A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 19

[291] LAYARD, _Nineveh_, vol. i. p. 79.

[292] OTTFRIED MuLLER, _Handbuch der Archaologie der Kunst_, -- 107 and 168 (3rd edition).

[293] _Art in Ancient Egypt_, vol. i. p. 112, and vol. ii. chap. ii. -- 4.

[294] _Ibid._ vol. ii. fig. 44.

-- 6.--_Secondary Forms._

(_Doors, windows, steles, altars, obelisks, mouldings._)

We have been obliged to dwell at length on the arch and the column because those two elements of construction are of the greatest importance to all who wish to gain a true idea of Mesopotamian art and of its influence upon neighbouring peoples and over subsequent developments of architecture. On the other hand we shall have very little to say upon what, in speaking of Egyptian art, we called _secondary forms_.[295]

We have already had occasion to speak of some of these, such as windows and doors. We have explained how the nature of his materials and the heat of the climate led the architect to practically suppress the former, while, on the other hand, he gave extravagant dimensions to the latter. It was to the door that the rooms had mainly to look for the light and air, with which they could not entirely dispense. We have now to give a few details as to the fashion in which these large openings were set in the walls that enframed them. As for salient decorative members--or mouldings, to give them their right name--their list is very short. We shall, however, find them in some variety in a series of little monuments that deserve, perhaps, more attention than they have yet received--we mean altars, steles, and those objects to which the name of _obelisks_ has, with some inaccuracy, been given. Some of these objects have no little grace of their own, and serve to prove that what the Chaldaeans and Assyrians lacked was neither taste nor invention, but the encouragement that the possession of a kindly material would have given to their genius.

Doorways seem to have been generally crowned with a brick archivolt; round-headed doors occur oftener than any others on the bas-reliefs, but rectangular examples are not wanting (see Fig. 43). In the latter case the lintel must have been of wood, metal, or stone. Naturally the bronze and timber lintels have disappeared, while in but a single instance have the explorers found one of stone, namely that discovered by George Smith at the entrance to a hall in the palace of Sennacherib (Fig. 95). It consists of a block of richly carved limestone. Its sculptures are now much worn, but their motives and firm execution may still be admired. Two winged dragons, with long necks folded like that of a swan, face each other, the narrow space between them being occupied by a large two-handled vase. Above these there is a band of carved foliage, the details of which are lost in the shadow cast by a projecting cornice along the top of the lintel.[296] The necklace round the throat of the right-hand dragon should be noticed.

It is surprising that stone lintels are so rare, especially as the corresponding piece, if we may call it so, namely, the sill or threshold, was generally of limestone or alabaster, at least in the more important and more richly-decorated rooms.

[Illustration: FIG. 95.--Decorated lintel, 6 feel long and 10 inches high.

British Museum.]

The exploration of the Assyrian palaces has brought three systems of flooring to light--beaten earth, brick pavements, and pavements of limestone slabs.[297] In the palace of Sargon nearly every chamber, except those of the harem, had a floor of beaten earth, like that in a modern fellah's house. Even the halls in which the painted and sculptured decoration was most sumptuous were no exceptions to this rule. There is nothing in this, however, to surprise those who have lived in the East; like the Turks, Arabs, and Persians of our own time, the Chaldaeans and Assyrians were shod, except when fighting or hunting, with those _babooshes_ or sandals that are so often figured in the bas-reliefs. These must have been taken off, as they are to-day, before entering a temple, a palace, or a harem. Moses was required to take off his shoes before approaching the burning bush, because the place on which he stood was holy ground. In the houses of their gods, in those of their kings and rich men, the floor would be covered with those rich carpets and mats that from one end of the East to the other conceal from sight the floors of white wood or beaten earth. In summer the mats are fresh and grateful to the bare feet, in the winter the carpets are soft and warm. The floors themselves are hardly ever seen, so that we need feel no surprise at their being left without ornament. So, too, was it in all probability in the palaces of Sargon and of other kings, and in the sacred buildings.

Elsewhere, however, we find a pavement constructed with the most scrupulous care, and consisting of three distinct parts,--two layers of large bricks with a thick bed of sand interposed between them. The lower course of bricks is set in a bed of bitumen which separates it from the earth and prevents any dampness passing either up or down. This system of paving was used in most of the harem chambers at Khorsabad as well as in the open courts and upon the terraces. Lastly, in certain rooms of the seraglio and harem, in a few of the courts, in the vestibules, before the gates of the city, and in paths across wide open spaces, a limestone pavement has been found. Wherever this pavement exists, the stones are of the same kind and placed in the same manner. The limestone is exactly similar to that in the retaining walls described on page 147. The stones are often more than three feet square, and from two feet six inches to two feet ten inches thick.

