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A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 21

[316] See M. PLACE'S diagrams, _Ninive_, vol. ii. p. 54.

[317] PLACE, _Ninive_, vol. ii. p. 53.

[318] M. Perrot dismisses the evidence of those who believe in a palisade origin of the Assyrian battlements in what is, perhaps, rather too summary a fashion. The fact is that the great majority of the crenellated buildings in the reliefs have triangular battlements, while the theory that they are merely a hasty way of representing the stepped crenellations is to some extent discredited by their frequent occurrence side by side with the latter on the same relief. The Balawat gates, for instance, contain some nine or ten examples of the triangular, and four or five of the stepped, shape. In the series of sculptured slabs representing the siege of a city by Assurnazirpal (10 to 15 in the Kouyundjik gallery at the British Museum), there are examples of both forms, and in more than one instance the triangular battlements are decorated with lines and rosettes--similar in principle to those shown above in fig. 106--that can hardly be reconciled with the notion that their form is the result of haste on the part of the artist. In the Assyrian Basement Room in the British Museum there is an interesting bas-relief representing Assyrian soldiers busy with the demolition of a fortified wall, probably of some city just taken. The air is thick with the materials thrown down from its summit, among them a great number of planks or beams, which seem to suggest that timber was freely employed in the upper works of an Assyrian wall. If this was so, the pointed battlements in the reliefs may very well represent those in which timber was used, and the stepped ones their brick imitations. Both forms were used as decorations in places where no real battlements could have existed, as, for instance, on the tent of Sennacherib, in the well-known bas-relief of the siege of Lachish (see fig. 56).--ED.

[319] PLACE, _Ninive_, vol. ii. p. 85.

[320] There is an altar almost exactly similar to this in the British Museum. It was found in front of the temple of the War God, Nimroud.--ED.

[321] Upon some other monuments brought from the same place by Mr. Hormuzd Rassam, and also exhibited in the Nimroud central saloon, we may read by the side of Rammanu-nirari's name that of his spouse Sammuramat, who seems to have been associated with him in the government, and to have been the recipient of particular honours. The name of this princess has caused some to recognize in her the fabulous Semiramis of the Greek writers. In consequence of facts that have escaped us she may well have furnished the first idea for the romantic legends whose echo has come down to our times.

[322] PLACE, _Ninive_, vol. i. p. 96; vol. ii. pp. 71-73.

[323] Besides the obelisk of Shalmaneser II., which is in a marvellous state of preservation, the British Museum possesses three other objects of the same kind. Two of these were made for Assurnazirpal; the third, the most ancient of all, dates from the time of Tiglath Pileser I.; unhappily only fragments of it remain.

[324] See also BOTTA, _Monument de Ninive_, vol. i. plate 64. We here find an instance of one of these arched steles erected before a fortress.

[325] ?--ED.

-- 7.--_Decoration._

Mesopotamia was no exception to the general rule that decoration is governed by construction. To take only one example, and that from an art we have already studied, the Egyptian temple was entirely of stone, and its decoration formed a part of the very substance of what we may call the flesh and blood of the edifice. The elements of that rich and brilliant decoration are furnished by those mouldings which make up in vigour what they lack in variety, by the slight relief or the hardly perceptible intaglio of the shadowless figures cut by the sculptor in stone, and covered by the painter with the liveliest colours. This sumptuous decoration, covering every external and internal surface, may no more be detached from it than the skin of an animal may be detached from its muscles. The union is even more intimate in this case, the adherence more complete. So long as the Egyptian walls remain standing, the blocks of limestone, sandstone, or granite of which they are composed, can never be entirely freed from the images, that is, from the expression of the thoughts, cut upon them by the men of forty centuries ago.

In Assyria the case was different. There buildings were of brick, each unit being in the vast majority of cases a repetition of its neighbour. In very few instances were the bricks of special shapes, and the buildings in which they were used could only be decorated by attached ornament, similar in principle to the mats and hangings we spread over the floors and walls that we wish to hide. This result they obtained in one of two ways; they either cased their walls in stone, an expensive and laborious process, or they covered them with a decoration of many colours.

As soon as stone came into use, it must have offered an irresistible temptation to the chisel of the sculptor and the ornamentist; and so we nearly always find it decorated with carvings. Sometimes, as in the lintel and thresholds described above (Figs. 95 and 96), the motives are purely ornamental. Elsewhere, in the gates of the Assyrian palaces, and in the plinths of the walls that surround their courts and halls, we find both figures in the round and in low relief. In a future chapter we shall attempt to define the style of these works and to determine their merit.

