Pair of Winged Deities, c. 874-860 BC Assyrian (Iraq), Reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC).
The Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883–859 b.c.) at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) is the earliest of the surviving royal residences of the Assyrian kings, lavishly decorated with monumental gateway figures and reliefs, whose discovery in the mid-nineteenth century created a sensation throughout the Western world.
First uncovered by the pioneer British traveler and archaeologist Austen Henry Layard in 1845, the Northwest Palace consisted of a series of long, narrow rooms grouped around large courtyards. Seven-foot-high stone slabs that lined the walls of many of the rooms were carved with elaborate narrative, mythological, and ritual scenes in low-relief. The greatest and most original artistic achievement of the Assyrians, these images and accompanying inscriptions record the kings’ military campaigns and testify to their prowess as warriors and hunters as well as their sanctity as the representatives of the Assyrian pantheon on earth. One of the most recurrent and potent images on these reliefs is the depiction of a magic purification or protective ritual, in which winged griffin-demons (apkallu, “sages”) or winged anthropomorphic deities, holding ritual “buckets” and pinecone-shaped objects, flank a “Sacred Tree” that they sprinkle with holy water or pollen.
The Kimbell’s pair of winged deities are fragments of two such full-length figures enacting this magic ritual, sprinkling or pollinating the central tree motif. As such, each figure would originally have held a bucket in his left hand and a cone in his right. The deities, marked as divine by their wings and horned helmets, are conceived in the image of the monarch, reflecting his facial features, stance, and physical strength. Their exaggerated musculature and luxuriant, tightly curled hair and beards suggest something of the king’s vainglorious power and virility. These reliefs come from a room that may have been used by the king for ritual ablution. (x)