Neo-Assyrian Art: Reaction to Ramesside Egypt

Marian Feldman posits that in the time of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, "Assyrian royal ideology, as expressed in art, developed in part out of an awareness of and reaction to the great imperial power of New Kingdom Egypt, in particular that of the Ramesside period of the thirteenth and early twelfth centuries" (Feldman 141).  

Feldman examines two examples: the rock relief at Nahr el-Kelb in Lebanon (from Esarhaddon's reign) and Ashurbanipal's relief in the Southwest Palace at Nineveh (depicting the battle of Til-Tuba). 

The depiction of the battle of Til-Tuba is an example discussed by "several scholars," as Feldman points out, who have "remarked upon the similarities of the composition to Egyptian Ramesside battle reliefs" (Feldman 144). One such similarity must have been the "use of topographically rendered spaces in which the historical narrative unfolds along complex compositional lines" (Feldman 145 - see footnote 1).

Other scholars have noted this similarity, if not relationship, between Assyrian and Egyptian reliefs during the same time period. I particularly enjoy Mehmet-Ali Ataç's explanation of Neo-Assyrian art as having a "semiotic dimension analogous to the aforementioned Egyptian formulas": the designs have a "standardized emblematic quality that takes them out of the ordinary realm of pictorial representation, placing them in a timeless rhetoric of hieratic or cosmic character" (Ataç 69). 

Ataç also mentions at least a similarity (if not a relationship) between Neo-Assyrian and Egyptian art - "the kind of semiotic that exists in the Neo-Assyrian visual record examined here is in fact more immediately visible in ancient Egyptian art, partly on account of the more blatantly juxtaposed elements of ancient Egyptian visual language, such as the royal crowns, floral elements, and insignia held by the king, as will be seen in the comparison with Assyrian examples… Analogous elements embedded in certain Neo-Assyrian representations, however, are more subtly and elusively deployed" (Ataç 69). 

One of Ataç's examples is a composite headdress worn by the king in the relief panels D 2-3, Courtyard D of the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud. "This composite headdress could be seen as a conceptual equivalent of the Egyptian double crown," says Ataç, "with both the miter and fillet" (Ataç 76). 

The stela of Esarhaddon is also one of Ataç's examples. "This monument," says Ataç, "presents a perfect example of how the Neo-Assyrian artist deployed visual formulas to achieve a hieratic statement in addition to a visual supplement to a historical record. From this standpoint, it is once again fair to compare the composition of the stela of Esarhaddon to ancient Egyptian smiting scenes or, especially, union designs, which depict acts frozen in cosmic time rather than specific historical events" (Ataç 78). 

It should be noted that Feldman also uses the example of an Esarhaddon rock relief, which is placed directly next to an Egyptian relief. She says this placement "cannot be coincidental. In fact, the siting must have carried extra significance since the relief's inscription records Esarhaddon's successful entrance into Memphis, the first time that an Assyrian ruler had campaigned in Egypt proper rather than in Egyptian vassal or allied kingdoms" (Feldman 142). Feldman makes a strong case for not only the similarity of Assyrian and Egyptian reliefs, but also for Assyrian art as reactionary. 

Footnote 1: Feldman says: "The striking innovation of the Ramesside rulers was the extensive and detailed representational mode that William Stevenson Smith describes as 'historical-narrative elements treated topographically'" (Feldman 145, quoting Smith 176).

Smith, William Stevenson, 1965, Interconnections in the Ancient Near East. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Feldman, Marian, 2004, "Nineveh to Thebes and Back: Art and Politics between Assyria and Egypt in the Seventh Century BCE", Iraq, Vol. 66, Nineveh. British Institute for the Study of Iraq.

Ataç, Mehmet-Ali, 2006, "Visual Formula and Meaning in Neo-Assyrian Relief Sculpture," The Art Bulletin, Vol. 88, No. 1. College Art Association. 


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