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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Queen of the Night

Queen of the Night - Burney Relief

Queen of the Night (Burney Relief)

The “Queen of the Night “relief is a Mesopotamian terracotta plaque in high relief from about the 19th century BCE, depicting a winged goddess figure with bird’s talons, flanked by owls, and perched upon two lions. Its high relief and large size suggest that it was used as a cult image, however, whether it represents Ishtar or  Ereshkigal is under debate. This unique plaque is larger than the many mass-produced terracotta plaques of devotional items, which were excavated in the house ruins of the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods.

The relief is a fired clay plaque. It was molded with subsequent modeling of details. The details added include the rod-and-ring symbols, the curls of hair, and the eyes of the owls. The relief was then polished, and further details were incised with a pointed tool. It is also believed that the surface would have been smoothed with ochre paint. Traces of red pigment remain on the figure’s body.

The feathers of her wings and the owls’ feathers were also colored red, alternating with black and white. The red pigment is identified as red ochre, the black dye from lampblack, and the white pigment from gypsum. Black pigment is also found on the background of the plaque, the hair and eyebrows, and the lions’ manes. The lions’ bodies were painted pale white. The horns of the headdress, bracelets, rod-and-ring symbols and the necklace are assumed to have had been colored yellow.

The Provenance of the Queen of the Night

In 1935, the plaque passed to the London antique dealer Sidney Burney; it subsequently became known as the “Burney Relief.” Unfortunately, its original provenance remains unknown. The relief was not archaeologically excavated, and thus we have no further information where it came from, or in which context it was discovered. Interpretations of this relief are based on comparisons with other historic artifacts whose date and place of origin have been established, and on an analysis of the iconography, and the text sources from Mesopotamian mythology and religion.

Stylistic comparisons place the relief at the earliest into the Isin–Larsa period, or slightly later, to the beginning of the Old Babylonian period. Ur is one possible city of origin for the relief, but not the only one. The size of the plaque suggests it would have belonged in a shrine, possibly as an object of worship. Compared with how important religious practice was in Mesopotamia and compared to the number of temples that existed, very few cult figures at all have been preserved.

The primary figures of worship in temples and shrines were made of materials so valuable that they were looting during the many shifts of power and religions in the region. This relief is comparatively plain and survived, making it one of only two surviving significant, symbolic representations from the Old Babylonian period. The other surviving artifact is the Code of Hammurabi, which was discovered in another location from its initial origins, where it had been brought as booty.

Influence of Greek and Roman Goddesses

Early images of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess associated with love and beauty, may have been primarily derived from that of the Phoenician goddess Astarte images. Astarte was, in turn, derived from a combination of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, whose cult was based on the Sumerian cult of Inanna. Sculptural representations of Aphrodite, in turn, influenced images of the Roman goddess Venus.

Queen of the Night

  • Title:              Queen of the Night (Burney Relief)
  • Date:             19th-18th century BCE
  • Findspot:       Unknown
  • Materials:      Clay
  • Culture:         Old Babylonian
  • Dimensions:  H: 49.5 cm (19.5 in); W: 37 cm (15 in); T: 4.8 cm (1.9 in)
  • Museum:      The British Museum

Tour the Middle East Collection at the British Museum

Tour of Mesopotamian Art

Reflections

  • One of only two surviving large, symbolic representations from the Old Babylonian?
  • Did this image influence the Greek Aphrodite, which in turn influenced the visual images of Roman Venus?

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“She stirs confusion and chaos against those who are disobedient to her.”
– Enheduanna, A Hymn to Inana

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Photo Credit: 1) British Museum [CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)]

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