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A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 16

On the other hand, Chaldaea preceded Assyria in the art of raising airy structures mainly composed of wood and metal, and by them she was led to the use of slender supports and a decoration in which grace and elegance were the most conspicuous features. We have a proof of this in a curious monument recently acquired by the British Museum. It comes from Abou-Abba, about sixteen miles south-west of Bagdad, and is in a marvellous state of preservation. Abou-Abba has been recognized as the site of the ancient Sippara, one of the oldest of Chaldaean towns. Its sanctuaries, in which the sun-god, Samas, was chiefly adored, always maintained a great importance.

The monument in question is a tablet of very close-grained grey stone 11-1/3 inches long 6 inches high and, in the centre, about 3 inches thick.

Its thickness increases from top to bottom. The edge is grooved. High up on the obverse there is a bas-relief, beneath this commences a long inscription which is finished on the reverse.[253] Shorter inscriptions are engraved on the field of the relief itself. The whole work--figures, inscriptions, and outer mouldings--is executed with the utmost care. The laborious solicitude with which the smallest details are carried out is to be explained by the destination of this little plaque, namely, the temple in the centre of Sippara in which a triad consisting of Sin, Samas, and Istar was the object of worship.[254]

The relief itself--which we reproduce from a cast kindly presented to us by Dr. Birch--occupies rather less than half of the obverse (Fig. 71). It represents a king called Nabou-Abla-Idin, who reigned about 900, doing homage to the sun-god.[255] We shall return to this scene and its composition when the time arrives for treating Chaldaean sculpture. At present we only wish to speak of the pavilion under which the deity is enthroned upon a chair supported by two beings half man and half bull.

This kind of tabernacle is bounded, above and at the back of the god, by a wall of which there is nothing to show the exact nature. Its graceful, sinuous line, however, seems to exclude the idea, sufficiently improbable in itself, of a brick vault. It may possibly have been of wood, though it would not be easy to obtain this elegant curve even in that material.

But such forms as this are given with the greatest ease in metal, and we are ready to believe that what the artist here meant to represent was a metal frame, which could at need be hidden under a canopy of leather or wool, like those we have already encountered in the Assyrian bas-reliefs (Figs. 67 and 68). The artist has in fact made use of a graphic process common enough with the Egyptians.[256] He has given us a lateral elevation of the tabernacle with the god in profile within it, because his skill was unequal to the task of showing him full front and seated between the two columns of the facade.

The single column thus left visible has been represented with great skill and care; the sculptor seems to have taken pleasure in dwelling upon its smallest details. Slender as it is, it must have been of wood. The markings upon it suggest the trunk of a palm, but we may be permitted to doubt whether it was allowed to remain in its natural uncovered state. Even in the climate of Chaldaea a dead tree trunk exposed to the air would have no great durability. Sooner or later the sun, the rain, the changes of temperature, would give a good account of it, and besides, a piece of rough wood could hardly be made to harmonize with the luxury that must assuredly have been lavished by the people of Sippara upon the sanctuary of their greatest divinity.

It is probable, therefore, that the wood was overlaid with plates of gilded bronze, fastened on with nails.

This hypothesis is confirmed by one of M. Place's discoveries at Khorsabad.[257] There, in front of the Harem, he found several large fragments of a round cedar-wood beam almost as thick as a man's body. It was cased in a bronze sheath, very much oxydized and resembling the scales of a fish in arrangement (Fig. 72). The metal was attached to the wood by a large number of bronze nails. Comparing these remains with certain bas-reliefs in which different kinds of trees appear (Fig. 27) we can easily see that the Ninevite sculptors meant to represent the peculiar roughnesses of palm bark. Their usual methods are modified a little by the requirements of the material and the size of the beam upon which it was used. Each scale was about 4-1/2 inches high, and according to the calculations of M. Place, the whole mast must have been from five-and-thirty to forty feet high. Working for spectators on a lower level and at some distance, the smith thought well to make his details as regular and strongly marked as he could; to each scale or leaf he gave a raised edge to mark its contour and distinguish it from the rest. The general effect was thus obtained by deliberate exaggeration of the relief and by a conventionality that was justified by the conditions of the problem to be solved.

[Illustration: FIG. 71.--Homage to _Samas_ or _Shamas_. Tablet from Sippara. Actual size. Drawn by Saint-Elme Gautier.]

