'Designed to Impress and Overwhelm': A 3,000-year-old Assyrian Relief

International Head of Antiquities G. Max Bernheimer marvels at this powerful stone relief retrieved from Nimrud in modern-day Iraq in the mid-19th century.

Standing more than 7 ft. high, this proud figure was once part of an elaborate decorative scheme that covered the walls of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud, which was constructed some 3,000 years ago.

The palace — at 120m by 200m, one of the largest known in antiquity — was commissioned by King Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned from 883-859 BC. Ashurnasirpal was a tyrant who ruthlessly expanded his kingdom, conquering much of the ancient Near East including modern-day Syria and the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — an area referred to today as ‘the cradle of civilisation’. The palace reflected Ashurnasirpal’s newfound status as the most powerful ruler of the largest empire ever seen.

This superbly preserved frieze was acquired in Mosul in 1859 by an American missionary named Dr Henri Byron Haskell from the English archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard, who had unearthed the royal palace at Nimrud with permission from the Ottoman authorities.

In addition to this relief, which has been housed at the Virginia Theological Seminary since its crossing of the Atlantic, Haskell also sent five others to Bowdoin College in Maine and another, which is now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Around 60 other museums around the world contain reliefs from Ashurnasirpal’s palace, including the British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and the Yale University Art Gallery. The relief offered at Christie’s on 31 October will be sold on behalf of the Virginia Theological Seminary to underwrite a scholarship fund.

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