On 10 December 2019, the first exhibition on the art of ancient Assyria ever held in Russia opens in the Manege of the Small Hermitage at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. ‘I founded therein my royal palace’: Assyrian Art from the British Museum is organized by the State Hermitage and the British Museum which has one of the best collections of Assyrian art anywhere in the world.
Since December 14 until December 28, 2019 and since January 2 until 29 March, 2020 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays you can visit temporary exhibition in the evenings (18:15–21:00). Tickets are available in the ticket office of the Small Hermitage (18:00–20:00) on the day of the visit. Admission price is 300 RUB (no benefits).
Assyrian power was the dominant political force from the 9 th to the 7th centuries BC. Assyria - a state in the north of modern-day Iraq - was at the heart of that power but the Assyrian kings conquered many territories in modern-day Syria and Turkey, as well as Babylon, located to the south of Assyria, part of Egypt, and lands stretching to the western border of modern Iran. Each Assyrian king sought to crown military victories with the construction of his own palace.
The art of Assyria is known largely thanks to these royal palaces. Built of bricks made of unburnt clay, the only available building material in Assyria, the walls of the palaces were built to a height of up to twenty meters and covered with stone reliefs. The palaces collapsed shortly after the fall of Assyria at the end of the 7th century BC turning into huge shapeless hills; only the lower parts of the walls supported by reliefs were preserved. They were discovered by European archaeologists in the 1840s.
The main theme of the reliefs was the glorification of the king: the king in battle, hunting wild animals, celebrating a victory or performing a ritual worshiping the gods. There were also reliefs of a different kind depicting narratives through pictures; one shows Assyrian soldiers besieging an enemy city while a soldier cuts the chain with which the inhabitants of the besieged city are trying to draw water. Then arrows are shown flying at the Assyrians from the city walls, from which they are trying to hide behind their shields. The Assyrians are then chasing the Arabs, riding on long-necked graceful camels, before the king Ashurbanipal takes spoils, including severed human heads, after the capture of Babylon. Hunting dogs are then shown fighting against their leashes as they cannot wait to join the royal hunt.
The charm of Assyrian reliefs lies in the careful storytelling which often includes even the smallest details of everyday life: fish and crayfish swimming in river waters or in swamps surrounded by dense reed thickets; a lioness stalking a mountain goat; prisoners carrying bags with belongings on their shoulders; children sitting on the shoulders of their parents. More delicate objects that have not been preserved to this day, like horse harnesses, robes and furniture, can be reconstructed from the images on the reliefs.
The purpose of the reliefs was to capture the deeds of the king before the gods, and to glorify them to his subjects and to ambassadors of foreign powers. A form of ancient media and propaganda, they would demonstrate to every visitor to the palace the power and greatness of the king, his exploits and achievements, and his efforts to maintain harmony and order in the world. Unknown ancient artists managed to create extraordinary carved stone wall panels that are among the greatest works of art in the history of human civilization.
The exhibition features monuments from some of the most famous palaces of the Assyrian kings including those of Ashurbanipal, the reliefs from which are considered the pinnacle of Assyrian art, and Ashurnasirpal II, reliefs from which can also be found in the Hermitage collection; a line from his royal inscription gives this exhibition its name.
The exhibition also includes objects of art discovered during excavations of the palaces of the Assyrian kings, including the famous ivory plaques that decorated luxurious palace furniture and horse harnesses.
A separate section is dedicated to the renowned library of King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, while the final theme of the exhibition explores the story of the discovery of the Assyrian civilization by Europeans in the middle of the 19th century.
An illustrated catalogue is being prepared for publication (St. Petersburg: State Hermitage Publishing House, 2019). The authors are researchers at the British Museum.