At a little distance from this broken beam M. Place found a leaf of gold which is now in the Louvre; it presents the same ovoid forms as the bronze sheathing, and, moreover, the numerous nail holes show that it was meant to fulfil the same purpose as the bronze plates. The place in which it was found, its dimensions and form, all combine to prove that it was laid upon the bronze as we should lay gold leaf. It bears an inscription in cuneiform characters.

[Illustration: FIG. 72.--Sheath of a cedar-wood mast, bronze.]

We are inclined to take these plates for models in restoring the columns of the Sippara tabernacle. There is nothing in the richness of this double covering of bronze and gold to cause surprise, as the inscription which covers part of the face and the whole of the back of the tablet is nothing but a long enumeration of the gifts made to the shrine of Samas by the reigning king and his predecessors.

This column has both capital and base. The former cannot have been of stone; a heavy block of basalt or even of limestone would be quite out of place in such a situation. As for the base it is hardly more than a repetition of the capital, and must have been of the same material; and that material was metal, the only substance that, when bent by the hand or beaten by the hammer, takes almost of its own motion those graceful curves that we call _volutes_.

We believe then in a bronze capital gilded. Under the volutes three rings, or _astragali_, may be seen. By their means the capital was allied to the shaft. The former consisted of two volutes between which appeared a vertical point resembling one of the angles of a triangle. The base is the same except that it has no point, and that the rings are in contact with the ground instead of with the shaft. These volutes may also be perceived on the table in front of the tabernacle, where they support the large disk by which the sun-god is symbolized.

[Illustration: FIG. 73.--Interior of a house supported by wooden pillars; from the gates of Balawat. British Museum.]

Before quitting this tablet we may point to another difference between the column of Sippara and the shafts of the same material and proportions that we have encountered in the Assyrian bas-reliefs (Figs. 67, 68, and 69). In the latter the column rises above the canopy, which is attached to its shaft by brackets or nails. At Sippara the canopy rests upon the capital itself. The same arrangement may be found in Assyrian representations of these light structures; it will suffice to give one example taken from the gates of Balawat (Fig. 73). Here, too, the proportions of the columns prove them to have been of wood. They do not rise above the entablature. The architrave rests upon them, and, as in Greece and Egypt, its immediate weight is borne by abaci.

At present our aim is to prove that Assyria derived from Chaldaea the first idea of those tall and slender columns, the shafts of which were of wood sheathed in metal, and the capitals of the latter material. The graceful and original forms of Chaldaean art would have prepared the way for a columnar architecture in stone, had that material been forthcoming.

Babylon, however, saw no such architecture. Her plastic genius never came under the influence that would have led her to import stone from abroad; and the grace and variety of the orders remained unknown to her builders.

Like Egypt, Chaldaea gave lessons but received none. The forms of her art are to be explained by the inborn characteristics of her people and the natural conditions among which they found themselves placed.

In Assyria these conditions were rather different. The stone column was used there, but used in a timid and hesitating fashion. It never reached the freedom and independence that would have characterized it had it arisen naturally from the demands of construction.[258]

[Illustration: FIG. 74.--Assyrian capital, in perspective; compiled from Place.]

We only possess one column, or rather one fragment of a column, from Assyria, and that was found by M. Place at Khorsabad (Fig. 74). It is a block of carefully worked and carved limestone about forty inches high, and including both the capital and the upper part of the shaft in its single piece.

Such a combination could not long exist in architectonic systems in which the stone column played its true part. It is a survival from the use of wood. Another characteristic feature is the complete absence both from this fragment and from the columns in the sculptured reliefs of vertical lines or divisions of any kind, no trace of a fluted or polygonal shaft has been found.[259]

In writing the history of the Egyptian column we explained how the natural desire for as much light as possible led the architects of Beni-Hassan to transform the square pier, first into an octagonal prism, secondly into one with sixteen sides.[260] And to this progressive elaboration of the polyhedric shaft the flutes seemed to us to owe their origin. On the other hand, with tall and slender supports such as those afforded by palm trunks no necessity for reduction and for the shaving of angles would arise, and those flutes whose peculiar section is owing to the desire for a happy play of light and shadow, would never have been thought of. If we imitate a natural timber shaft in stone we have a smooth cylindrical column like that seen in Fig. 74.

