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 vanished civilization. Initially viewed as historical documents for illuminating the world of the Hebrew Bible, late-20th- and early-21st-century work has utilized current art historical theory to explore multiple levels of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 buildings, as well as the form of objects and their associated visual imagery. It is clear that Assyrian art and architecture is inseparable from 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 BC, 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 BC when Assyria came to dominate the entire Near East both militarily and politically, 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. Any study of the subject requires an introduction to a social, cultural, and material context different from any modern comparator. As well as general surveys of the imagery and media seen in Mesopotamian art, therefore, this section provides a critical reading dealing with a different approach than our contemporary systems of visual interpretation and engagement investigating how the images, their significance, and their power were understood in their ancient context. A useful starting point is Frankfort 1996, an updated version of the author’s original 1954 publication. Other surveys, such as Moortgat 1969 and Parrot 1961, are useful for placing Assyrian art in a broader context of Mesopotamian art; however, their approaches are somewhat dated. Aruz, et al. 2014 provides a modern review of key artefacts and situates Assyrian art in the context of its 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 Graff, and Yelena Rakic, eds. Assyria to Iberia: At the Dawn of the Classical Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.
A catalogue of an exhibition that surveys the art of the 1st millennium BC, 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, Z. 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.
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.
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 BC, 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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