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A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 22

Thus must we figure the tower with seven stages which Nebuchadnezzar boasted of having restored in more than its early magnificence. These arrangements of coloured bands had a double value. Each tint had a symbolic and traditional signification of its own, and the series formed by the seven was, so to speak, a phrase in the national theology, an appeal to the imagination, and a confession of piety. At the same time the chief divisions of the monument were strongly marked, and the eye was attracted to their number and significance, while the building as a whole was more imposing and majestic than if its colour had been a uniform white from base to summit. The colours must have been frequently renewed.

In the interior, where the temperature was not subject to violent changes, where there was neither rain nor scorching sun, the architect made use of painting in distemper to reinforce the decoration in his more luxurious chambers. Unfortunately these frescoes are now represented by nothing but a few fragments. In the course of the excavations numerous instances of their use were encountered, but in almost every case exposure to the air was rapidly destructive of their tints, and even of their substance. They occurred chiefly in the rooms whose walls were lined in their lower parts with sculptured slabs. By dint of infinite painstaking M. Place succeeded in copying a few fragments of these paintings.[346] According to the examples thus preserved for us, human figures were mingled with purely ornamental motives such as plumes, fillets, and rosettes. The colours here used were black, green, red, and yellow, to which may be added a fifth in the white of the plaster ground upon which they were laid. Flesh tints were expressed by leaving this white uncoloured.

[Illustration: FIG. 116.--Ornament painted upon plaster; from Layard.]

[Illustration: FIG. 117.--Ornament painted upon plaster; from Layard.]

Several fragments of these painted decorations have also been preserved by Sir Henry Layard. The simplest of them all is a broad yellow band edged on each side by a line of alternately red and blue chevrons separated from each other by white lines. Down the centre of the yellow band there is a row of blue and white rosettes (Fig. 116). Another example in which the same colours are employed is at once more complex and more elegant (see Fig. 117). Finally, in a third fragment, a slightly simplified version of this latter motive serves as a lower border to a frieze upon which two bulls face each other, their white bodies being divided from the yellow ground by a thick black line. The battlements at the top are dark blue (Fig. 118). An idea of the tints used in this decoration may be obtained from Fig. 2 of our plate xiv.

[Illustration: FIG. 118.--Ornament painted upon plaster; from Layard.]

It was upon the upper parts of walls where they were beyond the reach of accidental injury that these painted decorations were placed. M. Place had reason to think that they were also used on the under-sides of vaults. In rooms in which a richer and more permanent kind of ornament was unnecessary, paint alone was used for decoration. In several chambers cleared by George Smith at Nimroud, that explorer found horizontal bands of colour, alternately red, green, and yellow, and where the stone casing of the lower walls was not sculptured, these stripes were continued over its surface.[347]

The artist to whom the execution of this work was intrusted must have arranged so that his tints were in harmony with those placed by another brush on many details of the sculptured slabs. We shall discuss the question of polychromy in Assyrian sculpture at a future opportunity; at present we are content with observing that the effect of the reliefs was strengthened here and there by the use of colour.

The beard, the hair, and the eyebrows were tinted black; such things as the fringes of robes, baldricks, flowers held in the hand, were coloured blue and red. The gaiety thus given brought a room into harmony, and prevented the cool grey of the alabaster slabs from presenting a disagreeable contrast with the brilliant tones spread over the roofs and upper walls.

We might thus restore the interior of an Assyrian apartment and arrive at a whole, some elements of which would be certainly authentic and others at least very probable. The efforts hitherto made in this direction leave much to be desired, and give many an opportunity to the fault-finding critic; and that because their makers have failed to completely master the spirit of Mesopotamian architecture as shown in its remaining fragments.[348]

It would be much less easy, it would in fact be foolhardy, to attempt the restoration of a hall from a Babylonian palace. Our information is quite insufficient for such a task. We may affirm, however, that where the architect had no stone to speak of, the decorations must have had a somewhat different character from those in which that invaluable material was freely used. The general tendencies of both countries must have been the same, but between Nineveh and Babylon, still more between the capital of Assyria and the towns of Lower Chaldaea, there were differences of which now and then we may succeed in catching a glance. Compelled to trust almost entirely to clay, the artist of Chaldaea must have turned his attention to colour as a decoration much more exclusively than his Assyrian rival.

