

Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

Although the individual names of the creators of Assyrian sculptures are unknown, the hallmark attention to detail and narrative quality of their works identify them as Assyrians. Assyrian artists were especially skilled at sculpting continuous narrative scenes across stone surfaces to depict images of royal campaigns, sieges, conquests, successful hunts, and important rituals.

The Assyrians represent the first Mesopotamian culture to employ the use of large-scale narrative and secular imagery in their sculptural work. This panel of an eagle-headed and winged deity depicts a mythological figure from the Assyrian pantheon that was often associated with rites of purification and with fructifying the palm tree (the act of providing the tree with fruit). This deity was considered a protector of rulers and crops. Its body is human-like, with powerful, muscular arms and legs. He wears a fringed robe and, as in this panel, is usually depicted carrying a “magic” cone from a sacred tree and a small bucket. Images of this deity were often displayed behind or beside the king’s throne, in royal bedrooms, and at gateways to the palace, and were typically painted to give them a heightened effect.

 

The majority of Assyrian sculptures were carved in bas-relief, in which the projection from the surrounding surface is slight. Although scenes of the monarch in battle or hunting exhibit a strong sense of naturalism and fluidity, imagery of deities was consistently rendered in a static frontal profile, reminiscent of figural representation in Egyptian art. On this panel, the deity’s shoulders appear slightly turned toward the front, but the head and legs are shown in profile. Another similarity in style to Egyptian art is the depiction of figures with one foot in front of the other. Scholars believe that the Assyrians and Egyptians were well known to each other. Assyrian sculptures also contain written cuneiform, a system of wedge-shaped characters learned from the Sumerians, who were probably among the first cultures to use writing as a communicative tool. The inscription at the top of this relief represents a phrase common in Assyrian works that refers to the glory of the king.

 

The Eagle-Headed Winged Deity from Kalhu (modern day Nimrud), that had replaced Nineveh as the Assyrian capital, was excavated from the Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 B.C.), by Sir Henry Layard during the mid-19th century. During the 13th century B.C, the Assyrians won control of Mesopotamia, which lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern day Iraq). In the subsequent centuries the Aramaeans, who occupied Syria and parts of the upper Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, were considered the Assyrians’ foremost rival. Under the rule of King Ashurnasirpal II and his successor, Shalmaneser III (859–824 B.C.), the Assyrians conquered Bit-Adini, then considered the most powerful Aramaean state along the upper Euphrates. By the 7th century B.C, Assyria had also conquered Babylon, now known as Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, as well as parts of Egypt.

Conversation Starters

Observe

  • Describe what is happening in this image. What is the central figure? What are they doing?
  • Describe the central figure closely. What are its garments like? How did the artist depict its body? Are the animal and human parts in proportion?
  • Describe the space and composition. What is the most important part of this image? Where is the figure standing, or what is it standing near? Do you think that this is the whole picture, or are we missing some information?

Interpret

  • The central figure is an ancient Assyrian deity, a god who protected rulers and crops. What kind of power does a deity like that need? Do you see power depicted in this image?
  • Look at the rightmost edge of the tablet: part of the image has been cut off. This is a fragment of a larger work. What kind of object do you think it was, based on the size and material?
  • Why would you want to make images of a powerful deity? Where would you want to keep images of this deity, which protected rulers and ensured that there was plentiful food?

Assessment

• This relief sculpture is carved on gypsum. Study the properties of this mineral rock to determine the types of tools needed to sculpt it. Was this a type of mineral commonly found in ancient Mesopotamia? Study other common geological resources of this area. What other types of stone surfaces might have been used for sculpture?

• This object is just a fragment of a larger work. Consider the function and purpose of this work and create your own half-human, half-animal creature and place it in a scene that tells a story. Be sure to use symbols and pattern in your design, and remember, this example was originally painted, so paint yours also.


The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.