Lions, representing a raw force of nature as well as being no doubt at one time a practical problem for herdsmen, are shown being killed by rulers in the late 4th millennium BC. But as early as 1750BC it became a privilege of royalty alone to deal with them, in a sporting context. This was a suitably manly way for the Assyrian kings to employ their time between the incessant wars which are documented in numerous other reliefs and texts.
There are bas-reliefs of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud showing the king hunting lions, but it is not until 200 years later, in the reign of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, that this particular art form reaches its apogee.
One complete corridor at Nineveh was lined with these reliefs in large scale, though only three survive, and a second set of smaller reliefs with three registers was situated in a private gate-chamber on an upper floor in the same palace.
These are not strictly speaking ‘hunts’ at all, because the lions were released, probably individually, from cages in a clearing surrounded by armed guards and mastiffs, and the king – on foot or in a chariot, protected by his private bodyguard – is in little danger of serious injury. The royal seal at this time depicted the sovereign grasping and stabbing a lion erect on its hind legs, and there is clearly a large element of symbolism involved rather than a show of real valour. Concerning this particular motif, repeated in the reliefs, the position would have been perfectly possible because the Assyrian lions of the time were much smaller than their African cousins. Whether the lion would have been dead at this time and the king merely holding it up, or whether the artist had for artistic reasons deliberately omitted the heavy padding on the king’s left arm, or a combination of both, is another matter.
The Assyrian convention of anticipating conclusions in a single scene is clear in these reliefs too, where for example the lion is released from its cage, bounds towards the king and is royally dispatched all simultaneously in a strip-cartoon manner from right to left. The lion appears larger and more menacing at the moment of release, which would reflect a subjective consideration in the overall motif.
The sculptors concerned had evidently found a subject that suited them to perfection, and one imagines that there were master-craftsmen who specialised in such material. The renderings of dead and dying lions and lionesses are infused with a pathos that raises their compositions to the level of high tragedy, and it is here – uniquely – that the victims of the Assyrian king take on a nobility that outstrips his own. Whether this was intentional or a product of modern sentimentality is open to debate. I suspect the latter, but it is a hallmark of all great art that it is all things to all men, and the interpretation placed on it may vary down the ages. There is a clear contrast here with the unequivocal renderings of the military campaigns.
The lion-hunt reliefs at Nineveh are clearly the work of artists at the height of their power in terms of technique and sensibility, and they admirably complement renditions of the military campaigns which took up the rest of the monarch’s time.