His preoccupation with this one idea is betrayed very curiously in the facade of one of those ruined buildings at Warka which Loftus has studied and described.[349] We borrow his plan and elevation of the detail to which we refer (Fig. 119).

[Illustration: FIG. 119.--Plan and elevation of part of a facade at Warka; from Loftus.]

In the first place the reader will recognize those semicircular pilasters or gigantic reeds to which we have already alluded as strongly characteristic of Chaldaean architecture, and one of the most certain signs of its origin. The chevrons, the spiral lines and lozenges of the coloured decoration with which the semi-columns, and the salient buttress by which they are divided into two groups, are covered, should be curiously noticed.

The ornament varies with each structural division. Loftus, however, was chiefly struck by the process used to build up the design. The whole face of the wall is composed of terra-cotta cones (Fig. 120) engaged in a mortar composed of mud mixed with chopped straw. The bases of these cones are turned outwards and form the surface of the wall. Some preserve the natural colour of the terra-cotta, a dark yellow, others have been dipped--before fixing no doubt--in baths of red and black colouring matter. By the aid of these three tints an effect has been obtained that, according to Loftus, is far from being disagreeable. The process may be compared to that of mosaic, cones of terra-cotta being substituted for little cubes of coloured stone or glass.[350]

[Illustration: FIG. 120.--Cone with coloured base; from Loftus.]

Upon the same site M. Loftus found traces of a still more singular decoration. A mass of crude brick had its horizontal courses divided from each other by earthenware vases laid so that their open mouths were flush with the face of the wall. Three courses of these vases were placed one upon another, and the curious ornament thus made was repeated three times in the piece of wall left standing. The vases were from ten to fifteen inches long externally, but inside they were never more than ten inches deep, so that their conical bases were solid.[351] The dark shadows of their open mouths afforded a strong contrast with the white plaster which covered the brickwork about them. The consequent play of light and shadow unrelieved by colour was pleasing enough. In spite, however, of their thick walls, these vases could hardly resist successfully the weight of the bricks above and the various disintegrating influences set up by their contraction in drying. Most of the vases were broken when Loftus saw them, though still in place.

Cone mosaics and the insertion of vases among the bricks afforded after all but a poor opportunity to the decorative architect. Had the builders of Chaldaea possessed no more efficient means than these of obtaining beauty, their structures would hardly have imposed themselves as models upon their rich and powerful neighbours of Assyria so completely as they did. Some process was required which should not restrict the decorator to the curves and straight lines of the simpler geometrical figures, which should allow him to make use of motives furnished by the animal and vegetable kingdom, by man and those fanciful creations of man's intellect that resulted from his attempts to figure the gods. We can hardly doubt that the Chaldaeans, like their northern neighbours, made frequent use of paint in the decoration of the wide plaster walls that offered such a tempting surface to the brush. No fragment of such work has come down to us, but we have every reason to believe that the arrangement of motives and the choice of lines were the same as in Assyria. We may look upon the mural paintings in the Ninevite palaces as copies preserving for us the leading characteristics of their Chaldaean originals.

Even in Chaldaea, which had a drier climate than Assyria, paintings in distemper could not have had any very long life on external walls. They had not to do with the sky of Upper Egypt where years pass away without the fall of a single shower. Some means of fixing colour so that it should not be washed away by the first rain was sought, and it was found in the invention of enamel, in the coating of the bricks with a coloured material that when passed with them through the fire would be vitrified and would sink to some extent into their substance. A brick thus coated could never lose its colour; the latter became insoluble, and so intimately combined with the block to which it was attached that one could hardly be destroyed without the other. Sir H. Layard tells us that many fragments of brick found in the Kasr were covered with a thick glaze, the colours of which had in no way suffered with time. Fragments of ornaments and figures could be distinguished on some of them. The colours most often found were a very brilliant blue, red, dark yellow, white, and black.[352]

