Sphinx and Lamassu
Prompt: After a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum, we were assigned an essay that compares two objects from the visited collections through visual analysis.
This paper discusses two sculptures that depict mythical creatures: Egyptian Sphinx and Neo-Assyrian Lamassu. In addition to visual description and analysis of the two objects, the paper also examines the similarities and differences in context, style, and function. This comparison eventually leads to the exploration of the two cultures, highlighting the cultural significance of the pair of objects.
Mythical hybrid creatures with human heads and animal bodies are quite common among ancient cultures. A well-known example would be the sphinx of ancient Egypt, which is a lion with a human head. Similar creatures have existed in the Neo-Assyrian culture called the Lamassu, which usually has a human head with a bull or lion’s body and bird wings. These imaginary beasts were often described through sculptures, which provides information about not only the myths themselves, but also the cultures that they belong to.
Sphinx of Hatshepsut, from ca. 1479–1458 B.C., is a sculpture of Pharaoh Hatshepsut as a sphinx made of granite that is attached to a rectangular base on the bottom. It was originally made for Hatshepsut’s funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri, which is a complex of temples dedicated to pharaohs of her family. It is 164cm tall and 343cm long, which is larger than an actual average lion.
Human-headed Winged Lion is a raised relief sculpture of a Lamassu with the body of a lion made of gypsum alabaster. It comes from Mesopotamia and is believed to be created in ca. 883–859 B.C. It is 311.2cm tall, 62.2cm wide, 276.9cm long, which is even larger than the sphinx, and is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum with the similar-sized Human-headed Winged Bull as a pair.
While both Sphinx of Hatshepsut and Human-headed Winged Lion are lions with human heads, they each have a distinct posture. Like many other sphinx sculptures, Sphinx of Hatshepsut is seated with all lower parts of the body touching the base, conveying stability and dignity. On the other hand, the Lamassu is standing upright with legs on the side that imply some movement. The Lamassu actually is static and dynamic at the same time because its front surface only shows two straight legs, while the side shows all four legs. This is inevitable due to the fact that it is a relief sculpture, unlike the three-dimensionally rendered sphinx.
The sphinx and the Lamassu share a commonality of having stylized but detailed patterns that create texture. Compared to the sphinx, the Lamassu has a wider variety of textures, from the spiral beard texture to the feather texture. Linear patterns are dominant on the sphinx, especially on the headgear. Furthermore, the texture is engraved more deeply on the Lamassu, which forms thicker contour due to the shadow. This allows the Lamassu to look more three- dimensional as a relief sculpture.
Both the sphinx and the Lamassu were built as guardian figures for important architectural structures, except that the sphinx guarded a mortuary temple and the Lamassu guarded a palace. This demonstrates strong mythical beliefs and reliance on religion, while also highlighting the importance of death and afterlife in Egypt. In addition, the Lamassu depicts the stylized face of an imaginary guardian deity, not a face of an existing person. Although idealized, the sphinx’s face is supposed to portray the pharaoh, Hatshepsut. This indicates the theocracy of Egypt and how closely Egyptians associated the pharaohs with divinity. Compared to the slight smile on the Lamassu’s face, the facial expression of the sphinx is more solemn, which also makes the sphinx more of a leader figure.