New ISAW Exhibition: A Wonder to Behold: Craftsmanship and the Creation of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate

By Hannah McDonald
10/18/2019

A Wonder to Behold: The Power of Craftsmanship and the Creation of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate

(November 6, 2019–May 24, 2020)

Built by King Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604-562 BCE), excavated by German archaeologists and partially re-created at the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin in the early 20th century, the Ishtar Gate has become an icon of ancient architectural achievement. A Wonder to Behold approaches this well-known monument from a fresh perspective: featuring a process-oriented exploration of the gateway’s creation, this exhibition will focus on the role of craftspeople and the magic of materials in ancient Middle Eastern life. Bricks with a protective bull-man and cuneiform inscription

The Ishtar Gate and its affiliated Processional Way were intended not only to ritually protect the city but also, in the words of the King, to evoke a sense of “wonder” in “all peoples.” The creation of this powerful architectural complex was made possible by technological advancements as well as an engagement with longstanding artistic processes and religious practices. Panels depicting lions, bulls, and dragons were technically demanding—assembled like puzzles, such works required careful planning and production—and the beasts were magically activated through the use of clay, glaze, and molding technology. The craftspeople who designed the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way were more than highly skilled technicians: as religious specialists and scholars, they were members of society who had knowledge of, and access to, the sacred past. Ancient Middle Eastern craftspeople created objects that called upon the powers of both the human and divine realms. 

Three fragmentary bricks with palmette motifCo-curated by Clare Fitzgerald, Anastasia Amrhein, and Elizabeth Knott, this exhibition will feature approximately 150 artworks including a panel and fragments from the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, molded and glazed architectural elements, terracotta figurines and plaques, glass vessels, cylinder and stamp seals, amulets, jewelry, raw materials, artists’ tools, and cuneiform recipe tablets, as well as modern watercolors, sketches, and photographs. A Wonder to Behold reconsiders the Ishtar Gate as a testament to the transformative power of making and materials.

We look forward to welcoming you to our galleries for this exciting exhibition!

November 6, 2019 – May 24, 2020
Open Wednesday – Sunday: 11:00am – 6:00pm
Friday: 11:00am – 8:00pm
Free Guided Tour, Fridays at 6:00pm
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays

Image 1:
Bricks with a protective bull-man and cuneiform inscription
Middle Elamite Period, Shutrukid Dynasty (reign of Kutir-Nahhunte and Shilhak-Inshushinak, ca. 1150–1120 BCE), Inshushinak Temple, Apadana Mound, Susa, Iran
Molded baked clay, H. 139 cm; W. 36 cm; D. 33 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Antiquités orientales: Sb 21960
© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Franck Raux

Image 2:
Three fragmentary bricks with palmette motif
Achaemenid Period, ca. 559–331 BCE, Susa, Iran
Glazed siliceous material, (a) H. 8.6 cm; W. 21.4 cm; D. 12.6 cm; (b) H. 8.6 cm; W. 21.5 cm; D. 10.4 cm; (c) H. 8.6 cm; W. 18.8 cm; D. 13.8 cm
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1948: 48.98.20a–c
CC0 1.0 Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Wonder to Behold: The Power of Craftsmanship and the Creation of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate is made possible by generous support from the Selz Foundation, The Achelis and Bodman Foundation, and the Leon Levy Foundation. Additional funding provided by the Dennis and Diane Bennett Charitable Trust, Elizabeth Bartman, and Karen S. Rubinson.