Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Proclamation of Cyrus the Great -- The Cyrus Cylinder and the Biblical Texts

Gerard de Jode, Cyrus, King of Persia
From Thesaurus Sacrarum Historiarum veteris testamenti,
elegantissimis imaginabus expressum excellentissimorum
in hac arte virorum opera: nunc primum in lucem editus

Flemish, 1585
London, Trustees of the British Museum


“Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus,
whose right hand I grasp,
subduing nations before him,
and making kings run in his service,
opening doors before him
and leaving the gates unbarred:
For the sake of Jacob, my servant,
of Israel, my chosen one,
I have called you by your name,
giving you a title, though you knew me not.
I am the LORD and there is no other,
there is no God besides me.
It is I who arm you, though you know me not,
so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun
people may know that there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, there is no other.”
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6

First Reading for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
October 18, 2020


Whenever this text has been read at Mass over the last seven years it sends my mind and memory on a journey back a few years in time.  It sends it back to 2013, the first year of my volunteer service at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  My first assignment there was to work Friday evenings at the information desk located in the elevator lobby at the southern end of the second floor, a crossroads between the galleries devoted to the arts of the Ancient Near East, the Islamic lands, art from Cyprus during the Greek and Roman periods and Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and on the express pathway to the second floor special exhibition galleries for those who know the museum well.  Needless to say, it was a pretty unique location, where I had to field many diverse questions.  But one of the least asked for items was actually one of the most interesting and for the summer months was located a mere stone’s throw from my desk. 

 At that time the Met was hosting a loan exhibition from the British Museum in London.1 The subject was a famous cuneiform inscription in the unusual form of a cylinder.  Known as the Cyrus Cylinder this object records a decree by Cyrus the Second.  Cyrus II, the Great, was the Persian king who defeated and displaced the king of Babylon, known in the Bible as Nebuchadnezzar.  Cyrus began his reign over what had been Babylon in 539 BC. 


The Cyrus Cylinder (View 1)
Iran (Achaemenid Dynasty), c. 539 BC
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The cylinder is neither a large object nor a tiny one.  It measures about 8-1/2 inches in length, is a rounded oval, with a central diameter of about 4 inches, tapering to 3 inches at the two ends. It is made of baked clay and covered with an inscription in cuneiform, the writing system used in the ancient Near and Middle East. 


Add The Cyrus Cylinder (View 2)
Iran (Achaemenid Dynasty), c. 539 BC
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The inscription is what one might call an early press release.  It tells the story of how, through the intervention of the Assyrian/Babylonian god, Marduk, Cyrus, who was king of Anshan (an ancient city in modern day Iran (Persia), overthrew the king of Babylon, called Nabonidus in the inscription, of his resettlement of captive people to their homelands and how he re-established the worship of their gods. 


The Cyrus Cylinder (View 3)
Iran (Achaemenid Dynasty), c. 539 BC
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

A slightly edited version of a recent translation of the text on the cylinder, with missing passages indicated in brackets and emphasis added by me in bold, reads:

  [When …] … [… wor]ld quarters […] … a low person was put in charge of his country, but he set [a (…) counter]feit over them. He ma[de] a counterfeit of Esagil [and …] … for Ur and the rest of the cult-cities. Rites inappropriate to them, [impure] fo[od- offerings …] disrespectful […] were daily gabbled, and, intolerably, he brought the daily offerings to a halt; he inter[fered with the rites and] instituted […] within the sanctuaries. In his mind, reverential fear of Marduk, king of the gods, came to an end. He did yet more evil to his city every day; … his [people…], he brought ruin on them all by a yoke without relief. Enlil-of-the-gods became extremely angry at their complaints, and […] their territory. The gods who lived within them left their shrines, angry that he had made them enter into Babylon (Shuanna).

 Ex[alted Marduk, Enlil-of-the-Go]ds, relented. He changed his mind about all the settlements whose sanctuaries were in ruins and the population of the land of Sumer and Akkad who had become like corpses, and took pity on them. He inspected and checked all the countries, seeking for the upright king of his choice. He took under his hand Cyrus, king of the city of Anshan, and called him by his name, proclaiming him aloud for the kingship over all of everything. He made the land of the Qutu and all the Medean troops prostrate themselves at his feet, while he looked out in justice and righteousness for the black-headed people whom he had put under his care. Marduk, the great lord, who nurtures his people, saw with pleasure his fine deeds and true heart and ordered that he should go to Babylon.

