Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Stone Speaks

          Assyrian art is a designer's paradise. Whenever I have the opportunity to look at Assyrian art, I scurry immediately there and gawk shamelessly with my mouth hanging fully open like an amateur in the face of artistic glory (which in fact I am) at the gorgeousness of the shapes carved into those impressive narrative bas-reliefs; the sheer touchableness of the repeating motifs in the beard, hair and wings; the abstract beauty of the shapes of the muscles in the arms and legs; and of course, those large, almond-shaped, expressive eyes.
          Lord, grant me enough years of life to figure out how those ancient stone carvers managed to make figures that are at the same time flat and beautifully graphic and yet also fully and believably three-dimensional, poised to walk straight off that slab of stone and shake out those magnificent wings and demand our worship.

There is hardly anything more beautiful in art than this.
         The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a small but lovely collection of Assyrian carvings, and since neither K nor I will knowingly pass up a chance to see Assyrian art, we spent an afternoon in the Met last weekend taking it in.

Look at the wonderful texture on his robe facings. And the feather detail on his head.

           You will have certainly noticed that both figures are carrying handbags. Because apparently deities need handbags. You know—to carry their god gear. I liked this detail very much, and had a lot of fun imagining what a deity must carry in its handbag. Thunderbolts? Incense? The seeds of the universe? Curiously Strong Mints? The keys to that temple in Nineveh?
          A bit of research, however, revealed that those are actually buckets, not handbags.* They are thought to hold either water or pollen, and to be used in ritual purification. You can see the eagle-headed deity is holding a cone (thought to be a pine cone) which was apparently dipped in the bucket and used to sprinkle the water or pollen. All this, you will note, is rather speculative. And I found it on Wikipedia. So you might want to take it with a grain of salt.**
          The other thing that just charms me up one side and down the other is the fact that there are captions (or a narrative of some sort) on these reliefs, and they are carved right on top of the figure. And they look all hip and post-modern-designerly and stylish and Artistic-with-a-capital-A. Like the artist was so confident in the excellence of his work that he could just slap some words on top of it and know that it would look even better.
Here is a detail of the type on the first photograph. You can click on it
to enlarge it so you can get a closer look at the beauty of the cuneiform.

          So ancient, yet so entirely modern. Art has the advantage over language here, for even if the meaning of the words has been lost and the language is dead, the images are still alive, and they still speak directly to us.
          (And one of the things that I am sure they are saying is, "Get yourself a fabulous handbag.")

*And also that I have far too active an imagination.
**I myself believe this provides more than enough justification for me to continue to believe the handbag theory. That, and the fact that it's a better story with handbags.

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