NEW YORK — Noah’s seaborne menagerie was supposed to carry enough animals, birds and insects to repopulate the earth after the great flood waters receded.
And for those wondering what the floating fauna looked like, a new exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum called “Noah’s Beasts: Sculpted Animals from Ancient Mesopotamia” suggests that they were strikingly similar to the kinds of animals still found in the contemporary Middle East.
The show explores the story of the great deluge through actual animal depictions dating back to 3300 BCE. But it also connects past to present: All of the sculptures on display — from the Markhor sheep with its corkscrew horns to a cow with tufted hair — still roam the world today.
“These masterpieces have an immediacy that transcends time itself. The artists were able to abstract natural forms and recreate the animals with these forms into something that conveys the essence of each animal that is timeless and that appeals and connects to us today,” said Sidney Babcock, the museum’s Jeannette and Jonathan Rosen Curator. “Also, the reed structures of the inhabitants of the marshes were being made for thousands of years and give us, today, an opportunity to witness firsthand the world as experienced by the ancient Sumerians.”
On display through August 27, the exhibit offers a glimpse into the way people who lived thousands of years ago interpreted a story that is found in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. It is designed to celebrate the skill with which early sculptors evoked the animal kingdom in honor of their gods.
The show brings together for the first time 16 works of art from the Morgan and several other institutions from across the country.
An Assyriologist named George Smith earned worldwide fame when, in 1872, while an assistant at the British Museum, he translated a tablet from seventh century BCE inscribed with a story of a long ago flood. The story etched into that stone, now known as “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” was quite similar to the story told in the Book of Genesis.
But the inspiration for the show came from a piece already in the Morgan’s collection — an even older cuneiform tablet containing the story known as the “Epic of Atrahasis,” a diluvian story that sets the template for the character of Noah, Babcock said.
Babcock is also the head of the museum’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Seals and Tablets.
“The Morgan is justifiably proud of its Gutenberg Bibles, but to also have a fragment of the earliest Akkadian version of the iconic flood story is rather remarkable,” he said.
Discovered in 1898, the tablet dates from the reign of the Babylonian King Ammisaduqa, who ruled between 1646 and 1626 BCE.
At the time of its discovery the American industrialist Pierpont Morgan, who founded the Morgan Library and Museum, purchased the tablet.
Sculptures made from stone and metal surround the Morgan tablet, several of them incorporating silver, gold, and inlays of shells and lapis lazuli. All of them were created as a way to worship the gods.
The “Head of a Lion,” dating to between 2550 – 2400 BCE is one of the highlights. The artist carefully etched lines on the piece to suggest a mane and whiskers. The piece was discovered in the passageway of Queen Puabi’s tomb at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, which is believed by some historians to be the site of the great flood.
Although the epic serves as a cautionary tale for humanity, archaeologists have unearthed evidence for devastating floods, most notably at Ur, located in present-day Iraq.
Another noteworthy piece is the “Ram Caught in a Thicket,” which dates to 2550-2400 BCE. Also found in Ur, the sculpture alludes to Genesis 22:13: “Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son.”
As for the piece on display, it’s actually a goat standing on its hind legs. Its front hooves rest on the branches of a plant. The bud in the center represents Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, wisdom and fertility.
Babcock said he hopes museum goers will not only appreciate the way each piece ties together history, myth, archaeology and art, but also “the absolute dependence of the Sumerians on the fecundity of the plant world and the fertility of the animal world expressed through these magnificent works of art that all have an inner life.”