We have again to look to the Assyrian ruins for information as to the way in which these enamelled bricks were composed into pictures. No explorer has found anything in the remains of a Chaldaean city that can be compared to the archivolt of enamelled bricks discovered by M. Place over one of the gateways of the city founded by Sargon.[353]

We can hardly doubt however that the art of the enameller was discovered in Chaldaea and thence transported into Assyria. Everything combines to give us that assurance, an examination of the ruins in Mesopotamia and of the objects brought from them as well as the explicit statements of the ancients.

Every traveller tells that there is not a ruin at Babylon in which hundreds of these enamelled bricks may not be picked up, and they are to be found elsewhere in Chaldaea.[354] A certain number of fragments are now in the British Museum and the Louvre with indications upon them leaving no doubt as to whence they came.[355] As for the blocks of the same kind coming from Nineveh and its neighbourhood they are very numerous in our collections. It is easy therefore to compare the products of Chaldaean workshops with those of Assyrian origin. The comparison is not to the advantage of the latter.

The enamel on the Babylonian bricks is very thick and solid; it adheres strongly to the clay, and even when brought to our comparatively humid climates it preserves its brilliancy. It is not so with bricks from Khorsabad and Nimroud, which rapidly tarnish and become dull when withdrawn from the earth that protected them for so many centuries. Their firing does not seem to have been sufficiently prolonged.[356]

Necessity is the mother of invention, the proverb says. If there be any country in which clay has been compelled to do all that lay in its power it must surely be that in which there was no other material for the construction and decoration of buildings. The results obtained by the enameller were pretty much the same in Assyria and Chaldaea, and we are inclined to look upon the older of the two nations as the inventor of the process, especially as it could hardly have done without it so well as its younger rival, and in this opinion we are confirmed by the superior quality of the Babylonian enamel. It is possible that there may be some truth in the assertion that most of the glazed bricks that have come down to us belonged to the restorations of Nebuchadnezzar; but even supposing that to be so, they show a technical skill so consummate and sure of itself that it must then have been very far removed from its infancy. The fatherland of the enameller is Southern Mesopotamia and especially Babylonia, where enamelled bricks seem to have been used in extraordinary quantities.

The wall of Dour-Saryoukin, the town built by Sargon, has been found intact for a considerable part of its height. As in the retaining wall of the palace, coloured brick has there been used with extreme discretion. It is found only over the arches of the principal doors and, perhaps, in the form of rosettes at the springing of the battlements. The remainder of the great breadths of crude brick was coated with white plaster.[357]

It was otherwise at Babylon. Ctesias, who lived there for a time, thus describes the palace on the right bank of the Euphrates: "In the interior of the first line of circumvallation Semiramis constructed another on a circular plan, upon which there are all kinds of animals stamped on the bricks while still unburnt; nature is imitated in these figures by the employment of colours[358].... The third wall, that in the middle, was twenty stades round ... on its towers and their curtain-walls every sort of animal might be seen imitated according to all the rules of art, both as to their form and colour. The whole represented the chase of various animals, the latter being more than four cubits (high)--in the middle Semiramis on horseback letting fly an arrow against a panther and, on one side, her husband Ninus at close quarters with a lion, which he strikes with his lance."[359]

Diodorus attributes all these buildings to his fabulous Semiramis. He was mistaken. It was the palace built by Nebuchadnezzar that he had before him; his eyes rested upon the works of those sovereigns of the second Chaldee empire who presided at a real art renaissance--at the re-awakening of a civilization that was never more brilliant than in the years immediately preceding its fall. The historian's mistake is of little importance here.

We are mainly interested in the fact that he actually saw the walls of which he speaks and saw them covered with pictures, the material for which was furnished by enamelled brick.

