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Les représentations architecturales dans l’iconographie néo-assyrienne

Les représentations architecturales dans l’iconographie néo-assyrienne

By Nicolas Gillmann (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 83). Pp. 473 + xviii. Brill, Leiden 2016. €185. ISBN 978-90-04-32400-8 (cloth).

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Les représentations architecturales dans l’iconographie néo-assyrienne is the first study to provide a systematic and ontologically oriented analysis of architectural representations within Neo-Assyrian art. Divided into three parts, the volume compares architectural representations to archaeological evidence to “évaluer la fiabilité des representations assyriennes” and the extent to which they are “exploitables par l’archéologue” (126). The carved stone orthostats that lined the walls of Assyrian palaces of the first millennium B.C.E. make up the greater part of the corpus, though bronze relief bands from the city of Balawat and carved ivories, stelae, and obelisks are also considered. In this revision of his doctoral thesis, submitted to the Université de Strasbourg in 2008, Gillmann asserts that his ultimate goal with the volume is to provide readers with the necessary tools and framework for understanding Assyrian images.

In parts 1 and 2, Gillmann articulates the conventions of Assyrian art and its apprehensibility for modern viewers. Mesopotamian art has long grappled with finding its own footing since it was introduced to European audiences in the 19th century and was contrasted with Greek art, which was held up as the artistic ideal for its achievements in the accurate representation of the human body and other subjects. Formally speaking, images from the East lacked this mimesis and, until approached from a contextual and conceptual viewpoint, were denied an aesthetic value. Two points stand out from Gillmann’s review of this familiar tale of the fracture between East and West. First is the juxtaposition of Greek art as an art of action that depicts a single episode from a single point of view, and Assyrian art as an art of signification that merges multiple points of view so as to manifest a thing’s presence by combining its most recognizable, intrinsic traits (39–40). Second is the recognition of commonalities between Assyrian art and 19th-century artistic movements, in particular Cubism, whose “langages artistiques non imitatifs” (63) similarly challenged Western aesthetic ideals.

Along with establishing the “functionalist” aspect of Assyrian art as a dominant convention—the artist revealing the maximum information so that an image could be recognized (62, 100)—in part 2, Gillmann interprets the treatment of discrete aspects during the reigns of different kings, including space, scale, and topography. The relief depicting the transport of wood by sea from Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad, for example, is said to be the perfect summary of the spirit of Assyrian art, the artist intentionally dissolving the illusion of the real world by including fantastic creatures alongside crabs and fish (122). Gillmann accurately concludes that Assyrian art cannot be said to have a linear or evolutionary development but rather shows a trend toward greater stylization and prioritization of key elements, the primary objective being to communicate the “what,” “how,” and eventually the “when” of an image.

In part 3, Gillmann apportions the corpus into the thematic categories of military, religious, and domestic architecture, with a fourth section on columned architecture, in his attempt to discern the fidelity between architectural representations and archaeological evidence. Images and archaeological remains for the ramparts at Karmir-Blur and Lachish (130–38) and the rendering of houses in the city of Madaktu (fig. 72), for example, show that Assyrian artists included distinctive details in their rendering of specific topographical sites. Such findings contribute to Gillmann’s eventual conclusion that archaeologists can benefit from an informed reading of architectural representations. Worth noting is an interpretation proposed by Sabina Franke at the 2016 Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (Philadelphia, Pa.) for the relief from Khorsabad of the temple of Muṣaṣir that varies from Gillmann’s tentative reconstruction (fig. 61) yet agrees with the technique of 90°-degree horizontal rotation identified in part 2 (101–4). In a fashion similar to Gillmann’s proposal for the rendering of monumental doors on the Balawat gates (fig. 16), Franke suggested that the artist first rendered the front of the temple, then pulled forward the two sides, and lastly portrayed the back, to show the full exterior of the temple to the viewer, asserting that the shields of Urartian temples were located on the sides of the building.

The collection of case studies in part 3 (126–296) demonstrates Gillmann’s mastery of the extent of the corpus. For archaeological comparisons, the author draws on examples from wide-ranging temporal periods and geographic areas of the Near East, Egypt, and the Mediterranean and often includes a review of preceding and contemporary interpretations in the field. Case studies on which Gillmann has previously published, including the isolated structure at Khorsabad, siege of Lachish, and temple of Muṣaṣir, are integrated into this study in a revised manner; for example, the last includes a discussion of the buildings shown adjacent to the temple. A greater consideration of the physical and spatial contexts of the works of art—for example, the room within which a relief stood, who would have engaged with it, and how restrictions on light and space affected visibility—might have enriched the author’s assessment of the functional aspect of Assyrian images.

The printing of the book is of high quality, and the abundance of line drawings and the accompanying catalogue present an unparalleled body of information, as well as a thoughtful solution to the challenges of preservation and availability of photographs. However, the catalogue is lacking references to Schachner’s 2007 publication of the Balawat gates (Bilder eines Weltreiches: Kunts- und kulturgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zu den Verzierungen eines Tores aus Balawat [Imgur-Enlil] aus der Zeit Shalmaneser III, König von Assyrien [Turnhout, Belgium]), as well as museum registration numbers for preserved reliefs from Khorsabad, including a fragment of the Muṣaṣir temple relief (pl. 57) at the Louvre (reg. no. AO 19892) and the relief of a columned structure amid a hunting scene (pl. 56) at the Oriental Institute Museum (reg. no. A11255). Diagrams and lists in the main text help articulate the author’s interpretations. Considering the importance placed on legibility and recognition in Assyrian art, a few contextualizing visual accompaniments would have been helpful—for example, longer sequences of reliefs and palace floorplans. It is regrettable that the book lists at €185, which will limit its accessibility.

Les représentations architecturales dans l’iconographie néo-assyrienne is a welcome complement to existing publications that group Assyrian reliefs by site or museum collection, offering a deeper perspective on a particular element of this rich monumental corpus. Specialists will appreciate Gillmann’s nuanced approach to the conventions of Assyrian art, the itemized organization of the archaeological and artistic attestations of distinct architectural features, and the comprehensive yet concise catalogue. The author’s discussion of the corpus with respect to the broader art historical trajectory will be valuable for a wider readership. However, scholars unfamiliar with the corpus of Neo-Assyrian art may wish to consult simultaneously publications that set the reliefs within their built environment and photographs of preserved reliefs to provide spatial and experiential context. The author states in the conclusion, “Chacune de ces approaches a contribué au sein de cet ouvrage à approfondir ou, nous l’espérons, à renouveler l’interprétation que l’on peut faire de l’iconographie néo-assyrienne” (303). In carrying out this ambitious undertaking, Gillmann has reinvigorated two areas of scholarly interest well known on the printed page: the elaborately carved wall reliefs of Neo-Assyrian palaces and the enigmatic image—almu—of Mesopotamia.

Kiersten Neumann
Oriental Institute
University of Chicago

Book Review of Les représentations architecturales dans l’iconographie néo-assyrienne, by Nicolas Gillmann

Reviewed by Kiersten Neumann

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1214.Neumann

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