Vertical view of a Lamassu, or an Assyrian Human-headed Winged Bull. These creatures were protective genies known as Shedu or Lamassu. They were placed as guardians at gates or doorways of a city or palace. Symbols combining man, bull, and bird, they offered protection against enemies.
When Sargon II founded his capital around 713 BC at Dur Sharrukin, present-day Khorsabad, he enclosed it within a great wall of unbaked brick pierced by seven gates. Protective genies were placed on either side of these entrances to act as guardians. These giants also had a strictly architectural function, as they bore some of the weight of the arch above.
Carved from a single block, it stands more than 12 ft high by 12 ft wide and is 3 ft in depth. The head is sculpted complete, the rest of the body is carved in high relief, much prized in the time of Sargon II, when modeling became more marked.
The head, the only human element, whose ears are those of a bull, has a man's bearded face with very precisely modeled features. The eyes are expressive, the thick eyebrows meet above a prominent nose. The kindly mouth is surmounted by a thin mustache. A curly beard covers the jaw and chin, while the hair falls down to the shoulders, framing the face. This human head wears a starred tiara, flanked by pairs of horns and topped by a row of feathers.
The body, its anatomy very precisely rendered, is that of a bull: the beast has not four but five legs, so that it looks as if standing still when seen from the front, and as if walking when seen from the side. From the shoulders spring the wings of a bird of prey, only one being visible, curving above the back; broad panels of curls cover the breast, belly, back, and rump. The tail is very long and curly at the end. An inscription on two panels between the hind legs of the bull praises the ruler by rehearsing his virtues and calls down a curse on whomever should seek to harm the edifice.
These bulls are motifs of Syrian inspiration and one of the characteristic features of the decoration of Assyrian palaces. They make their first appearance at Nimrud in the reign of Ashurnasirpal II, to disappear again after the reign of Ashurbanipal.
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November 8th, 2020
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