These bricks must have been manufactured in no small quantity to permit of decorations in which there were figures nearly six feet high.[360] We may form some idea of this frieze of animals from one in the palace of Sargon at the foot of the wall on each side of the harem doorway (plate xv.).[361]

As for the hunting incidents, we may imagine what they were like from the Assyrian sculptures (Fig. 5).

At Babylon as at Nineveh the palette of the enameller was very restricted.

Figures were as a rule yellow and white relieved against a blue ground.

Touches of black were used to give accent to certain details, such as the hair and beard, or to define a contour. The surface of the brick was not always left smooth; in some cases it shows hollow lines in which certain colours were placed when required to mark distinctive or complementary features. As a rule motives were modelled in relief upon the ground, so that they were distinguished by a gentle salience as well as by colour, a contrivance that increased their solidity and effect.[362] This may be observed on the Babylonian bricks brought to Europe by M. Delaporte, consul-general for France at Bagdad. They are now in the Louvre. On one we see the three white petals belonging to one of those Marguerite-shaped flowers that artists have used in such profusion in painted and sculptured decoration (Figs. 22, 25, 96, 116, 117). Another is the fragment of a wing, and must have entered into the composition of one of those winged genii that are hardly less numerous in Assyrian decoration (Figs. 4, 8, and 29).

Upon a third you may recognize the trunk of a palm-tree and on a fourth the sinuous lines that edge a drapery.[363] M. de Longperier calculated from the dimensions of this latter fragment that the figure to which it belonged must have been four cubits high, exactly the height assigned by Ctesias to the figures in the groups seen by him when he visited the palace of the ancient kings.[364]

M. Oppert also mentions fragments which had formed part of similar important compositions. Yellow scales separated from one another by black lines, reminded him of the conventional figure under which the Assyrians represented hills or mountains; on others he found fragments of trees, on others blue undulations, significant, no doubt, of water; on others, again, parts of animals--the foot of a horse, the mane and tail of a lion. A thick, black line upon a blue ground may have stood for the lance of a hunter. Upon one fragment a human eye, looking full to the front, might be recognized.[365] We might be tempted to think that in these remains M.

Oppert saw all that was left of the pictures which excited the admiration of Ctesias.

Inscriptions in big letters obtained by the same process accompanied and explained the pictures. The characters were white on a blue ground. M.

Oppert brought together some fifteen of these monumental texts, but he did not find a single fragment upon which there was more than one letter. The inscriptions were meant to be legible at a considerable distance, for the letters were from two to three inches high. In later days Arab architects followed the example thus set and pressed the elegant forms of the cufic alphabet into their service with the happiest skill.[366]

For the composition of one of these figures of men or animals a large number of units was required, and in order that it might preserve its fidelity it was necessary not only that the separate pieces should exactly coincide but that they should be fixed and fitted with extreme nicety. At Babylon they were attached to the wall with bitumen. On the posterior surface of several enamelled bricks in the Louvre a thick coat of this substance may be seen; it has preserved an impression of all the roughnesses on the surface of the crude mass to which it was applied. It is impossible to decide whether this natural mortar was allowed to fill the joints between one enamelled square and another or not. None of these bricks have been found in place, and none, so far as we know, unbroken. The coat at the back may have rendered the adherence so complete that no further precaution was necessary. In Assyria, so far at least as Khorsabad is concerned, they were content with less trouble. The bricks forming the enamelled archivolt of which we have spoken are attached to the wall with a mortar in which there is but little adhesive power.[367] It offered no resistance when M. Place stripped the archway in order that he might enrich his own country with the spoils of Sargon. But for an accident that sent his boats to the bottom of the Tigris not far from Bassorah this beautiful gateway would have been rebuilt in Paris.[368]

To fit all these squares into their proper places was a delicate operation, but it was rendered easy by long practice. Signs, or rather numbers, for the guidance of the workmen, have been noticed upon the uncovered faces of the crude brick walls.[369] Still more skill was required for the proper distribution of a figure over the bricks by whose apposition it was to be created. No retouches were possible, because the bricks were painted before firing. The least negligence would be punished by the interruption of the contours, or by their malformation through a failure of junction between a line upon one brick and its continuation on the next. There was but one way to prevent such mistakes, and that was by preparing in advance what we should call a cartoon. On this the proposed design would be traced over a network of squares representing the junctions of the bricks. The bricks were then shaped, modelled, and numbered; each was painted according to the cartoon with its due proportion of ground or figure as the case might be, and marked with the same number as that on the corresponding square in the drawing.[370] The colour was laid separately on each brick; this is proved by the existence on their edges of pigment that has overflowed from the face and been fired at the same time as the rest.