Again, the shafts of the columns in the bas-reliefs, appear slender in comparison with those of Egypt, or with the doric shafts of the oldest Greek temples (see Fig. 41 and 42). In the fragmentary column from Khorsabad (Fig. 74) we have only a small part of the shaft but if we may judge from the feeble salience of the capital, its proportions must have been slender rather than heavy and massive.

Wherever the stone column has been used in buildings of mediocre size, the architect seems to have been driven by some optical necessity to make his angle columns more thickset than the other supports. Thus it was in Assyria, in the little temple at Kouyundjik (Fig. 42), where the outer columns are sensibly thicker than those between them; at Khorsabad (Fig.

41) the same result was obtained by rather different means. The edifice represented in this bas-relief bears no little similarity to certain Egyptian temples and to the Greek temple _in antis_.[261] The strength of these angular piers contrasts happily with the elegance of the columns between them. The latter are widely spaced, and, as in some Egyptian buildings, the architrave is but a horizontal continuation of the corner piers.

If we analyse the column and examine its three parts separately we shall be led to similar conclusions. The stone column no doubt bore the architrave upon its capital wherever it was used, and both in Chaldaea and Assyria we find the same arrangement in those light structures which we have classed as belonging to the architecture of the tent (Figs. 70 and 72). The origin of the forms employed in stone buildings is most clearly shewn by the frequent occurrence of the volute, a curvilinear element suggested by the use and peculiar properties of metal.

[Illustration: FIG. 75.--Capital; from a small temple.]

We find these volutes everywhere, upon shafts of stone and wood indifferently. We are tempted to think, when we examine the details of our Fig. 67, that the first idea of them was taken from the horns of the ibex or the wild goat. The column on the right of this cut bears a fir cone between its volutes, those on the left have small tablets on which are perched the very animals whose heads are armed with these horns.

However this may be, the form in question, like all others borrowed from nature by man, was soon modified and developed by art. The curve was prolonged and turned in upon itself. In one of the capitals of the little temple represented at Kouyundjik (Fig. 42), two pairs of these horns may be recognized one above the other (Fig. 75), but nowhere else do we find such an arrangement. Whether the column be of wood, as in the Sippara tablet (Fig. 71), or of stone, as in those buildings in which the weight and solidity of the entablature points decisively to that material (Figs. 41 and 42), we find a volute in universal use that differs but slightly in its general physiognomy from the familiar ornament of the Ionic capital.

[Illustration: FIG. 76.--View of a palace; from Layard.]

Let us revert for a moment to the country house or palace of which we gave a general view in Fig. 39. We shall there find on the highest part of the building an open loggia supported by small columns many times repeated. We reproduce this part of the relief on a larger scale (Fig. 76), so that its details may be more clearly seen. A very slight familiarity with the graphic processes of the Assyrians is sufficient to inform the reader that the kind of trellis work with which the bed of the relief is covered is significant of a mountainous country. The palace rises on the banks of a river, which is indicated by the sinuous lines in the right lower corner.

The buildings themselves--which are dominated here and there by the round tops of trees, planted, we may suppose, in the inner courts--stand upon mounds at various heights above the plain. The lowest of these look like isolated structures, such as the advanced works of a fortress. Next comes a line of towers, and then the artificial hill crowned by the palace properly speaking. The facade of the latter is flanked by tall and salient towers, across whose summits runs the open gallery to which we have referred.[262]

This is supported by numerous columns which must by their general arrangement and spacing, have been of wood. The gallery consisted, in all probability, of a platform upheld by trunks of trees, either squared or left in the rough and surmounted by capitals sheathed in beaten bronze.

The volute is here quite simple in shape; elsewhere we find it doubled, as it were, so that four volutes occur between the astragali and the abacus (Figs. 42 and 77).[263] In other examples, again, it is elongated upwards until it takes a shape differing but little from the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian capital (Fig. 78).[264]

This volute is found all over Assyria and Chaldaea. It decorates the angles of the small temple represented on the stone known as Lord Aberdeen's Black Stone (Fig. 79). It occurs also on many of the ivories, but these, perhaps, are for the most part Phoenician. But in any case the Assyrians made constant use of it in the decoration of their furniture. In an ivory plaque, of which the British Museum possesses several examples, we find a man standing and grasping a lotus stem in his left hand (Fig. 80). This stem rests upon a support which bears a strong resemblance to the Sippara capital (Fig. 71); it has two volutes separated by a sharp point. The fondness of the Assyrians for these particular curves is also betrayed in that religious and symbolic device which has been sometimes called the _Tree of Life_. Some day, perhaps, the exact significance of this emblem may be explained, we are content to point out the variety and happy arrangement of the sinuous lines which surround and enframe the richly decorated pilaster that acts as its stem. We gave one specimen of this tree in Fig. 8; we now give another (Fig. 81). The astragali, the ibex horns and the volutes, may all be easily recognized here.

