A King rides through the Savannah, guided by a retinue of men, and lays waste to the great beasts before him. Some flee from the onslaught. Others attempt, in vain, to defend themselves. They are all victims. They are shot and stabbed. They roar and thrash and bleed out. The earth groans beneath the bounty of blood.
Today, that image will earn you an earful from environmentalists and activists around the globe. It will kick off online petitions and protests. Editorials will teem with bile. Last month, an African hunting trip threatened to rip away the crown of one of Europe’s oldest surviving monarchies. In Spain, land of merciless bullfights, the sport of royalty became a scandal. A man who hunts an endangered species while his people starve, we roar, does not deserve to be a King.
Millennia ago, it was practically a qualification. The great kings of Mesopotamia would deck their walls with images flaunting their hunting prowess.
One of the most remarkable remnants of this grisly political propaganda lives on in the British Museum – the world’s most glamorous retirement home (even if a few of the kids keep demanding their parents back).
They are the Assyrian Lion Hunt Reliefs, from the Nineveh Palace of King Ashurbanipal, created in 645 BCE. They are one of my favourite works of art in the world.
Yet something has changed. The unsigned, unnamed sculptor presents his king as a hero, a god; larger than life, partaking in the sport of monarchs, proclaiming his dominance over the greatest powers of the natural world. Today however, I look upon those vivid images bursting from the museum’s staid walls, and I do not see the triumph of a king.
I see the tragedy of the lions.
There is a wonderful African proverb I discovered last year and fell in love with, roughly translated from the tongues of Zimbabwe and Kenya as;
“Until the Lion has his historian, the hunter will always be the hero.”
That is, history is always a matter of perspective. Set the British accounts against the stories told by those they colonised. Do not expect the songs of the Israelis and Palestinians to harmonise. Never forget that the world was, is, and perhaps forever will be home to millions who never get to tell their story. Despite idealizing the democratising power of the internet, the rallying cry to apprehend Joseph Kony that breached (temporarily) so many walls of indifference came not from his victims, but a group of young, white, upper-middle-class Americans.
Part of why I love the Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs is that they reveal another side to that truth; that a great work of art can, in spite of itself, be a historian for all of us.
The sculptor may have intended to glorify his king, but he manages to give heart-wrenching humanity to his lions. Punctured by multiple arrows, they huddle together in death, males and females. Another curls into the fetal position. Those with breathe left attempt to crawl on their forelegs. Some vomit blood from pierced lungs. Their faces are contorted with pain, and you can see their muscles strain with the last gasps of life. When I see one lion jump at the King’s chariot, caught by a spear just as he is in range of a lethal swipe of the paw, I see a heroic act of defiance. The pain of the lions is palpable and moving, set against the stoney, two-dimensional face of the oversized King.
That is the gift of a truly great artist. The sculptor has empathy. He treats the lions with respect, and grants them nobility even if he revels in the majesty of the slaughter. The lions may not have been his heroes, but they can still be ours. Sometimes we have to break away from the idea that a work of art is defined by the intention of the artist. While it may help our understanding, that line of thinking threatens to keep art encased in amber; unchanging, fossilised.
Not to simply parrot Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ either; nuance is rarely an accident. Part of why Shakespeare endures is that his language and rich characters give us the tools to determine our own heroes and villains. I have a feeling that Milton and I would not agree on the ‘hero’ of Paradise Lost, but could he blame me for seeing a tragic nobility in his eloquent fallen angel?
The Lion Hunt means a lot to me because it carries half a dozen, sometimes contradictory, messages. The power and fine artistry of an ancient civilization. The customs and pleasures of a dynasty of kings. The grotesqueness of the hunt. The savagery of civilized man. The primal instinct of the lion. The visceral terror of death and nobility in the face of it.
Perhaps you look at the stone and see something different. Fair enough. The finishing touches did not come in 645 BCE, but are made every time a new face beholds the dance of the chariots, the flight of the arrows and the final roar of the lions. We bring our own chisels. The magic of a masterpiece is that it doesn’t require much sculpting to transform yesterday’s imperial propaganda into today’s PETA testimonial.