Thus were manufactured those enamelled bricks upon which the modern visitor to the ruins of Babylon walks at every step. Broken, ground almost to powder as they are, they suffice to show how far the art of enamelling was pushed in those remote days, and how great an industry it must have been.

We can have no doubt that colours fixed in the fire must have formed the chief element in the decoration of the buildings of Nebuchadnezzar, of that Babylon whose insolent prosperity so impressed the imagination and provoked the anger of the Jewish prophets. It was to paintings of this kind that Ezekiel alluded when he reproved Jerusalem under the name of Aholiba for its infidelity and its adoption of foreign superstitions: "For when she saw men portrayed upon the wall, the images of the Chaldaeans portrayed with vermilion, girded with girdles upon their loins, exceeding in dyed attire upon their heads, all of them princes to look to, after the manner of the Babylonians of Chaldaea, the land of their nativity."[371]

The "paintings in the temple of Belos," described by Berosus, were in all probability carried out in the same way. They decorated the walls of the great temple of Bel Merodach at Babylon, where "all kinds of marvellous monsters with the greatest variety in their forms" were to be seen.[372]

We see therefore, that both by sacred and profane writers is the important part played by these paintings in the palaces and temples of the capital affirmed. And Ctesias, who is not content with allusions, but enters into minute details, tells us how the work was executed, and how its durability was guaranteed. The modern buildings of Persia give us some idea as to the appearance of those of Babylon. No doubt the plan of a mosque differs entirely from that of a temple of Marduk or Nebo, but the principle of the decoration was the same. If the wand of an enchanter could restore the principal buildings of Babylon we should, perhaps, find more than one to which the following description of the great mosque of Ispahan might be applied with the change of a word here and there: "Every part of the building without exception is covered with enamelled bricks. Their ground is blue, upon which elegant flowers and sentences taken from the Koran are traced in white. The cupola is blue, decorated with shields and arabesques.

One can hardly imagine the effect produced by such a building on an European accustomed to the dull uniformity of our colourless buildings; he is filled with an admiring surprise that no words can express."[373]

If we should set about making such a comparison, the principal difference to be noticed would be that arising out of the prohibitions of the Koran.

The Persian potter had to content himself with the resources of pure ornament, resources upon which he drew with an exquisite skill that forbids us to regret the absence of men and animals from his work. The coloured surfaces of the Babylonian buildings must have had more variety than those of the great mosque at Ispahan or the green mosque at Broussa. But the same groups and the same personages were constantly repeated in the same attitudes and tints, so that their general character must have been purely decorative. Even when they were combined into something approaching a scene, care was taken to guard, by conventionality of treatment and the frequent repetition of familiar types and groups, against its attracting to itself the attention that properly belonged to the composition of which it formed a part. The artist was chiefly occupied with the general effect. His aim was to give a certain rhythm to a succession of traditional forms whose order and arrangement never greatly varied, to fill the wide surfaces of his architecture with contrasts and harmonies of colour that should delight the eye and prevent its fatigue.

Were the colours as soft and harmonious as we now see them in those buildings of Persia and Asia Minor that will themselves soon be little more than ruins? It is difficult to answer this question from the very small fragments we possess of the coloured decorations of the Babylonian temples and palaces, but the conditions have remained the same; the wants to be satisfied and the processes employed a century ago were identical with those of Babylon and Nineveh; architect and painter were confronted by the same dazzling sun, and, so far as we can tell, taste has not sensibly changed over the whole of the vast extent of country that stretches from the frontiers of Syria to the eastern boundaries of the plateau of Iran.

