The Benetton of Near Eastern Art

Till our next visit to the Louvre, this will be my penultimate highlight concerning last weekend’s visit to the Near Eastern antiquities wing.  It’s been tricky to choose what to profile since El Argentino and I had so many surprises and discovered so many delights.

In choosing this third finale I hoped to find a thread which holds the three completely different pieces, from completely different places together. First we had our rather morbid friend, Ain Ghazal with his silent watchful eyes. He’s from the Levant (which describes both a culture and a geographical area between Egypt and Turkey, Iraq and the Mediterranean), but Ain really stands out, because at 9000 years old he’s the Louvre’s oldest piece. That’s pretty cool.  Then we had our adorable Assyrian Lamassus, curiously smiling down at us as they protected Sargon’s palace. Endearing and gentle, the Lamassus put proportion back in the idea of palace, with their monumental size. 

So with size and age for themes, I nominate Darius I’s winter palace at Susa.  Son of Cyrus, father of Xerxes, Darius I (522-486 BC) was the most successful of the Achaemenid kings. Under his rule the Persian Empire stretched from Greece to India. A melting pot of styles, Achaemenid art is defined by seemlessly combining many elements taken from different cultures. I guess one could think of it as the Benetton of Near Eastern Art. His palace at Susa (east of the Tigris River) celebrated all sorts of his victories, and not just through storytelling as his Greek contemporaries were painting on their pots, but through methods and materials as well.  Darius was big time and he wanted you to know it.  So big-time was he that this entry shall be two-fold, in my weak attempt to do his winter palace justice: art today, architecture to follow. 



King of the beasts, the lion figures an important role both royally and religiously.  A frieze of lions ran along the top of the wall in the first court Darius’s visitors entered. The provenance of the glazed siliceous bricks and its composition as a frieze is from older Mesopotamian traditions, found for instance in the 2nd millennium temple of Kara-indash in Uruk. The repetition of a symbolic animal was typical of Babylonian art, where its significance was more religious. Yet the clear knowledge of anatomy, and the attention to details such as his wavy mane was true to Achaemenid Persian art.  A little artistic UN, all in one palace. By 480 BC it was estimated that 50 million people lived in the Achaemenid Empire.



Sphinx in Darius the Great’s winter palace at Susa, Iran

Apart from these turquoise lions Jacques de Morgan, the archeologist leading the excavations from 1908 – 1913, found bas relief friezes of griffins and sphinxes, archers (with duck heads at the top of their bows) and immortals — among plenty of colossal double-headed columns which we’ll linger on in another post.



a Persian Griffin in the Sully wing of the Louvre

What does that mean for you? Well, a lot of THATMuse points if you know where on Sully’s ground floor (ground floor in French is RDC, Rez-de-Chaussée) to find them in the “Antique Iran” section that’s yellow on your Louvre maps… Oh here, you’re good enough to be reading this THATLou homework, these precious creatures are in Room 12 and 13! 

Apart from appearing in the Beauty + Bestiary (fantastical animals, such as unicorns, dragons and griffins, etc), Darius’s palace at Susa could certainly be pertinent to plenty of other THATLou themes – Kings + Leaders, Animals in Art, or even a possible Beauty + Bestiary… You never know!