Art and Empire: Treasures From Assyria in the British Museum
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Through Jan. 4, 2009

Assyria was one of the most war-like and powerful nations of ancient times, said Greg Cook in The Boston Phoenix. From the ninth through seventh century B.C., Assyrian kings ruled a wide empire, including portions of what are now Iran, Israel, and Egypt. But suddenly, around 610 B.C., “the empire crumbled, its great mud-brick palaces reverted to mud, and it disappeared into legend.” It would not be until 1845 that a British traveler, Austen Henry Layard, stumbled across the remnants of ancient Nineveh and began excavating. What he found were structures whose long, narrow hallways were covered in alabaster panels bearing scenes of war. “Layard dug up colossal stone gateway sentinels—often winged bulls or lions with the heads of men,” as well as bottles, furniture, and ivory sculpture. But the highlight of the exhibition currently at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is “a series of gory, heart-pounding battle scenes.”

“Gory” may be putting it mildly, said Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe. Look closely at this exhibition’s artifacts, and “you will see a speared lion vomiting blood, humans impaled on long poles, and no end of severed heads.” Many of the artifacts seem designed to shock and intimidate, but the show does contain “one of the most exquisite and evocative objects in all of art history.” A small carving of a man being mauled by a lion, made from ivory with highlights in gold leaf and lapis lazuli, “has something frighteningly intimate about it, suggesting a sensuous unity of man and beast even as the one is in the process of being devoured by the other.” The Assyrians’ characteristic violence is here fused with a sort of eroticism.