For the present we must be content with pointing out the part played by sculpture in the general system of decoration.

In Chaldaea sculpture must have played a very feeble part in the _ensemble_ of a building, stone was too costly in consequence of the distance it had to be carried. From the ruins of Chaldaea no colossi, like those which flanked the entrances of the Ninevite palaces, none of those long inscriptions upon alabaster slabs which have been of such value for the student of Assyrian history, have been brought. This latter material and all the facilities it offered to the sculptor was apparently entirely neglected by the Chaldaeans. In Lower Mesopotamia the hard volcanic rocks were chiefly used. They were preferred, no doubt, for their durability, but they were little fitted for the execution of figures of any size, and especially was it impossible to think of using them for such historic bas-reliefs as those upon which the Assyrians marshalled hundreds, or rather thousands, of busy figures. Chaldaean doorways may, however, have been sometimes flanked with lions and bulls,[326] we are indeed tempted to assign to such a position one monument which has been described by travellers, namely, the lion both Rich and Layard saw half buried in the huge ruin at Babylon called the _Kasr_.[327] It is larger than life. It stands upon a plinth, with its paws upon the figure of a struggling man.

There is a circular hole in its jaw bigger than a man's fist. The workmanship is rough; so too, perhaps, is that of the basalt lion seen by Loftus at Abou-Sharein. This latter is about fifty-four inches high and its original place may very well have been before one of the doorways of the building.[328]

Of all animal forms, that of the lion was the first to afford materials for decorative composition of any value, and even after all the centuries that have passed, the lion has not lost his vogue in the East. We might, if we chose, multiply examples of this persistence, but we shall be content with quoting one. In the centre of Asia Minor, at the village of Angora, in which I passed three months of the year 1861, I encountered these lions at every turn. A short distance off, in the village of Kalaba, there was a fountain of Turkish construction in which a lion, quite similar in style to those of Assyria, had been inserted.[329] In the court of a mosque there was a lion in the round, a remarkable work by some Graeco-Roman sculptor.[330] There and in other towns of Asia Minor, lions from the Seljukian period are by no means rare, and even now they are made in considerable numbers. After the labours of the day we sometimes passed the evenings in the villas of the rich Greek merchants, which were nearly all on the east of the town. Most of these houses were of recent construction, and were filled with mirrors, fine carpets, and engravings. In front of the house, and in the centre of a large paved and trellised court, there were fountains, sometimes ornamented with considerable taste, in which, on great occasions, a slender jet of water would give coolness to the air. The angles of nearly every one of these fountains were marked with small white marble lions, heavy and awkward in shape, but nevertheless considered at Angora to be the last word of art. They are imported from Constantinople together with the basins of the fountains.

In spite of all this, however, some doubts may be felt as to the destination of the lions found among the Chaldaean ruins. The only monument there discovered which seems to have certainly belonged to an architectural decoration is one found by Sir Henry Layard in his too soon interrupted explorations in the Kasr. It is a fragment of a limestone slab from the casing of a facade (Fig. 113). The upper parts of two male figures support a broken entablature beneath which the name of some divinity is cut.[331]

The chief interest of this fragment lies in the further evidence it affords of a close connection between the arts of Chaldaea and those of Babylon.

There is nothing either in the costume or features of these individuals that may not be found in Assyria. The tiara with its plumes and rosettes, the crimped hair and beard, the baton with its large hilt, are all common to both countries, while the latter object is to be found on the rocks of Bavian and as far north as the sculptures of Cappadocia.

[Illustration: FIG. 113.--Fragment from Babylon. British Museum. Height 11 inches, width 9 inches.]

A study of those reliefs in which nothing but purely ornamental motives are treated, leads us to exactly the same conclusion. Take for instance the great bronze threshold from Borsippa, of which we have already spoken; the rosettes placed at intervals along its tread are identical with those encountered in such numbers in Assyria.

In the extreme rarity of stone in his part of the world the Chaldaean architect seems to have practically reserved it for isolated statues, for votive bas-reliefs, for objects of an iconic or religious character, but nevertheless, we have sufficient evidence to prove that such decorative sculpture as found a place in the Chaldaean buildings, did not sensibly differ from that to which Assyria has accustomed us.

