Visual formula and meaning in Neo-Assyrian relief sculpture.

Author:Atac, Mehmet-Ali

Palace reliefs of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (883-612 BCE) have a long-acknowledged content of a "historical" or "historicizing" character, especially visible in many scenes of battles and sieges. They are, however, also characterized by a distinctive manner of formulaic representation focusing especially on the ruler figure and his associates. (1) Chains of visual formulas sometimes run through entire series of panels, as is the case in Room G of the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE) in Nimrud (Fig. 1). Sometimes such formulas appear individually and discretely, tucked in scenes that otherwise have a "narrative" or "historicizing" character, such as the scene of "encounter" between the enthroned Sennacherib (704-681 BCE) and a royal associate wearing a headband in the panoramic relief series of Sennacherib's Southwest Palace in Nineveh depicting the historically identifiable siege of the Judean city of Lachish. (2) Such visual formulas in Assyrian reliefs have a distinct semantic capacity and their deployment is a conscious and well-calculated device on the part of the designers of relief programs to create a visual language of a "hieratic" character.

This hieratic visual language seems to pertain to fundamental philosophical and religious notions that permeated Assyrian kingship and theocracy, many aspects of which are still relatively obscure to us. (3) Even though a definitive interpretation of these visual configurations may not be possible, their consistent and almost mathematically thought-out design, treatment, and occurrence in the reliefs should be taken as indications that what one faces here is a special system of visual denotation and connotation, not unlike the ancient Egyptian visual formulas such as the sema tawy, "union," which refers to the unification of the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt, or the Egyptian king smiting captured enemies with a mace (Figs. 2, 3). These 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.

One could think that Neo-Assyrian art has a semiotic dimension analogous to the aforementioned Egyptian formulas, an understanding of which need not be contingent on explicit textual parallels found either inscribed on the reliefs themselves or in other contemporary literary or "historical" sources. This semiotic element has autonomous dimensions, as it were, which render Assyrian visual culture a mode of signification or communication almost independent from writing and texts.

Learning from Egypt

In the studies of both ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art, mention is often made of a semantic and functional relation between art and writing in dealing with the formative periods of the visual cultures of the two geographic areas, both of which can roughly be dated about 3000 BCE. (4) The combination, or coextensiveness, of art and writing in the earliest phases of ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian art is a complex topic, a full treatment of which would go beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, one aspect of this phenomenon is extremely relevant to my inquiry: in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, elements of visual representation of the emblematic type referred to above appear on elite art objects far earlier than actual mature writing or script enters the artistic and intellectual sphere. (5) In the absence of continuous texts or written literature, these earliest formulaic images may be thought to have addressed and recorded certain fundamental philosophical and religious concepts that could not otherwise have been recorded in any permanent format. (6) It is precisely this quality or potency of emblematic or formulaic representation that constitutes the bedrock for the kind of "scriptual" or "semiotic" element examined here in relation to the art of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

I should also like to stress that this formulaic representation has nothing directly to do with text-image problems, and that this examination makes no attempt to "read" art as if it were a text. It should also be noted that, throughout this study, I use the term semiotic in a rather literal, if not pedestrian, sense, in reference to its derivation from the Greek word sema, sign, rather than to any branch of contemporary philosophical inquiry or linguistic analogy, for it is in relation to an embedded visual sign system that I intend to approach the art of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It is my argument that the emblematic or semiotic element that characterizes the formative phases of both ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art never disappears from their respective visual records. Even in the presence and availability of writing, texts, and literature, this semiotic continues to function in such a unique way that what it achieves could by no means be replaced or paralleled by texts themselves. In this respect, it represents a continuum, or a "tradition," as it were, that was shared by Egypt and Mesopotamia throughout their history, notwithstanding the many centuries of political, cultural, and stylistic fluctuations.

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 in the following pages. (7) Analogous elements embedded in certain Neo-Assyrian representations, however, are more subtly and elusively deployed. In turn, certain glosses and interpretations obtained from a study of Neo-Assyrian visual formulas from this perspective may be of use in easing the sometimes almost opaque and frozen perceptions we might have of Egyptian visual formulas, opening it up to possible underlying meaning.

The rationale for such a comparative approach was elucidated by Irene Winter in an essay treating an ancient Mesopotamian case along with a living tradition of image worship in India:


Support for such an enterprise cannot be gathered from any premise of continuity, which would require the demonstration of either historical contact or some type of contextual similarity (e.g., environmental). Instead, one must have recourse to an argument based upon the demonstration of systemic parallels between the two members of the comparison. Only following upon such a demonstration can one then proceed to an analysis, not assumption, of the possibility that particular aspects of the societies under discussion may be indeed analogous and/or that known aspects of practice/behavior/belief in one tradition are such as to suggest that, in the absence of data from the other, the former may serve by analogy to explain or amplify understanding in the latter. (8) Mesopotamia and Egypt, to a certain extent, seem to conform to the two parameters for the "premise of continuity" cited above--"historical contact" and "some type of contextual similarity (e.g., environmental)." (9) It is also the case that many of the Egyptian visual formulas addressed below are much earlier in origin and development than any of the Neo-Assyrian examples under consideration. However, the overall figural and morphological qualities of each group of examples are so different from one another that the analogies pursued below hardly go beyond the structural, conceptual, or, to borrow Winter's term, "systemic." Rather than an instance of historical transmission, what we may be seeing here is a deeply ingrained, and perhaps somewhat unique, shared mentality in certain fundamental matters between Egypt and Mesopotamia that manifests itself in domains outside artistic production as well. For instance, in both Egypt and Mesopotamia, sculptural images were subject to the so-called "opening of the mouth" ceremony in order to bring them ritually to life. Further, in the mythology of each culture the sun god travels at night in the netherworld. (10) In other words, matters here are perhaps more complex than either comparing two distant entities in a framework such as delineated and defended by Winter in the quote above or tracing transmission of motifs and ideas from one culture to the other. (11)

This rather complex dynamic, I believe, makes comparing Egypt and Assyria at once challenging and rewarding in that, on the one hand, there seems to be in this relation a rather elusive bond, one that defies any straightforward theory of transmission, while on the other hand, the parameters of inquiry seem to conform to the bases on which a comparison of the two systems may be justified as a methodological tool, as already put forward in the passage by Winter quoted above. Finally, to Winter's parameters, I would add one other: that even if there may be no absence of data or lack of understanding in either of the counterparts of a comparison, one may still be justified in going ahead with a comparison for an enhanced affirmation of the relevant arguments and interpretations proposed in a particular scholarly framework.

Looking at the changing facets of the use of visual formulas, both in iconography and in palace design, as taken up and exploited by the designers of different kings ranging from Ashurnasirpal II to Ashurbanipal (668-631 BCE), leads to the idea that the art of Ashurnasirpal II represents the most densely and emphatically formulaic phase of Neo-Assyrian art (Fig. 1). With the transfer of the imperial Assyrian capital from Assur to Nimrud (Fig. 4), (12) the creators of this relief program must have intended to invent a visual vocabulary that would have not only superseded the developments of the Middle Assyrian period (ca. 1350-1000 BCE) but also formed a unique synthesis of art and erudition, worthy of a new page in the history of the Assyrian state. This unique synthesis...

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