[Illustration: FIG. 77.--Capital; from a small temple.]

[Illustration: FIG. 78.--Capital.]

[Illustration: FIG. 79.--Chaldaean tabernacle.]

[Illustration: FIG. 80.--Ivory plaque found at Nimroud. Actual size.

British Museum.]

The only stone capital that has come down to us has, indeed, no volutes (Fig. 74) but it is characterized by the same taste for flowing lines and rounded forms. Its general section is that of a cyma reversa surmounted by a flattened torus, and its appearance that of a vase decorated with curvilinear and geometrical tracery. There is both originality and beauty in the contours of the profile and the arrangement of the tracery; the section as a whole is not unlike that of the inverted bell-shaped capitals at Karnak.[265]

[Illustration: FIG. 81.--_The Tree of Life_; from Layard.]

This type must have been in frequent use, as we find it repeated in four bases found still in place in front of the palace of Sennacherib by Sir Henry Layard. They were of limestone and rested upon plinths and a pavement of the same material (Fig. 82).[266] In these the design of the ornament is a little more complicated than the festoon on the Khorsabad capital, but the principle is the same and both objects belong to one narrow class.

We again encounter this same base with its opposing curves in a curious monument discovered at Kouyundjik by Mr. George Smith.[267] This is a small and carefully executed model, in yellowstone, of a winged human-headed bull, supporting on his back a vase or base similar in design to that figured above. This little object must have served as a model for the carvers engaged upon the palace walls. We shall not here stop to examine the attributes and ornaments of the bull, they are well shown in our Figs.

83 and 84, and their types are known by many other examples. Our aim is to show that we have rightly described the uses to which it was put. These might have remained obscure but for the discovery, in the south-western palace at Nimroud, of a pair of winged sphinxes, calcined by fire but still in their places between two huge lions at one of the doors. Before their contours disappeared--and they rapidly crumbled away upon contact with the air--Layard had time to make a drawing of the one that had suffered least (Fig. 85). In his description he says that between the two wings was a sort of plateau, "intended to carry the base of a column."[268]

[Illustration: FIG. 82.--Ornamented base, in limestone.]

Surprised at not finding any trace of the column itself, he gives out another conjecture: that these sphinxes were altars upon which offerings to the gods, or presents to the king were placed. This hypothesis encounters many objections. We may easily account for the disappearance of the column by supposing it to have been of wood. If it was stone, it may have been carried off for use as a roller by the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages, before that part of the building to which it belonged was so completely engulfed and hidden by the ruins as it afterwards became.[269] Moreover we can point to a certain number of Assyrian altars, and their shapes are very different from this.

[Illustration: FIG. 83.--Model of a base, side view. Actual size.]

[Illustration: FIG. 84.--The same, seen from in front.]

Finally, all our doubts are removed by a bas-relief from the palace of Assurbanipal, which is now in the British Museum (Fig. 86). The upper part of this carved picture is destroyed, but enough remains to show that it reproduced the facade of some richly decorated building. Four columns supported on the backs of so many lions, and two flat pilasters upheld in the same fashion by winged griffins, may readily be distinguished. That these griffins are not repeated on the left of the relief, is due perhaps to the haste or laziness of the sculptor. He may have thought he had done enough when he had shown once for all how these pedestals were composed.

However this may have been, the lions in this relief play exactly the same _role_ as that attributed by us to the little model found by George Smith, and to the winged sphinx discovered by Sir Henry Layard before one of the doors at Nimroud. A base in the form of a vase or cushion is inserted between the back of the animal and the bottom of the shaft. In the pilaster--if we may believe that the artist took no liberties with fact--the junction is direct without the interposition of any ornamental motive.

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