 He had him take the road to Tintir, and, like a friend and companion, he walked at his side. His vast troops whose number, like the water in a river, could not be counted, marched fully-armed at his side. He had him enter without fighting or battle right into Shuanna; he saved his city Babylon from hardship. He handed over to him Nabonidus, the king who did not fear him. All the people of Tintir, of all Sumer and Akkad, nobles and governors, bowed down before him and kissed his feet, rejoicing over his kingship and their faces shone. The lord through whose trust all were rescued from death and who saved them all from distress and hardship, they blessed him sweetly and praised his name.

 I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world, son of Cambyses, the great king,, king of the city of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, ki[ng of the ci]ty of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, the great king, king of Anshan, the perpetual seed of kingship, whose reign Bel and Nabu love, and with whose kingship, to their joy, they concern themselves. When I went as harbinger of peace i[nt]o Babylon I founded my sovereign residence within the palace amid celebration and rejoicing. Marduk, the great lord, bestowed on me as my destiny the great magnanimity of one who loves Babylon, and I every day sought him out in awe. My vast troops marched peaceably in Babylon, and the whole of [Sumer] and Akkad had nothing to fear. I sought the welfare of the city of Babylon and all its sanctuaries.

 As for the population of Babylon […, w]ho as if without div[ine intention] had endured a yoke not decreed for them, I soothed their weariness, I freed them from their bonds(?). Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced at [my good] deeds, and he pronounced a sweet blessing over me, Cyrus, the king who fears him, and over Cambyses, the son [my] issue, [and over] my all my troops, that we might proceed further at his exalted command. All kings who sit on thrones, from every quarter, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea, those who inhabit [remote distric]ts (and) the kings of the land of Amurru who live in tents, all of them, brought their weighty tribute into Shuanna, and kissed my feet.

 From [Shuanna] I sent back to their places to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the border of the land of Qutu - the sanctuaries across the river Tigris - whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus – to the fury of the lord of the gods – had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Marduk and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: “Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses his son, may their … […] […….].”

 This text bears a surprising resemblance to the account of the return of the Hebrews to Jerusalem after their deportation by the king of Babylon, as told in the Book of Ezra.

The Edict of Cyrus
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400-1425
London, British Library
MS Royal 15 D III, fol. 193v

 “In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his entire kingdom, both by word of mouth and in writing:

 “Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: ‘All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.

Those among you who belong to any part of his people, may their God be with them! Let them go up to Jerusalem in Judah to build the house of the LORD the God of Israel, that is, the God who is in Jerusalem.

 Let all those who have survived, in whatever place they may have lived, be assisted by the people of that place with silver, gold, goods, and livestock, together with voluntary offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.’” (Ezra 1:1-4)

 Although Cyrus attributes his actions to the influence of his own god, Marduk, it is easy enough to see that the returning Jews would attribute this outcome to the influence to their god, Yahweh, or, in other words, to the God of Israel, the all-powerful, unseen Being who created the world.  Indeed, those who pronounce themselves skeptical about the identification of the text on the cylinder with the Biblical story, miss the point entirely.  If God the Almighty One is truly God, then His influence on people is what makes them act for good, whether they acknowledge Him as the One or whether they identify Him with one of the gods of their ancestors or whether they even believe He exists at all.  Too often those of the last persuasion tend to dismiss anything Biblical by saying it’s a myth.  However, the fact that we have two descriptions of the same act, the one from the Bible and the other from an archeological excavation certainly suggests that the event described did actually happen. 

 The iconography of Cyrus during the Middle Ages in Europe focused primarily on his actions as described in the Book of Ezra and in the passage from Isaiah quoted above.  He is frequently shown issuing the decree recorded by the Cylinder and also in scenes of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.  In the latter he is shown assuming direct personal control of the rebuilding process, something which could not have happened in reality. 


Cyrus and the Rebuilding of the Temple
From The Brantwood Bible
French (Arras), c. 1260
London, © The Trustees of
the British Museum
MS Yates Thompson
 22, fol. 130v

Cyrus Ordering the Rebuilding of the Temple
From the Abbey Bible
Italian (Bologna), c. 1250-1262
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS 107, fol. 170v

Actions of Cyrus the Great
From Jewish Antiquitites by Flaviius Josephus
French (Dijon), c. 1280-1300
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 533, fol. 117r

Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Cyrus the Great in Council
From Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais
French (Paris), c. 1333-1334
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 316, fol. 136

Cyrus the Great Addressed by God
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 3, fol. 206

Cyrus the Great Sending Out His Messengers
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins 
French (Paris), c. 1400 
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France 
MS Français 3, fol. 216

Workshop of the Boucicaut Master, Cyrus Issues the Proclamation
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400-1425
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 394, fol. 243v

Workshop of the Boucicaut Master, Cyrus Permits the Rebuilding of the Temple
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400-1425
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 394, fol. 200v

Master of the Bedford Hours and Master of the Cité des Dames, Cyrus Ordering the Rebuilding of the Temple
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1420
London, British Library
MS Additional 18856, fol. 207

