A Genius

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A Genius

        The Ancient Near-Eastern period of our history marks a very large fundamental change in the way human culture has evolved. At that time, growth of its people and cities had definite improvement on urban society, which has continued to prevail through the years as a major influence over our evolvement. The Artwork found from that period directly reflects that change and evolvement. Better soil, water accessibility, and easier means of trade with other civilizations provided the fabric for this new change. Pieces uncovered by archeologists such as wall reliefs, vases, coins, statues, and jewelry, really show a sophisticated society unlike any seen before its time. One can only imagine what type of people flourished in ancient Mesopotamia, also known as the "Fertile Crescent". Through its villages and cities the Ancient Near Eastern people began to colonize and thus spark the first system of hierarchy. Priests and kings held the rite to the land and the people worshiped them as divine. Palaces in this time of government were adorned with great splendor. Grandiose statues and intricate wall reliefs gave them life. One piece in particular shows Assyria's vision of worship and hierarchy. "Relief Showing the Head of a Winged Genius" visually depicts the role of worship and deity among this ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

        Artwork from any era directly mimics the civilization from where it came. This particular piece with its strong emphasis on line and shape lends itself to an overwhelming sense of stylization and sophistication. Though stylized, Relief Showing the Head of a Winged Genius is also very naturalistic. Dated 883 "“ 859 BCE., this piece tells a much greater story than its limited visual subject matter would lead its viewer to believe. In it's roughly, 2ft. by 2ft. frame, the dense-looking gypsum gives a candid view of this winged genius, thought to be some sort of god or higher power. Facial expressions are limited to his profile. Serenity in the genius's face shows a very friendly disposition while his large eyes with thick, content, eyebrows give him a wisdom that seems all-powerful. The genius's long beard, with intricate stylized curls, also reinforces the attribute of wisdom. The hint of wings, that can almost be mistaken for hair, and his headdress put to rest any doubts that he should be equal to a regular man. Originally, this relief was a part of something much larger. The full-sized genius roughly seven to nine feet in height once graced the walls from the northwest palace of King Ashurnasirpal II, "the first truly illustrious ruler of newly arisen Assyria" (Kramer 57). One of many that lined the walls of the king's northwest palace; the full relief shows the genius in some sort of ritual regarding magic or purification. Cropped out of this relief, the genius's right hand holds a pinecone an age-old symbol meant to provide magical protection, and in the left, a bucket, which is thought to hold some kind of holy water or anointing liquid. The overall stature the winged genius displays is one of immense power. In her book "Art Through the Ages", Louise Gardner best describes Assyrian convention of human and god-like representation. " The human body is represented as thickset and weighty and the limbs are portrayed bulging with muscle. The calf and the forearm muscles are exaggerated, and the veins are like cables "“ an example of realistic observation converted to a kind of symbol of brute human strength" (62). Is it this brute strength that King Ashurnasirpal II is really trying to represent? This relief, and others similar to it found engaged to the northwest palace walls, definitely lend themselves to that aspect. Not unlike any other king or ruler in past history, King Ashurnasirpal II follows the convention "bigger is better". Upon portraying himself and his kingdom, artistic representation was viewed with great awe and power due to these over-exaggerated styles.

        Due to the overwhelming evolution that the Ancient Near-Eastern people progressed by, palaces like King Ashurnasirpal II's were not a new idea. This period in our history was a time of great tribulation. "The Mesopotamian plain was characterized by a continuous struggle for supremacy between two centers of power: the Babylonian kingdom, in the south, and the Assyrian Kingdom (Ashurnasirpal II's), in the north" (Burenhult 37). Palaces of kings were adorned with unparalleled architecture and scale. Representation of themselves, their kingdoms, and their gods were without limitation. Kings from that time, showed competition through the size and overall stature of their palaces. They had to compete in order to set their kingdoms apart from the rest, and the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II was a spectacular example of architecture and achievement. The king's reign, from 883 "“ 859 BCE, was actually a very bloody one. Before his time though, Assyria had been experiencing a decline in power under the rule of Tiglat Pilesar I, Assyria's first true emperor. "It was not until the beginning of eighth century BCE. that Assyria, under the ruthless king Ashurnasirpal II regained its powerful position" (Burenhult 37). Being a ruthless leader it seems, was something that King Ashurnasirpal II practiced with great hostility. "Most of Ashurnasirpal's campaigns were more in the nature of forays in search of plunder, but he succeeded in making Assyria a name that struck panic into the hearts of its neighbors" (Kramer 58). Towards his enemies, the King was heartless. He was a leader whose conquering ways were considerably cruel. "On an inscription, for example, the king reports, with some degree of professional pride: "Many of the captives taken I burned in a fire. Many I took alive; from some I cut of their hands to the wrist, from others I cut off their noses, ears and fingers; I put out the eyes of many of the soldiers. I burnt their young and women to death"," (Papanek 97). This behavior towards outsiders was feared whenever possible, but inside, the palace and King Ashurnasirpal II's people seem very well cared for. Inscriptions of good deeds lined the north palace walls and reflected the king's appreciation for his people and his people. In Samuel Noah Kramer's book "The Cradle of Civilization", a translated inscription from inside the north palace directly reflects the king's spoils. "A palace of cedar, cypress, juniper, boxwood, mulberry, pistachio-wood, and tamarisk, for my royal dwelling and for my lordly pleasure for all time I founded therein. Beasts of the mountains and of the seas of white limestone and alabaster I fashioned, and set them up in gates. I made it suitable, I made it glorious" (58). Another inscription describes an immense banquet where King Ashurnasirpal II celebrates his completion of his royal palace. "For ten days 69,574 guests from his new capital and from all corners of his realm feasted on 2,200 oxen and 16,000 sheep, as well as large and small birds , gazelles, fish, eggs and huge quantities of wine and beer. Can a leader with this much heart really be so cold towards his adversaries? His Hostility and cruelty on the battlefield definitely makes it an option. Combining the abilities of strategic warfare and successful leadership made King Ashurnasirpal II such a great King, and of course a king of such status can only have gods and genius's lining his palaces walls.

        Head of a Winged Genius exemplifies the convention that objects representing deity and worship should be depicted as beautiful as well as powerful; Beauty through adornment and splendor, power through wisdom and strength. Assyrian's viewing this piece were given an idea of what gods and deities ruled over them, and gave them examples of how to live and worship. This type of representation of power and wisdom is very interesting considering the attributes given to the genius to achieve this knowledge and strength; Jewelry, a distinguishing beard, and hair; A large headdress with three protruding horns; Broad shoulders with wings attached. Today all it takes is a subtle something like eyeglasses or a certain disposition to produce the same effect. This piece really pulls its viewer in making them evaluate the difference between life then and life now, as should all ancient artifacts should.

Works Cited

Burenhault, Goran (General Editor). Old World Civilizations. New York, NY.: Harper San Francisco, 1994.

Gardner, Louise. Art Through the Ages. Orlando, FL.: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1991.

Honour, Hugh & Fleming, John. The Visual Arts: A History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1992.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. Cradle of Civilization. New York, NY.: Time Inc., 1967.

Papanek, John L. Lost Mesopotamia: the Mighty Kings. Alexandria, VA.: Time-Life Inc., 1995.
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