From all that we have said as to the distribution of stone, it will be understood that we must turn to Assyria to obtain a clear idea of the measures by which buildings of crude brick were rendered more sightly by ornament in the harder material. We can hardly imagine an Assyrian palace without those series of bas-reliefs which now line the walls of our museums much in the same fashion as they covered those of Sargon's and Sennacherib's palaces, and yet it is unlikely that in the beginning the Assyrian palaces had these carved walls. The casing of stone and alabaster must have been originally employed for more utilitarian purposes--to hide the grey and friable material within, to protect it from damage, and to offer a surface to the eye which should at least be inoffensive. The upper parts of the walls would be covered with a coat of stucco, which could be renewed whenever necessary, but for the lower part, for all that was within reach of the crowds that frequented the public halls of the seraglio, who passed through its gates or those of the city itself, some more efficient protection would be required. The constructor was thus led to encase the lower parts of his walls in a cuirass of stone imposed upon their brick cores. The slabs of which he made use for this purpose varied between three and ten feet in height, and between six and fifteen in width. Their average thickness was about eight inches.

The way in which these slabs were fixed is hardly worthy of such clever builders, and, in fact, the Assyrians seem to have never succeeded in mastering the difficulties inherent in the association of two heterogeneous materials. The slabs were of gypsum or limestone, the wall of pise, materials which are not to be easily combined. The Assyrians contented themselves with simply placing the one against the other. No trace of any tie is to be found. A "tooth" has been given to the inner faces of the slabs by seaming them in every direction with the chisel, and, perhaps, some plastic substance may at the last moment have been introduced between them and the soft clay, but no trace of any other contrivance for keeping the two materials together has been found. After the general mass of the building--its clay walls and vaults--were complete, a different class of workmen was brought in to line its chambers and complete their decoration.

The crude brick would by that time have become dry, and no longer in a condition to adapt itself to the roughnesses of the alabaster slabs. The liquid clay, like that of an earthenware "body," wets and softens the surface of the brick while it enters into every hollow of the stone and so allies the one with the other. We recommend this conjecture to those who may undertake any future excavation in Assyria. It lies with them to confirm or refute it.

However this may have been, the constructor made use of more than one method of giving greater solidity to his walls as a whole. His slabs were not only let into each other at the angles, in some chambers there were squared angle pieces of a diameter great enough to allow them to sink more deeply into the crude brick behind, and thus to offer steady points of support in each corner. Finally the separate slabs were held together at the top by leaden dovetails like the metal clamps used to attach coping stones to each other.

Such precautions were rendered comparatively useless by the fact that the whole work was faulty at the base. Halls and chambers had no solid foundation or pavement, so that the heavy slabs of their decoration rested upon a shifting soil, quite incapable of carrying them without flinching.

In many places they sank some inches into the ground, the soft earth behind pushing them forward, and in their fall the row to which they belonged was inevitably involved. The excavators have again and again found whole lines of bas-reliefs that appeared to have fallen together. Such an accident is a thing for posterity to rejoice over. Prone upon a soft and yielding soil the works of the sculptor are better protected than when standing erect, their upper parts clear, perhaps, of the ruin that covers their feet, and exposed to the weather at least, and, too often, to the brutality of an ignorant population.

Such defects are sufficient to prove that these slabs were never meant to carry any great weight; far from affording a support to the wall behind, they required one to help them in maintaining their own equilibrium. On the other hand they protected it, as we have said above, from too rapid deterioration.

At Khorsabad this stone casing is in very bad condition at many points, in the halls and passages of the outbuildings and in the courtyards adjoining the city gates for instance.[332] There the stones are only smoothed down, and their obvious purpose is merely to protect the crude brick within. The purely architectural origin of this system of casing is thus clearly shown.

But the presence of these slabs set upright against the wall offered a temptation to the ambitious architect that he was not likely to resist. The limestone and alabaster of which they were composed afforded both a kindly surface for the chisel, and a certain guarantee of duration for the forms it struck out. In every Assyrian palace we may see that the king, its builder, had a double object in view, the glorification of the gods, and the transmission to posterity of his own image and the memory of his reign.

To these ends the architect called in the sculptor, under whose hands the rudely dressed slabs took the historic forms with which we are familiar.

