Bearded Angels, Protective Spirits

Glencairn Museum News | Number 10, 2013

Philipp Serba photographing Glencairn's Assyrian reliefs.


Figure 1: Kneeling genie (09.SP.1549).


Several fragments of Neo-Assyrian wall reliefs (orthostats) are on exhibit in Glencairn’s Ancient Near East Gallery. Two of these slabs, from the Northwest Palace of Assurnasirpal II in Nimrud, show winged bearded figures wearing horned helmets (09.SP.1549, Figure 1, and 09.SP.1550, Figure 4). Commonly these anthropomorphic representations are called “genii” and identified as guardian figures. But even after 150 years of scientific research the exact meaning of their gesture and tasks remains unproved. This essay will survey the relationship between different types of genii and their original position in the Northwest Palace.

The Northwest Palace of Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) in Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) in modern Iraq is one of the most prominent historical monuments of Near Eastern archaeology. Initially, most parts of the building were excavated by the British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard, between 1847 and 1851. At that time the French mission, under the direction of Paul-Émile Botta, was excavating in the vicinity in modern Khorsabad (ancient Dur Sharrukin), and general interest in the Ancient Near East was rising among Europe’s educated classes.

During that time missionaries in Iraq were asked to send some of the newly discovered reliefs to their former colleges in New England. The Orientalism of that time legitimated raising funds for future archaeological missions.

When the British Assyriologist George Smith translated a cuneiform text in 1872 mentioning “The Great Flood,” efforts were made to establish biblical events as historical facts. Even though this text turned out to be a fragment of the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Near Eastern history consequently arrived in western societies. As a side effect, most of the orthostats unearthed in the course of several excavations can now be found in numerous museums worldwide. Some of the slabs were irrecoverably lost while transporting them on the Tigris, when the rafts were attacked by local tribes in 1853.

Parts of the building were reconstructed during a re-excavation of the Northwest Palace area in the late 1970s, but only a small number of the reliefs still remain in situ. At that time efforts were made to investigate the provenance and original position of all other known slabs, now spread all over the world. A necessary task, because the representations on these orthostats offer a profound insight into Assyrian art and culture—accessible only with knowledge of their former placement.


Figure 2: Terracotta plaque with apkalle (01.RF.273).


Most of the slabs from the Northwest Palace depict guardian figures—like the two fragments in Glencairn’s Ancient Near Eastern collection. One of the Glencairn reliefs (Figure 1) shows a barefooted kneeling figure with two pairs of wings. These attributes, combined with a horned helmet, suggest that this is a supernatural being, touching the volutes of a stylized tree. The figure also wears a necklace and two bracelets with a floral symbol. Unfortunately their precise meaning remains unknown, due to the lack of textual descriptions. Contemporary ritual texts describe similar figures as apkallē—small terracotta sculptures or plaques depicting protective spirits. An example of such a terracotta plaque is on exhibit in the gallery at Glencairn (01.RF.273, Figure 2). These objects were buried under thresholds and in the corners of buildings to keep evil magic outside. The word apkallē might be a better expression than the Roman-based “genius,” a term that derives from the first excavators who described the winged creatures.


Figure 3: Photography in Glencairn's Ancient Near East Gallery.


To reveal more information about the figures’ function, one must take a closer look at their iconographic details in the context of their original positions (Figure 3). Previous examinations of the slabs have been challenged by the fact that they are dispersed among more than 60 museums worldwide. In the past, scholars have relied on stylized drawings or focused only on selected pieces, neglecting their original context. Numerous reliefs from the Northwest Palace offer countless details, but these have only sporadically been studied in a comprehensive way. Moreover, a comparison of the palaces decorated with protective spirits indicates a possible shift in the figures’ character. Therefore a full iconographic analysis is needed of figures such as the ones in Glencairn’s collection.


Figure 4: Head of a genie (09.SP.1550).


The kneeling genie (09.SP.1549, Figure 1) and the head of a full-size figure (09.SP.1550, Figure 4) from Glencairn originate from very intimate areas of the Northwest Palace that would be accessible only after one walked through several more public parts of the building. These areas were protected by all kinds of supernatural beings, such as huge lamassu—hybrid creatures with wings and a bull's or lion’s body, representing potency and power. Other rooms were guarded by large-scale eagle-headed apkallē facing a stylized tree. To see the fragments on exhibit at Glencairn in ancient times, one would have had to cross several protected areas.

