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: Ancient Relief Sculpture Mesopitamia and Egypt


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The student of archaeology, his work confined to the details of some ancient bas relief or statue fragment calling for minute analysis, might be tempted to look upon the last five-hundred years of history as a not too happy progression from broad and travelled to narrow and sedentary areas of exploration. What a difference, he might think, between this research and the worlds encountered by Marco Polo, Cortex, and Masco de Gamma five centuries ago. Or those of mid-nineteenth-century archaeologists when, with the physical limits of the world fairly well established, exploration took a no less adventurous turn—the rediscovery of the then-believed mythical sites of ancient civilizations, of Troy and Khorsabad and Nimrud. Today we are more and more confined to our libraries, piecing together the mounting results of field research with our minds, trying to get a fuller and more accurate picture of how things really were in the past, but examining an ever narrowing segment of our historical horizons. Although our student would undoubtedly quickly recover the opposite side of these reflections—the adventure of discovering horizons within horizons—he would perhaps still feel that his nostalgia for more active adventures of discovery are not only a natural result of close application in one spot, but a concomitant of the scientific urge to keep pushing out the frontiers of knowledge.The career of Sir Austen Henry Layard could be considered a case in point. Although he was one of the great figures of the ninteenth-century era of archaeological discovery, to which the thoughts of our student were longingly turned, it was a dream and the determination to realize it which helped, along with the enterprise of the fabulous Schliemann and others, to open up the panorama of the ancient world as it really was.In the account of C. W. Ceram in Gods, Graves, and Scholars, Sir Henry, a Frenchman whose family settled in England, began working in a London lawyer's office where he quietly studied Middle Eastern languages in the hope of realizing a childhood ambition to explore the region of ancient Mesopotamian civilization in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. When he left on his self-appointed mission it was with the most meager resources. But he reached his destination, and after wandering about Syria and Asia Minor visiting the shadowy mounds which seemed to be the remains of ancient cities, he undertook the work, still with negligible support, which led to the discovery of Nimrud and the palace of the ninth-century B.C. Assyrian king, Ashur-Nasir-Pal. The results of this discovery were shown in London at the old Crystal Palace where they gave to the world the first authentic picture of Assyrian civilization since its existence in Biblical times.One of the reliefs from Ashur-Nasir-Pal's Palace which Layard discovered at this time is the Institutes figure of the winged genius which now forms part of the exhibition Ancient Sculpture in Relief. Seeing it in the same room with the newly acquired Egyptian relief, the framed false door from the Old Kingdom tomb of Akhty-ir-n, encourages comparison between the two civilizations from which they came, and our thoughts, keeping company with those of our student, wander back to some not too old lecture notes with provocative comments about Egypt and Mesopotamia, comments which may well have been inspired by a scholar retracing the steps of Sir Henry to verify at first hand some of the implications of modern research.The notes in question were based on a quotation from a book, Before Philosophy, by Thorkild Jacobsen, published by Penguin in 1949. In the passage quoted, Mr. Jacobsen says that whereas the remains of ancient Egyptian civilization are relatively well preserved, proclaiming man's timeless sovereignty, “there is scant reminder of ancient grandeur in the low, grey mounds which represent Mesopotamia's past.” This was the result, according to Mr. Jacobsen, of differences in environment which also produced distinctive social and religious conditions, and, with them, attitudes affecting their art. Egyptian civilization rose in a sheltered environment where the villages were close to one another, the sun never failed to shine, and the fertilizing waters of the Nile rose regularly every year. Such an environment gave the ancient Egyptian a sense of his own power, of control over nature, of confidence in the cosmos, and a tendency to monumentalize his achievements for all time. In Mesopotamia, however, the forces of nature were violent and unpredictable. The Tigris and Euphrates rose without warning to destroy crops; rain, winds and dust storms were equally capricious and damaging. In the presence of such powers man was acutely conscious of his inferiority and his impermanence and led to a conception of the cosmos as a conflict of wills. “Were the Egyptian to come back today,” Mr. Jacobsen adds, “he would undoubtedly take heart from the endurance of the pyramids, for he accorded to man and to man's tangible achievements more basic significance than most civilizations have been willing to do. Were the Mesopotamian to return, he could hardly feel deeply disturbed that his works have crumbled, for he always knew, and knew deeply, that as for mere man, his days are numbered; whatever he may do, he is but wind.”In the Institute's Akhty-ir-n relief and Assyrian figure of a winged genius we see the distinctive creative approach of these two environments well illustrated. In the muscular figure of the Assyrian genius one gets the impression of a creature whose supernatural strength has been developed through physical striving and the assertion of a powerful but nervous and unpredictable will. On the other hand, the stylized regularity of the Egyptian funerary stela, which stood at the threshold between life and after-life, there is a serenity of feeling which embraced both spheres and reflected their harmonious inclusion in the benevolent home of the universe.
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Source: "Ancient Relief Sculpture Mesopitamia and Egypt," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 42, no. 12 (March, 1953): 56-57.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009