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Relief Showing the Head of a Winged Genius

Relief Showing the Head of a Winged Genius, 883–859 BCE. Neo-Assyrian. George F. Harding Collection.

At its peak, the Neo-Assyrian empire (911–609 BCE) was the largest single power the ancient world had ever known, controlling not only the entirety of Mesopotamia but also large swathes of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Following the death of King Ashurbanipal II in 631 BCE, the once-powerful empire was brought to its knees by a period of violence and civil unrest. 

The Art Institute’s collection contains only one work from this time period, a relief of a winged genius from the palace of Ashurbanipal II at Nimrud in modern-day Iraq. The palace was abandoned following the king’s death and eventually was completely buried. This allowed for a remarkable degree of preservation until the site was rediscovered and excavated in the mid-19th century. Representations of genii (pl. genius), benevolent spirits, were a recurring motif in the artistic decoration of the lavish palace. Their posture, along with the symbolic items they often held in their hands, could indicate any number of complex supernatural powers. This figure, when complete, held a bucket and a cone-like flower from a date palm, objects thought to have been used in purification or fertility rituals.

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