New peoples, new religions, and new territorial divisions have been introduced, but industrial habits have remained; in spite of political revolutions the workman has transmitted the secrets of his trade to his sons and grandsons. Oriental art is now threatened with death at the hands of Western competition. Thanks to its machines Europe floods the most distant markets with productions cheaper than those turned out by the native workman, and the native workman, discouraged and doubtful of himself, turns to the clumsy imitation of the West, and loses his hold of the art he understood so well. Traditions have become greatly weakened during the last half century, but in the few places where they still preserve their old vitality they may surely be taken as representative of the arts and industries of many centuries ago, and as the lineal descendants of those early products of civilization on which we are attempting to cast new light. If, as everything leads us to believe, the colours and patterns worked by the women of Khorassan and Kurdistan on their rugs and carpets are identical with those on the hangings in the palaces of Sargon, of Nebuchadnezzar, and of Darius, why should we not allow that the tints that now delight us on the mosques of Teheran and Ispahan, of Nicaea and Broussa, are identical with those employed by the Chaldaean potter?

There is no doubt that both had a strong predilection for blue--for the marvellous colour that dyed the most beautiful flower of their fields, that glowed on their distant mountains, in their lakes, in the sea, and in the profound azure of an almost cloudless sky. Nature seems to have chosen blue for the background of her changing pictures, and like the artists of modern Persia those of antique Mesopotamia understood the value of the hint thus given. In the fragments of Babylonian tiles brought home by travellers blue is the dominant colour; and blue furnishes the background for those two compositions in enamelled brick that have been found _in situ_. The blue of Babylon seems however to have had more body and to have been darker in shade than that of the Khorsabad tiles.

We have already referred to this inferiority in the Assyrian enamel. It may be explained by the fact that the Assyrian architect looked to sculpture for his most sumptuous effects; he used polychromatic decoration only for subordinate parts of his work, and he would therefore be contented with less careful execution than that required by his Babylonian rival. The glazed tiles of Assyria were not, as in Chaldaea, quasi bas-reliefs. Their tints were put on flat; the only exception to this being in the case of those rosettes that were made in such extraordinary numbers for use on the upper parts of walls and round doorways; in these the small central boss is modelled in low relief (see Figs. 121 and 122).

[Illustration: FIGS. 121, 122.--Rosettes in glazed pottery. Louvre.]

These glazed bricks were chiefly used by the Assyrian architect upon doorways and in their immediate neighbourhood.[374] M. Place found the decoration of one of the city gates at Khorsabad almost intact.[375] The enamel is laid upon one edge of the bricks, which are on the average three inches and a half thick. Figures are relieved in yellow, and rosettes in white against the blue ground. A band of green marks the lower edge of the tiara.[376] The same motives and the same figures were repeated for the whole length of the band. The figures are winged genii in different postures of worship and sacrifice. They bear in their hands those metal seals and pine cones that we so often encounter in the bas-reliefs.

Distributed about the entrance these genii seem to be the protectors of the city, they are beneficent images, their gesture is a prayer, a promise, a benediction. On each side of the arch, at its springing, there is one of greater stature than his companions (Fig. 123). His face is turned towards the vaulted passage. Upon the curve of the archivolt smaller figures face one another in couples; each couple is divided from its neighbours by rosettes (Fig. 124).

[Illustration: FIG. 123.--Detail of enamelled archivolt. Khorsabad. From Place.]

The other composition is to be found on a plinth in the doorway of the harem at Khorsabad. This plinth was about twenty-three feet long, and rather more than three feet high. Its ornament was repeated on both sides of the doorway.[377] It consisted of a lion, an eagle, a bull, and a plough (Plate XV). Upon the returning angles the king appears, standing, on the one side with his head bare, on the other covered with a tiara. The background is blue, as in the city gates; green was only used for the leaves of the tree, in which some have recognized a fig-tree.

[Illustration: FIG. 124.--Detail from enamelled archivolt. Khorsabad. From Place.]

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