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Image by Following Hadrian
These decorative panels of polychrome glazed brick come from the palace of Darius I at Susa. On a blue-green ground, a pair of winged lions with bearded human heads sit facing each other, their heads turned backward. Above them hovers the winged disc of Ahura-Mazda. This complex traditional iconography is rendered in a pure Persian style
The few surviving fragments of this panel were discovered in the north-east corner of the central court of Darius’s palace. The panel consisted of moulded bricks glazed all over, including the sides. Unlike friezes of archers or lions, this scene represented a single element in a series of individual panels. It is clear that it was not set into the wall itself, but rather was applied to some projecting feature (perhaps a pilaster of the same width), and placed in a prominent position, such as in a niche or above a door. The arrangement of the two scenes facing each other and their decorated edge indicate that these were “free-standing” panels.
A symmetrical composition, rich in colour
Two sphinxes, hybrid creatures with the body of a winged lion, sit facing each other, their human heads turned back in profile. A wing, curving upward at the tip, springs from the foreleg of each, and the head rises from an ambiguous part of the body at a region that seems part human torso, part leonine breast The complexion of the face is dark. The eye is shown frontally. A long square-cut beard covers the lower part of the face. The hair emerges from beneath the headdress to be drawn back into a bulky mass at the neck, revealing a bull’s ear wearing an ear-ring identical to those worn by archers. The cylindrical ceremonial headdress is endowed with three tiers of horns intended to demonstrate the divine nature of the sphinx.
Above the two sphinxes is a disc with a yellow center surrounded by concentric rings of blue and white, flanked by two great outspread wings with a bird’s tail beneath. From the meeting point of each wing and the tail there extends a ribbon, tightly curled at the end.
A traditional iconography
The winged disk was the symbol of Ahura-Mazda, “greatest of the gods,” a divine emblem ensuring royal and dynastic authority. This motif was borrowed from Egypt, from where it spread to the Levant and Assyria. It is often found in Syrian reliefs of the second millennium BC, where it is the symbol of the god Assur; Achaemenid artists, then, did not have to look far for their inspiration. The theme of paired animals, either facing each other or back to back, is three thousand years old. Having first appeared in the Uruk Period, it was more extensively employed in the first millennium, especially in gold work, ceramic vessels and ivories. The seal-cutters of the Achaemenid period also made use of the motif. Human-headed animals made their appearance in Early Dynastic reliefs in the form of human-headed bulls, which appear again in two steatite statuettes of the Neo-Sumerian period. Much later, the imposing guardians of the doors of Assyrian palaces probably served as a model for those of the Gate of All Nations which marks the principal entrance into Persepolis. All wear the divine headdress, and their benevolent expressions confirm their role as beneficent spirits. The serene expressions of the sphinxes here seem to have been inspired by the royal model, conforming to the stereotype established in all the brick reliefs at Susa, and in the later stone reliefs at Persepolis. This face recalls the regular features of Darius as depicted on other monuments, which in turn are indistinguishable from those of his son Xerxes and their successors. The same royal canon, more idealized than realist, was applied to them all as evidence of the greatness of the empire. These sphinxes are thus both guardian deities and embodiments of the royal person.