Their shape is not that of a regular solid; it is more like a reversed cone, the base forming the pavement and the narrow end being buried in the ground. These stones are simply placed side by side without the use of mortar or cement of any kind, but their weight and peculiar shape gave a singular durability to the pavement for which they were used.

Most of the sills belong to this class. And in Assyria where doorways were several yards deep and two or three wide, these sills were in reality the pavements of passages or even chambers.[298]

The materials for these pavements were always different from those of the floors on each side of them. In the entrances to the brick-paved courts large stones were used; in the passages between rooms floored with beaten earth bricks were introduced. The stone thresholds were mostly alabaster like the sculptured slabs upon the chamber walls. As a rule they were of a single piece, the great extent of surface, sometimes as much as ten or eleven square yards, notwithstanding. In the entries flanked by the winged bulls the sills were carved with inscriptions, which were comparatively rare elsewhere. Sometimes we find a rich and elaborate ornamentation in place of the wedges; it is made up of geometrical forms and conventional foliage and flowers; the figures of men and animals are never introduced.

Such an arrangement was in better taste than the mosaic thresholds of the Romans where men were shown in pictures destined to be trodden under foot.

The Assyrian carver doubtless took his designs from the carpets in the adjoining chambers.

[Illustration: FIG. 96.--Sill of a door, from Khorsabad. Louvre. Length 40 inches. Drawn by Bourgoin.[299]]

A good idea of these designs may be formed from the slab figured below. The centre is occupied by a number of interlacing circles, betraying no little skill on the part of the ornamentist. The "knop and flower" border of alternately closed and shut lotus flowers is separated from the centre by a band of rosettes. The whole is distinguished by thought and a severe taste.

The indented corners, where the pivots of the doors were placed, and the slot for the lower bolt of the door near the centre, should be noticed.

These details prove that in this instance the door was a double one. In other cases the absence of the slot and the presence of only one pivot hole show that single doors were also used.[300] The doors always opened inwards, being folded back either against the sides of the entry itself or against the walls of the chamber.

Many of these sills or thresholds show no sign of a pivot at either corner, whence we may conclude that many of the openings were left without doors, and could only have been closed by those suspended carpets or mats of which such ready use is made in hot countries.

In very magnificent buildings metal thresholds sometimes replaced those of stone or brick. In the British Museum there is a huge bronze sill that was found in a ruined temple at Borsippa, by Mr. Rassam. Its extreme length is sixty inches, its width twenty, and its thickness about three and a half inches. It bears an inscription of Nebuchadnezzar the arrangement of which proves that the sill when complete had double its present length, or about ten feet. Its upper surface is decorated with large rosettes within square borders. We need hardly say that it is a solid casting, and that its weight is, therefore, by no means trifling. The workmen who put in place and those who cast it must both have thoroughly understood what they were about. Even now, we are told, the latter operation would be attended by some difficulty.[301]

The founders who produced this casting could have no difficulty over the other parts of the door-case, and we have no reason to doubt the statement of Herodotus, who thus ends his account of how the walls of Babylon were built: "The walls had a hundred gates, all of bronze; their jambs and lintels were of the same material."[302]

These lintels and jambs must have been, like the Borsippa threshold, of massive bronze, or they would soon have been crushed by the weight they had to support. On the other hand, had doors themselves been entirely of that metal it would have been very difficult if not impossible to swing them upon their hinges, especially in the case of city gates like those just referred to. It is probable, then, that they were of timber, covered and concealed by plates of bronze. Herodotus indeed narrates what he saw, like a truthful and intelligent witness, but he was not an archaeologist, and it did not occur to him when he entered the famous city which formed the goal of his travels, to feel the shining metal and find out how much of it was solid and how much a mere armour for a softer substance behind.

From fragments found at Khorsabad, M. Place had already divined that the Assyrians covered the planks of their doors with bronze plates, but all doubts on the point have been removed by a recent discovery, which has proved once for all that art profited in the end by what at first was nothing more than a protection against weather and other causes of deterioration. In 1878 Mr. Hormuzd Rassam, the fellow traveller of Sir Henry Layard, found in the course of his excavations in Assyria for the British Museum, some metallic bands covered with _repousse_ reliefs and bearing the name of Shalmaneser III. (895-825). The site of this discovery was Balawat, an artificial mound about fifteen miles to the east of Mossoul.[303] As soon as these bands had been examined in London by competent archaeologists, they were recognized as having belonged to the leaves of a wooden door, which must have been nearly twenty-seven feet high and about three inches thick. This latter dimension has been deduced from the length of the nails used to keep the bands in place. At one end these bands were bent with the hammer round the pivot to which each half of the door was attached. These pivots, judging from the bronze feet into which they were "stepped," were about twelve inches in diameter.