Of all parts of the palace the doorways were most exposed to injury from the shocks of traffic, and we find their more solid plinths surmounted by higher and thicker slabs than are to be found elsewhere. These slabs are carved with the images of protecting divinities. Huge winged and man-headed bulls (Plate X)[333] or lions (Fig. 114), the speaking symbols of force and thought, met the approaching visitor. Sometimes a lion, reproducing with singular energy the features of the real beast, was substituted for the human-headed variety (Plate VIII).[334]

These guardians of the gate always had the front part of their bodies salient in some degree from the general line of the wall. The head and breast, at least, were outside the arch. Right and left of the passage were very thick slabs, also carved into the form of winged bulls in profile, and accompanied by protecting genii. These latter divinities are sometimes grave and noble in mien, obviously benevolent (Figs. 8 and 29), sometimes hideous in face, and violent in gesture. In the latter case they are meant to frighten the profane or the hostile away from the dwelling they guard (Figs. 6 and 7). All these figures are in much higher relief than the sculptures in the inner chambers.

[Illustration: FIG. 114.--Human-headed lion. Nimroud; from Layard.]

All this shows that the sculptor thoroughly understood how to make the best of his opportunities when he was once called in to ornament those massive door-frames and slabs which at first were no more than additional supports for the building to which they were applied. He varied the shapes of these blocks according to their destined sites, and increased their size so as to give gigantic proportions to his man-headed bulls and lions. Some of the winged bulls are from sixteen to seventeen feet high.[335] In spite of the labour expended upon the carving and putting in place of these huge figures, they are extremely numerous, hardly less so, indeed, than the Osiride piers of Egypt.[336] In the palace of Sargon at Khorsabad, twenty-six pairs have been counted; in that of Sennacherib at Kouyundjik, there were ten upon a single facade.[337]

In those passages, halls, and courtyards, whose destination justified such a luxury, the sculptor utilized the stone lining of the walls with equal skill, but in a slightly different spirit. The figures on the facade had to be seen from a great distance, and were exposed to the full light of the Mesopotamian sun, so that their colossal proportions and the varied boldness of their relief had an obvious justification. The sculptures in the interior were smaller in scale and were strictly _bas-reliefs_. With the shortening of the distance from which they could be examined, their scale was made to conform more closely to the real stature of human beings.

In some very spacious halls a few of the figures are larger than life, while in the narrowest galleries they become very small, the alabaster slabs being divided into two stories or more (see Fig. 115).[338]

There is another singularity to be noticed _apropos_ of these sculptures.

The themes treated outside are very different from those inside the palaces. The figures in the former position are religious and supernatural, those in the interior historical and anecdotic. There is much variety in the details of these narrative sculptures, but their main theme is always the glorification, and, in a sense, the biography of the sovereign.

[Illustration: FIG. 115.--Bas-relief with several registers. Width 38 inches. Louvre. Drawn by Bourgoin.]

In the Egyptian temple the figures which form its _illumination_ are spread indifferently over the whole surface of the walls. In a Greek temple, on the other hand, sculpture was confined with rare exceptions to the upper part of the building, to the pediments chiefly, and the frieze. The Assyrian method was neither that of the Egyptians nor that of the Greeks.

At Nineveh, the sculptor did not, as in Egypt, sow his figures broadcast over the whole length and breadth of the building, neither did he raise them, as in Greece, above the heads of the crowd; he marshalled them upon the lowest part of a wall, upon its plinth. Their feet touched the soil, their eyes were on a level with those that looked at them; we might say that they formed an endless procession round every hall and chamber. The reasons for such an arrangement are to be sought for, not in any aesthetic tendency of the Assyrian artist, but in the simple fact that only in the stone cuirass, within which the lower parts of the brick walls were shut up, could he find the kindly material for his chisel. Nowhere else in the whole building could the stone, without which his art was powerless, be introduced.

But as the lateral development of Assyrian buildings was great, so too was the field offered to the Assyrian sculptor. It has been calculated that the sculptured slabs found in the palace of Sargon would, if placed in a row, cover a distance of nearly a mile and a half. Their superficies is equal to about an acre and a half. By this it will be seen that sculpture played an important part in the decoration of an Assyrian palace, but as it was confined to the lower part of the walls, some other method had to be invented for ornamenting those surfaces on which the chisel could not be used. In Chaldaea, where there was so little stone, it was practically the whole building that had to be thus contrived for. In both countries the problem was solved in the same fashion--by the extensive use of enamelled brick and painted stucco, and the elaboration of a rich, elegant, and withal original system of polychromy.

Explorers are unanimous in the opinion that neither burnt nor sun-dried brick was ever left without something to cover its nakedness. It was always hidden and protected by a coat of stucco.[339] At Nineveh, according to M.