Cyrus Directs the Rebuiliding of the Temple
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French, c. 1470-1479
London, British Library
MS Royal 15 D I, fol. 62v

Master of the Munich Bocaccio, Cyrus the Great and the Jews
From Jewish Antiquities by Flavius Josephus
French (Tours), c. 1470
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 247, fol. 230v

Erhard Schön, Cyrus Permitting the Rebuilding of the Temple
From a Latin Vulgate Bible
German, c. 1520-1521
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Jan Swart van Groningen, Cyrus Allows the Israelites to Return to Jerusalem
From the Vorsterman Bible
Flemish, 1528
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

In addition, there were images of his conquest of Babylon, showing him as commander of his troops, and some pictures simply showing him as a great king. 

Cyrus the Great
From Jewish Antiquities by Flavius Josephus
French (Champagne), c. 1150
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 8959. fol. 85

Attributed to Jacopino da Reggio, Cyrus
From a Bible
Italian (Bologna), c. 1275-1300
London, British Library
MS Additional 18720, fol. 186

Famous Men and Women (Cyrus is the crowned figure in pink at the right of the middle row)
From Chronica Figurata
Italian (Rome or Naples), 15th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9673, fol. 15

The Siege of Babylon
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 3, fol. 230v

Master François and Workshop, The Siege of Babylon
From Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais
French (Paris), 1463
Paris, Bibliotheque naitonale de France
MS Français 50, fol. 95

Cyrus with His Troops
From a translation of the Cyropaedia of Xenophon by Vasco da Lucena
French, c. 1470-1483
London, British Library
 MS Royal 16 G IX, fol. 42v


Michael Wolgemut, Old Testament Authors & Their Subjects
From the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel
German, 1493
Cambridge (UK), Cambridge University Library
MS Inc.0.A.7.2, fol. 888

Beginning in the fourteenth century and increasingly during he Renaissance and later periods artists abandoned the Biblical scenes involving Cyrus, instead drawing their subject matter from the work of the Greek historians, Xenophon and Herodatus.  These accounts often introduced a kind of “fairy tale” element into the iconography.  This element grew stronger during the later centuries, while the Biblical account received far less emphasis than it had previously.  These historians gave Cyrus a completely mythological family history, which reflects such other myths as that of Oedipus and Achilles, involving a fearful grandfather who threatens the child with assassination, a general who spirits the boy away, a poor family with whom he is lodged and even a dog (or wolf) who suckles him.  


Jean Bondol and Others, Astyages Sees a Vine Emerging from His Daughter's Mouth
From Grande Bible Historiale Complétée by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1371-1372
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS MMW 10 B23, fol. 262v

The vine emerging from his pregnant daughter was interpreted by her father Astyages as a personal threat.  He, therefore, determined to kill the child as soon as it was born.  His plan was foiled by one of his generals who removed the baby boy from the palace and brought him to a shepherd in the countryside to raise in exchange for the shepherd's stillborn son, who was passed off as the dead infanct Cyrus.

Master of Rohan and Workshop, The Infant Cyrus Suckled by a Dog
From De Casibus by Boccaccio
French (Paris), c. 1400-1425
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 226, fol. 52v

The Infant Cyrus Given to a Shepherd
From Fleur des histoires by Jean Mansel
French, c. 1450-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 55, fol. 172v

Master Francois, Scenes from the Infancy of Cyrus
From City of God by Saint Aaugustine of Hippo
French (Paris), c. 1475
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 A 11, fol.187r
Here the councilors of Astyages explain the meaning of his dream.  The dream is recalled in the person of his daughter, in the background, with a vine growing from her stomach.  In the far background, the infant Cyrus is suckled by a dog.

Antonio Maria Vassallo, Childhood of Cyrus the Great
Italian, c. 1650
Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Sebastiano Ricci, Childhood of Cyrus the Great, King of Persia
Italian, c. 1706-1708
Hamburg, Kunsthalle

Jean Charles Nicaise Perrin, Cyrus and Astyages
French, c. 1775-1820
Private Collection
In this picture Astyages is ordering the death of his grandson, Cyrus.

There is a dramatic return to seize his birthright, tales of his kindness and wisdom as a ruler, admiration for his conquests and fanciful scenes of his life.  Like Alexander he was used as a model of the perfect king as part of the decoration of Versailles during and following the reign of Louis XIV.

