So literally the lamassu are some of my favorites to teach in the Ancient World – I just think they are incredibly adorable and they are so much fun to teach! I’ve seen two sets of lamassu, in the Pergamon Museum and the Metropolitan Museum, so you might see different backgrounds in the images.
Art Historical Background
In the most basic of terms the lamassu are guardian statues for the king right at the entrance his throne room; in fancy terms they were thought to be apotropaic (capable of warding off evil). So that is their function (if you are thinking in the FFCC way). Their function necessitates certain aspects of their form: they need to be intimidating. As you can see from the photo below they were quiet large and would have been flanking the doorways.
There are a few more aspects of the lamassu that make them intimidating besides their size; if you look closely you can see that they are a conglomerate of fierce beasts: lion paws (sometimes bull hooves), large wings, and the head of a stern-looking man with a horned helmet/crown. This mythical creature combines the best qualities of each: wisdom of humans, strength of a lion, flight of a bird, and horns = divinity.
I made sure to take some good detail shots below so you can really see how intricate these creatures are. And there are incredibly impressive in person!
Lastly, I love to point of this funny little detail that students typically overlook the first (and second) time they gaze upon the lamas. Let’s see if you can figure it out: what is WRONG with the picture below?
Do you see it? The lamassu has FIVE LEGS! Why would the lamas have five? Here’s the idea: so when you are facing the lamassu head-on, how any visitor would have seen them in situ, the two legs in the front are at a hard stop. These legs are tense and firm; clearing sending a “you shall not pass” message. However, once you “speak friend and enter,” and presumably a guard lets you in, the lamassu is now symbolically walking besides you. There is no other way to show the two front legs standing firm and four legs walking unless you add a fifth.
P.S. Yes, I use those subtle Lord of the Rings quotes when I teach this image. And I silently wait for the chuckles slowly ripple through my classroom. 🙂
- Art History Blogger: Assyrian Art and the Lamassu sculpture
- Khan Academy: Lamassu from the citadel of Sargon II
- Khan Academy: Assyrian art, an introduction
- The British Museum: Assyrian sculpture and Balawat Gates (Room 6)
- The Metropolitan Museum, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Human-headed winged lion (lamassu)
- Livius: Lamassu (bull-man)
- Louvre: Winged human-headed bull
- Gateways to Art: Understanding the Visual Arts, pg. 299
- Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global View, 15th edition, pg. 46