It is easy to see from their shape how these feet were fixed and how they did their work (Fig. 97). The point of the cone was let into a hollow socket prepared for it in a block cut from the hardest stone that could be found. Such a material would resist friction better and take a higher polish than brick, so that it was at once more durable and less holding.

Sockets of flint, basalt, trachyte, and other volcanic rocks have been found in great numbers both in Assyria and Chaldaea.[304] Instances of the use of brick in this situation are not wanting,[305] however, and now and then the greenish marks left by the prolonged contact of metal have been discovered in the hollows of these sockets.[306]

[Illustration: FIG. 97.--Bronze foot from the Balawat gates and its socket.[307] British Museum.]

More than one method was in use for fixing the pivots of the doors and enabling them to turn easily. Sir Henry Layard brought from Nimroud four heavy bronze rings which must have been used to supplement these hollow sockets.[308] In one way or another bronze occupied a very important place in the door architecture of the Assyrians. In those cases where it neither supplied the door-case nor ornamented its leaves, it was at least used to fix the latter and to enable them to turn.

In Assyrian facades doors had much greater importance than in those architectural styles in which walls are broken up by numerous openings.

Their great size, their rich and varied ornamentation, the important figures in high relief with which the walls about them were adorned, the solemn tints of bronze lighted up here and there by the glory of gold, the lively colours of the enamelled bricks that formed their archivolts, and finally the contrast between the bare and gleaming walls on either side and their depths of shadow--all these combined to give accent to the doorways and to afford that relief to the monotony of the walls of which they stood in so great a need. For Assyrian mouldings are even poorer than those of Egypt. The softness of crude brick, the brittle hardness of burnt brick, are neither of them well disposed towards those delicate curves by which a skilful architect contrives to break the sameness of a facade, and to give the play of light and shadow which make up the beauty of a Greek or Florentine cornice.

The only mouldings encountered in Assyria have been found on a few buildings or parts of buildings in which stone was employed. We may quote as an instance the retaining wall of the small, isolated structure excavated by Botta towards the western angle of the Khorsabad mound, and by him believed to be a temple.[309] The wall in question is built of a hardish grey limestone, the blocks being laid alternately as stretchers and headers. The wall is complete with plinth, die and cornice (Figs. 98 and 99). The latter is a true cornice, composed of a small torus or bead, a scotia, and a fillet. The elements are the same as those of the Egyptian cornice, except in the profile of the hollow member, which is here a _scotia_ and in Egypt a _cavetto_, to speak the language of modern architects. The Egyptian moulding is at once bolder and more simple, while the vertical grooves cut upon its surface give it a rich and furnished aspect that its Assyrian rival is without.[310]

We have another example of Assyrian mouldings on the winged sphinx found by Layard at Nimroud (Fig. 85)--the sphinx, that is, that bore a column on its back. In section this moulding may be compared to a large _scotia_ divided into two _cavettos_ by a _torus_. Its effect is not happy. The Assyrians had too little experience in stone-cutting to enable them to choose the most satisfactory proportions and profiles for mouldings.

We may also point to the entablatures upon the small pavilions reproduced in our Figs. 41 and 42. They are greatly wanting in elegance; in one especially--that shown in Fig. 42--the superstructure is very heavy in proportion to the little temple itself and its columns.

[Illustration: FIGS. 98, 99.--Assyrian mouldings. Section and elevation; from Botta.]

The only moulding, if we may call it so, borrowed by Assyria from Chaldaea, and employed commonly in both countries, is a brick one. Loftus was the first to point it out. He discovered it in the ruined building, doubtless an ancient temple, in the neighbourhood of Warka, and called by the natives _Wuswas_. This is his description:--"Upon the lower portion of the building are groups of seven half-columns repeated seven times--the rudest perhaps which were ever reared, but built of moulded semicircular bricks, and securely bonded to the wall. The entire absence of cornice, capital, base or diminution of shafts, so characteristic of other columnar architecture, and the peculiar and original disposition of each group in rows like palm logs, suggest the type from which they sprang."[311]

With his usual penetration, Loftus divines and explains the origin of these forms. The idea must have been suggested, he thinks, by the palm trunks that were used set closely together in timber constructions, or at regular intervals in mud walls. In either case half of their thickness would be visible externally, and would naturally provoke imitation from architects in search of ornament for the bald faces of their clay structures.[312]

[Illustration: FIG. 100.--Facade of a ruined building at Warka; from Loftus.]