Adriaen Collaert After Maarten de Vos, Cyrus, King of Persia
Flemish, c. 1550-1600
Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek

After Antonio Tempesta, Cyrus the Great
Italian, c. 1597
Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kupferstich-Kabinett

Laurent de La Hyre, Panthea, Cyrus and Araspa
French, c. 1631-1634
Chicago, Art Institute

William Marshall, Title Page of Cyrupaedia (sic), a translation of Xenophon by Philemon Holland
English, 1632
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

After H. Padoanus, Cyrus, King of Persia
French, c. 1650
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

Ferdinand Bol, King Cyrus Handing Over the Treasure Looted from the Temple of Jerusalem
Dutch, c. 1655-1669
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

After Michiel Coxie, Cyrus Defeats Spargapises
From the Story of Cyrus Tapestry Set
Flemish (Brussels), c. 1670
Chicago, Art Institute

Gerard de Lairesse, Cyrus the Great
Dutch, c. 1675-1700
Amsterdam, Museum van Loon

Rene Antoine Houasse, Cyrus Presenting His Troops in Review Before a Princess
French, 1676
Versailles, Musée national des chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon

Christoph Maucher, Cyrus on Horseback
Fragment of the Amber Throne of Emperor Leopold I
German, c. 1677
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Kunstkammer

Claude Audran II, Cyrus Hunting Boar
French, c. 1677
Versailles, Musée national des chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon

Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet, Cyrus Addressing His Troops
French, 1678
Versailles, Musée national des chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon

Johann Joachim Kändler, Cyrus Or the Persian Monarchy
German (Meissen), c. 1753-1756
Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Porzellansammlung

Benjamin West, The Family of the King of Armenia Before Cyrus
American, 1773
London, Royal Trust Collection, On Loan to Spencer House

John Martin, The Fall of Babylon--Cyrus the Great Defeating the Chaldean Army
English, c. 1819-1831
London, The Wellcome Collection

By far the most popular subject in the later period was the story, as told by Herodatus, of of the mistreatment of his corpse at the hands of Tomyris, the vengeful queen of the Messagetae tribe, following his death in battle in the year 530 BC.   In revenge for the death of her son Spargapises in battle with the army of Cyrus, she had his body beheaded and the head placed in a basin filled with blood.  

Master of Rohan and Workshop, Revenge of Queen Tomyris
From De Casibus by Boccaccio
French (Paris), c. 1400-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 226, fol. 58

Revenge of Queen Tomyris
From De Mulieribus claris by Boccaccio
French (Paris), 1402
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 12420, fol. 74v

Revenge of Queen Tomyris
From De Casibus by Boccaccio
French (Western France), c. 1425
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 232, fol. 64

Michiel Coxcie, The Revenge of Tomyris
Flemish, c. 1620
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Peter Paul Rubens, The Head of Cyrus Presented to Queen Tomyris
Flemish, c. 1622-1623
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Victor Wolfvoet, The Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris
Flemish, c. 1625-1652
Royal Collection Trust, Hillsborough Castle

Mattia Preti, Tomyris Plunging the Head of Cyrus into a Container of Blood
Italian, c. 1660
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Attributed to Karl Gottlieb von Lück, Tomyris with the Head of Cyrus
German (Franckenthal Porcelain Manufactory), c. 1773
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jack and Belle Linsky Collection

Whatever his end may have been, his body was placed in a tomb which still stands today.  

Tomb of Cyrus the Great
Iran, c. 530 BC
Pasargadae, Iran

When Alexander the Great conquered Persia, about 200 years later, he visited the tomb and mourned the man who had, in many ways, been his predecessor as conqueror.  Some artists imagined how that might have looked.


Jean Pichore, Alexander att he Tomb of Cyrus
From historia alexandri magni by Quintus Curtius
French (Paris), 15th-16th Century)
 Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 711, fol. 29c


Hyacinthe Collin de Vermont, Alexander Laying a Gold Crown on the Tomb of Cyrus After Conquering the Persians
French, 1735
Versailles, Musée Lambinet

Pierre Andre de Valenciennes, Alexander at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great
French, 1796
Chicago, Art Institute

And, thanks to Cyrus’ decree at the start of his reign as Persian Emperor, the Jews who had been transported to Babylon were able to return to Jerusalem, to rebuild the Temple (which would be rebuilt again by Herod the Great) and to resume their lives as the Chosen People.  This is a powerful reminder to us that God can work out his will even through those who have no belief in him.  God is ultimately in charge.    

 © M. Duffy, 2020

 1.  The exhibition was called “The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia:  Charting a New Empire” and ran from June 20 to August 4, 2013.  It was located within the Ancient Near Eastern Galleries at the Met, one of the most fascinating and least visited areas of the museum.  See

 2.  New translation by Irving Finkel, Curator of Cuneiform Collections at the British Museum.  See  The emphasis in bold type in both this quotation and in the quotation from the Book of Ezra are mine. 


Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine; Psalm refrain © 1968, 1981, 1997, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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