In all official parts of the palace, King Assurnasirpal II was depicted as a central figure flanked by two supernatural beings. On the one hand this is propaganda; it shows the ruler of an empire under the protection of mystical creatures. However, this also provides information about ancient beliefs and Assyrian religion.


Figure 5: Purification Suite, Northwest Palace of Assurnasirpal II.


In one of the official banquet rooms, we see the oversize representation of the king with his sword flanked by either attendants or apkallē. If we enter into the next room—proceeding deeper into the palace—only the guardian figures (apkallē) and the king are displayed. At this point the king no longer wears a sword. The third and final rooms, those deepest in the palace, lack the image of the king completely, and only protective spirits adorn the walls. In these interior spaces several ablution slabs were discovered where the floor had been paved (Figure 5). Because of these anomalies, scholars interpret these two rooms as private bathrooms or sacred purification suites. These are the rooms from which the two Glencairn reliefs derive.

Glencairn’s kneeling genie fragment (09.SP.1549, Figure 1) was part of a larger orthostat. The room consists of at least 33 wall slabs—each depicting two registers and a cuneiform text in the middle band proclaiming the titles and achievements of King Assurnasirpal II. The lower register shows the repeating scene of eagle-headed apkallē (similar to Glencairn’s terracotta plaque, 01.RF.273, Figure 2) flanking a stylized tree, interrupted by another tree. These figures are holding buckets in their left hands and cone-shaped objects in their upper right hands. This is the typical rendering of apkallē in the Northwest Palace.

A curiosity occurs in the upper register, where Glencairn’s kneeling genie originated: all identifiable figures are kneeling, their garments differ in comparison to other apkallē, and they don’t hold cones (they seem just to touch the tree symbol). Because of this anomaly, it is necessary to conduct research at Glencairn, and investigate the exact rendering of the figure and all its iconographic details.

Because of variations in the cuneiform text, some scholars believe that this room might be one of the first erected and decorated. In order to combine all this data and restore the original ambiance, it is useful to create a 3D-digital reconstruction of the whole palace of King Assurnasirpal II. This technology offers new opportunities for study, with formerly separated slabs reunited virtually. Moreover, this method enables the restoration of garment decorations (sometimes mirroring the full-size scene in miniature) and color artifacts hardly visible today.


Figure 6: Point cloud of kneeling genie (09.SP.1549).


To stay as close to the original object as possible, a point cloud of the artifact is generated (Figure 6). This can either be carried out by a laser scan or a combination of photos shot from different angles. Usually taking a camera into a museum is easier than travelling around the world with an expensive laser scanner.


Figure 7: Virtual image of kneeling genie (09.SP.1549).


After the point cloud has been converted to a closed mesh, a texture is applied to the virtual object that contains several layers of color or meta-information about the fragment (Figure 7). This is required to document and catalogue unpublished details and contextual information—a procedure that has to been done with a large number of reliefs.

The adjacent fragments to the left of Glencairn’s kneeling figure can now be found in the Archaeological Museum, Istanbul; at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; at Magdalen College, Oxford; and in the Mead Art Museum, Amherst. The lower register of the reliefs is now preserved at the British Museum, London, and the fragments to the right of Glencairn’s kneeling apkallē are exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum in New York; at the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg; and in the Museum of Warsaw.

Glencairn’s fragment represents a piece of an international cultural puzzle that will now be reassembled digitally.

Winged creatures seem to play an important role in many cultures throughout history, yet the exact magical function of the apkallē on the walls of Neo-Assyrian palaces is not known. It seems that the concept of a guardian figure—that combines ideal aspects of different creatures—fulfills an old human demand for divine protection.

The research at Glencairn serves primarily to enhance our understanding of the roots of these protective spirits, and to enlarge our knowledge of what some might call the “bearded angel.”

(Photographs by Philipp Serba and Ed Gyllenhaal)

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