As to the effect thus obtained, the rough sketch given by Loftus hardly enables us to decide (see Fig. 100). From Assyria, however, come better materials for a judgment. We there often find these perpendicular ribs, generally in groups of seven, in buildings that have been carefully studied and illustrated upon a sufficient scale. We give an example from one of the harem gates at Khorsabad (Fig. 101), by which we may see at once that an ornamental motive of no little value was afforded by these huge vertical reeds with their play of alternate light and shadow, and the happy contrast they set up between themselves and the brilliant hues of the painted walls and enamelled bricks. The whole had a certain elegant richness that can hardly be appreciated without the restoration, in every line and hue, of the original composition.

Both at Warka and in the Khorsabad harem, these vertical ribs are accompanied by another ornament which may, perhaps, have been in even more frequent use. We mean those long perpendicular grooves, rectangular in section, with which Assyrian and Chaldaean walls were seamed. In the harem wall these grooves flank the group of vertical reeds right and left, dividing each of the angle piers into two quasi-pilasters. At Warka they appear in the higher part of the facade, above the groups of semi-columns.

They serve to mark out a series of panels, of which only the lower parts have been preserved. The missing parts of the decoration may easily be supplied by a little study of the Assyrian remains. The four sides of the building at Khorsabad, called by M. Place the _Observatory_, are decorated uniformly in this fashion. The general effect may be gathered from our restoration of one angle. The architect was not content with decorating his wall with these grooves alone; he divided it into alternate compartments, the one salient, the next set back, and upon these compartments he ploughed the long lines of his decoration. These changes of surface helped greatly to produce the varied play of light and shadow upon which the architect depended for relief to the bare masses of his walls. The most ordinary workmen could be trusted to carry out a decoration that consisted merely in repeating, at certain measured intervals, as simple a form as can be imagined, and, in the language of art as in that of rhetoric, there is no figure more effective in its proper place than repetition.

[Illustration: FIG. 101.--Decoration of one of the harem gates, at Khorsabad; compiled from Place.]

The necessity for something to break the monotony of the brick architecture was generally and permanently felt, and in those Parthian and Sassanide periods in which, as we have said, the traditions of the old Chaldaean school were continued, we find the panel replaced by wall arcades in which the arches are divided from each other by tall pilasters. In general principle and intention the two methods of decoration are identical.

The Egyptian architect had recourse to the same motive, first, in the tombs of the Ancient Empire for the decoration of the chamber walls in the mastabas; secondly, for the relief of great brick surfaces. The resemblance to the Mesopotamian work is sometimes very great.[313]

We have explained this form by one of the transpositions so frequent in the history of architecture, namely, a conveyance of motives from carpentry to brickwork and masonry.[314] In the former the openings left in the skeleton are gradually filled in, and these additions, by the very nature of their materials, most frequently take the form of panels. The grooves that define the panels in brick or stone buildings represent the intervals left by the carpenter between his planks and beams. They could also be obtained very easily upon the smooth face of beams brought into close contact, either by means of the gouge or some other instrument capable of cutting into the wood. We may safely assert that in Chaldaea and Assyria, as in Egypt, it was with carpentry that the motive in question originated.

On the other hand, if there be a form that results directly from the system of construction on which it is used, that form is the crenellation with which, apparently, every building in Mesopotamia was crowned.[315]

[Illustration: FIG. 102.--View of an angle of the observatory at Khorsabad; compiled from Place.]

The Assyrian brickwork in which so many vast undertakings were carried out consists of units all of one dimension, and bonded by the simple alternation of their joints. Supposing a lower course to consist of two entire bricks, the one above it would be one whole brick flanked on either side by a half brick. An Assyrian wall or building consists of the infinite repetition of this single figure. Each whole brick lies upon the joint between two others, and every perpendicular wall, including parapet or battlement, is raised upon this system.

[Illustration: FIG. 103.--Lateral facade of the palace at Firouz-Abad; from Flandin and Coste.]

[Illustration: FIG. 104.--Battlements from an Assyrian palace.]

Far from being modified by the crenellations, this bond regulates their form, dimensions, and distribution. The crenellations of the palace walls consist of two rectangular masses, of unequal size, placed one upon the other. The lower is two bricks'-length, or about thirty-two inches, wide, and the thickness of three bricks, or about fourteen inches, high. The upper mass equals the lower in height, while its width is the length of a single brick, or sixteen inches. The total height of the battlement, between twenty-eight and twenty-nine inches, is thus divided into two masses, one of which is twice the size of the other (see Fig. 104). The battlements are all the same, and between each pair is a void which is nothing but the space a battlement upside down would occupy. Fill this space with the necessary bricks, and a section of wall would be restored identical in bond with that below the battlements, with the one exception that the highest block of the battlement, being only one brick wide, is formed by laying three whole bricks one upon the other.[316]

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