Assyrian Art and Architecture
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0093
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0093
Ancient Assyrian art and architecture has been the subject of scholarly interest, analysis, and debate since the mid-19th century when archaeological excavations began to reveal physical evidence of this ancient culture. Initially viewed as historical sources for illuminating the world of the Hebrew Bible, late-20th- and early-21st-century work has utilized current art historical theory to explore multiple levels of meaning expressed in the layout of ancient buildings, as well as through the form of objects and their associated visual imagery. It is clear that Assyrian art and architecture is inseparable from ancient Mesopotamian studies in general. Both the cultural background of earlier periods in northern Mesopotamia and the parallel history of Assyria’s southern and western neighbors, Babylonia and Syria, are intimately linked and highly relevant to Assyrian cultural practices of all kinds. The Oxford Bibliographies article “Babylonian Art and Architecture” is essential reading for introducing the broader study of ancient Mesopotamian visual culture, as well as the fields of archaeology and ancient history that an understanding of Assyrian art and architecture depends on. “Assyrian” here denotes northern Iraq in the period, extending from the 14th to the 7th century BCE, during which the cities of Ashur (alternate spelling: Assur), Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), Khorsabad (ancient Dur-Sharrukin), and Nineveh were the successive political capitals of the region. The nature and extent of Assyrian culture and its influence beyond the Assyrian heartland, especially during the period c. 900–610 BCE when Assyria came to dominate the entirety of Southwest Asia, the region still widely referred to by European and American scholars as the ancient Near East (also ancient Middle East), is a matter of continuing investigation. The entire period is literate, and detailed historical information is available.
Assyrian Art and Society
The study of ancient Assyrian visual culture depends on an understanding of the fields of archaeology and ancient history, and requires an introduction to social, cultural, and material contexts different from modern comparators. As well as general surveys of the imagery and media seen in Mesopotamian art, therefore, this section suggests critical readings that go beyond our contemporary systems of visual interpretation to investigate how Assyrian images were understood to function in their ancient contexts. A useful starting point is Bahrani 2017, the most recent survey of Mesopotamian art. Other useful surveys, if now somewhat dated, are Frankfort 1996, an updated version of the author’s original 1954 publication; Moortgat 1969; and Parrot 1961. Aruz, et al. 2014 provides a modern review of key artefacts and situates Assyrian art in the context of its more western neighbors. A significant development in the interpretation of ancient Mesopotamian art is reflected in the work of Bahrani 2003, which applies 21st-century theory to the imagery.
Aruz, Joan, Sarah B. Graff, and Yelena Rakic, eds. Assyria to Iberia: At the Dawn of the Classical Age. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014.
Published in collaboration with Yale University Press, a catalogue of an exhibition that surveys the art of the 1st millennium BCE, focusing on the interaction between societies. Places Assyria in the context of neighboring cultures, especially with those of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, with essays on the history and art of the period.
Bahrani, Zainab. The Graven Image: Representation in Babylon and Assyria. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Innovative, theoretically informed study of representation in ancient Mesopotamian art. Considers the functions and meanings of images in society, their production, and magical and religious roles. Particularly important for its discussion of ancient Mesopotamian concepts of the image as an active participant in the world, and the perceived supernatural powers and properties of representations.
Bahrani, Zainab. Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 2017.
Essential introduction to the visual and material cultures of the entire ancient Mesopotamian period, covering art and architecture from Iraq, northeast Syria, and southeast Turkey from 8000 BCE to 636 CE. This work is particularly compelling in its presentation of the historical development of Mesopotamian art alongside critically informed and contextualized interpretations of the visual imagery and buildings.
Brereton, Gareth, ed. I Am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria. London: Thames and Hudson, 2018.
Exhibition book for the 2018 British Museum exhibition of the same name. Essays cover various topics relating to Assyrian art and society during the reign of Ashurbanipal, from the material remains of his capital at Nineveh to the empire and its inner workings more broadly.
Frankfort, Henri. The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient. 5th ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.
Influential survey of ancient Near Eastern art and architecture. Compartmentalized approach with Mesopotamia at the center and therefore dated in its approach but nonetheless remains essential reading in its revised edition.
Groenewegen-Frankfort, H. Arrest and Movement: An Essay on Space and Time in the Representational Art of the Ancient Near East. London: Faber & Faber, 1951.
For its time, this was a groundbreaking examination of the formal representation of space and time in the art of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Crete. Interprets the art’s significance as an issue of cultural rather than aesthetic necessity.
Groß, Melanie, and David Kertai. “Becoming Empire: Neo-Assyrian Palaces and the Creation of Courtly Culture.” Journal of Ancient History 7 (2019): 1–31.
Relates the architectural layouts of Assyrian royal palaces to the functions of the royal courts that inhabited them, especially in terms of how spatial organization helped regulate access to the king.
Moortgat, Anton. The Art of Mesopotamia: The Classical Art of the Near East. London and New York: Phaidon, 1969.
First published as Die Kunst des alten Mesopotamien: Die klassische Kunst Vorderasiens. Translated from the German by Judith Filson. A broad survey of Mesopotamian art with some interesting coverage of the Middle Assyrian material rarely included in comparable studies.
Parrot, André. Nineveh and Babylon: The Arts of Mankind. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961.
The partner volume to Babylonian Art and Architecture: Sumer: The Dawn of Art (1960), this book captures the full sweep of Assyrian art from the 13th to 7th century BCE, as well as the later Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid periods. Especially useful for color reproductions of the wall paintings from the Assyrian provincial center of Til Barsip (see Thureau-Dangin and Dunand 1936, cited under Palace and Temple Architecture).
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