Friday, February 3, 2012

Hunting Lions

I went to the British Museum yesterday, primarily to see the Elgin Marbles, those controversial pieces of the Parthenon that the British removed from Greece more than 200 years ago. (The Greeks want them back.)

But of course I wound up wandering around the museum checking out other interesting artifacts, and I was particularly struck by this Assyrian sculpture from 645-635 B.C. It depicts the king Ashurbanipal hunting lions -- skewering them with arrows as they are released into a confined arena.

"The hunt scenes, full of tension and realism, rank among the finest achievements of Assyrian art," read a placard posted beside the sculptures, which served as stone paneling in the king's palace at Nineveh.

Apparently after numerous years of ample rain, lions were especially plentiful in the hills around Nineveh at the time of Ashurbanipal. (This is according to the king's own records.) The lions terrorized the villagers, killed people and livestock, and reduced everyone to a state of mourning. As a result, the king -- as protector of his people -- faced the task of killing them. (In fact, I suspect he enjoyed the job -- the museum notes that Ashurbanipal was "exceptionally proud of his exploits as a sportsman.")

I don't dispute the artistic merit of the carvings, but how tragic! They show the animals in all their agony, dragging paralyzed limbs and vomiting blood. The poor lions, turned to pincushions in an enclosed space by an egomaniac king!

Elsewhere in the museum, I found the medieval British Tring Tiles, which depict an imagined childhood of Jesus. They show children teasing or taunting Jesus only to be struck dead, and other parents hiding their children so they won't play with Christ and meet a similar fate. Now that's an effective way to deal with a bully! Go, Jesus!

As for the Elgin Marbles, they weren't quite what I expected. They're mostly friezes, or wall-mounted carved murals, and I thought there would be more freestanding sculpture. (Alas, much of the sculpture on the Parthenon was blasted to pieces by a gunpowder explosion in the late 1600s, so the remaining freestanding pieces are mostly fragmentary.) While interesting and remarkable given their age, the marbles are badly damaged and worn. As for who should have custody, I take no position.


  1. I have to share that while I was reading all I could think about was that I was not enjoying the lion art. I was so sad, because as you say they are in agony. I think I can take killing for survival but this just feel cruel.

    I love your comment on the Tring Tiles. Make me laugh out loud.

    As for the Elgin Marbles. I think for me it would be more about being near something so old. An artifact that has survived so much. I think what would hit me is the weight of its age. I suppose it is in better shape than many other items that age that have survived through that much.

    Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed seeing 2 out of 3 of these pieces. :P

    Ms. M

  2. Did the commentary on the Tring Tiles make any mention of the Gnostic Gospels? I'm thinking (?) that there are apocryphal accounts of Christ's childhood that mention this exact kind of thing, which kind of makes you realize (!!!) why they weren't included in the canonical Bible.

  3. Mrs. M: I agree. Cruel!

    Lorianne: The Gnostic Gospels weren't mentioned. In fact, I got the impression that the tales depicted by the tiles were wholesale inventions, to fill in Biblical gaps in the account of Jesus' life. What the stories are based on, I don't know. (And I should add that although the tiles show a couple of children struck dead while playing with Jesus, they also show him restoring them to life.)

  4. I'm sure you remember my November 2009 visit to England. We ended the trip in London & feeling suddenly on a budget in one of the world's most expensive cities, we spent a lot of time in wondrous & free museums. I too wanted to see what the fuss was about with the Elgin Marbles & to compare it with my memory of the Pergamon Altar in Berlin.

    My highlight at the British Museum was the Rosetta Stone. It felt like a pilgrimage to the beginning of multimedia. I bought a Rosetta Stone tea cup & tea towel. Despite seeing many tempting and/or tacky tea cups on that trip, this was the only one I bought.