Illusionist Lamassu

Maybe you’ve stumbled upon one of these ancient and colossal lamassu at a museum. They’re stunning massive mythological protective genies originating from Assyrian. And they’re full of surprises.

Lamassu in Chicago
Human-Headed Winged Bull, Khorsabad, Palace, Court VIII Neo-Assyrian Period

They’re depicted as a human-headed winged bull (or lion). And they’re colossal. The one in the Louvre reaches up to 4 meters (13 feet).

Human-Headed Winged Bulls, Louvre
Human-Headed Winged Bulls, Louvre

Here they are from the front.

We’ve discussed another humanoid winged creature, but there’s something especially strange about the Lamassu sculptures.

Notice anything? Look again with a focus on the legs.

They have five legs.

Lamassu from Nimrud, Pergamon Museum Berlin
Lamassu from Nimrud, Pergamon Museum Berlin


But why do they have five legs?

Maybe ancient Assyrians couldn’t actually carve into the stone without breaking the sculpture. If you google Assyrian art you’re likely to find mostly bas-relief sculptures. I’m definitely not an expert and couldn’t say if that’s the case. There are some Assyrian sculptures in the round sculptures though. But maybe the five-leg appearance is really down to logistics.

However, the MET mentions that –

 The sculptor gave these guardian figures five legs so that they appear to be standing firmly when viewed from the front but striding forward when seen from the side. Lamassu protected and supported important doorways in Assyrian palaces.

So if they were situated at the front of temples they were meant to intimidate and protect.

Imagine this scenario in 700 BCE: You’re visiting Sargon II’s temple. At the entrance are two monumental lamassu smiling down at you. They’re standing still. You’ve never seen anything like that before. You dare to pass them. You’re walking past them and you sneak a glance at them.  Wait, is it walking now?

Maybe you’d run inside or run away. Either way, it would be awe-inspiring or terrible (in the original sense of the word).

Truth be told. I doubt the lamassu actually tricked people into thinking they were moving. But, they succeed at giving an illusion of movement. For the lamassu to essentially have two stances depending on where you are standing is astounding. It’s an accomplished concept of mixing sculpture in the round and high relief sculpture.

Lamassu British Museum
Me years ago at probably my favourite museum in the world – The British Museum

There’s so much detail in these. Look at the lion’s feet on the right. And the bulls of the left. Maybe the ruler wanted to emphasize two sets of strength – I’m not sure. But they’re beautiful.

Unfortunately, there are not many lamassu left. About six notable pairs exist today in Persepolis, the MET, British Museum, the Louvre, Chicago and Baghdad. You probably heard of the sack of Nineveh in 2015 by ISIS. Some in situ have been destroyed.

To be honest, it hurts to read. Art is politically fraught. Unfortunately, these ancient stunning lamassu became targets as “idols”. It’s a sad loss to global culture. At least, supposedly. Some hold hope that some artefacts were “salvaged”, that is, looted but not destroyed. Like a lot of stolen art, maybe they’ll pop up somewhere in the centuries to come. It doesn’t look like the lamassu will be so lucky.

However, these incidents have brought attention to these guardians. The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square will host a “resurrected” lamassu in 2018.

But, there’s a part of me that wishes I could see these behemoths still guarding a palace. Smiling down at any potential intruder.