Place, this stucco was formed by an intimate mixture of burnt chalk with plaster, by which a sort of white gum was made that adhered very tightly to the clay wall.[340] Its peculiar consistence did not permit of its being spread with a brush; a trowel or board must have been used. The thickness of this cement was never more than one or two millimetres.[341] Its cohesive force was so great that in spite of its thinness it acted as an efficient protector. It has often been found in excellent condition, both upon flat and curved surfaces, upon the walls of courtyards and chambers, on the under sides of vaults, wherever in fact a stone casing did not supply its place.

It would seem that some buildings had no outward ornament beyond the brilliant whiteness of this stucco, the effect of which may be seen at the present day in the whitewashed houses of the East. The glare of such a wall was happily contrasted with the soft verdure that sometimes grew about it, and the dark blue of the sky against which its summit was relieved. Such a contrast gives importance and accent to the smallest building, as painters who treat the landscapes of the South thoroughly understand.

We have reason to believe, however, that as a rule the white stucco served as a background and support to other colours. No Chaldaean interiors have come down to us, while the exteriors are in such bad preservation that we can hardly form any true judgment of the colours and designs with which they were once adorned. But in the case of Assyria we know pretty well how the decorator understood his business, and it is probable that, like his colleagues, the architect and the sculptor, he was content to perpetuate the traditions of his Chaldaean masters.

In certain cases the decorator makes use of wide unbroken tints. This is the simplest way of using colour. In the palace of Sargon, for instance, wherever the sculptured slabs are absent we find a plinth painted black in distemper. These plinths are from two to nearly four feet high, according to the extent of the courts or chambers in which they occur. The object of such a dado is clear; it was to protect the lower part of the wall, if not against deliberate violence, at least against dirt. A white stucco in such a position would soon have been disfigured by spots and various marks which would be invisible on a black background. Moreover, the contrast between the plinth and the white wall above it must have had a certain decorative effect.[342]

This coloured dado is to be found even in places to which it seems quite unsuited. At Khorsabad, for instance, it runs across the foot of those semicircular pilasters we noticed in one of the harem chambers (Fig. 101).

These pilasters stand upon a plinth between three and four feet high, so that any contact with the dirt of the floor need not have been feared. The existence of the dado in such a position is to be accounted for by supposing that the decorator considered it as the regular ornament for the bottom of a wall. It is more difficult to understand why the alcoves believed by MM. Place and Thomas to have been bedrooms were in each case painted with this same band of black.[343]

The most curious example of the employment of unbroken tints to which we can point, is in the case of M. Place's observatory. The stages of that building were each about twenty feet high, and each was painted a colour of its own; the first was white, the second black, the third red, the fourth white. When the excavations were made, these tints were still easily visible. The building seems originally to have had seven stages, and the three upper ones must certainly have been coloured on the same principle as those below them. In his restoration, Thomas makes the fifth vermilion, the sixth a silver grey, while he gilds the seventh and last.[344] In this choice and arrangement of tints there is nothing arbitrary. It is founded on the description given by Herodotus of Ecbatana, the capital of the Medes. "The Medes ... built the city now called Agbatana, the walls of which are of great size and strength, rising in circles one within the other. The plan of the place is, that each of the walls should out-top the one beyond it by the battlements. The nature of the ground, which is a gentle hill, favours this arrangement in some degree, but it was mainly effected by art. The number of the circles is seven, the royal palace and the treasuries standing within the last. The circuit of the outer wall is very nearly the same with that of Athens. Of this wall the battlements are white, of the next black, of the third scarlet, of the fourth blue, of the fifth orange; all these are coloured with paint. The two last have their battlements coated respectively with silver and gold."[345]

Between the series of colours found upon the ruin in question and the list here given by Herodotus there is, so far as they go, an identity which cannot be due to chance. The Medes and Persians invented nothing; their whole art was no more than an eastern offshoot from that of Mesopotamia. It was in Chaldaea that the number seven first received an exceptional and quasi sacred character. Our week of seven days is a result from the early worship of the five great planets and of the sun and moon. There were also the seven colours of the rainbow. From such indications as these the early architects of Assyria must have determined the number of stages to be given to a religious building; they also regulated the order of the colours, each one of which was consecrated by tradition to one of those great heavenly bodies. We can easily understand how the silver white of the penultimate stage was chosen to symbolize the moon, while the glory of the gold upon the upper story recalled that of the noonday sun.

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