A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 23

In these two examples the decoration is of an extreme simplicity; the figures are not engaged in any common action; there is, in fact, no picture. The artist sometimes appears to have been more ambitious. Thus Layard found at Nimroud the remains of a decoration in which the painter had apparently attempted to rival the sculptor: he had represented a battle scene analogous to those we find in such plenty in the bas-reliefs.[378] A similar motive may be found in a better preserved fragment belonging to the same structure (Plate XIV, Fig. 1).[379] A single brick bears four personages, a god, whose arms only are left, the king, his patera in hand, offering a libation, an eunuch with bow and quiver, and finally an officer with a lance. George Smith also found a fragment of the same kind at Nimroud (see Fig. 125). It shows the figure of a soldier, from the knees upwards, armed with bow and lance, and standing by the wheel of a chariot.

Above his head are the remains of an inscription which must have been continued on the next brick. The word _warriors_ may still be deciphered.[380] This figure may have formed part of some attempt on the part of the decorator to narrate in colour some of the exploits of the king for whom the palace was built.

[Illustration: FIG. 125.--Enamelled brick in the British Museum.]

There is a difference between such fragments as this and the glazed tiles of the Khorsabad gates. In the latter the enamelled edges of several bricks were required to make a single figure. In the bricks from Nimroud on the other hand, whole figures are painted on their surface, and in fact a single brick had several figures upon it which were, therefore, on a much smaller scale. A decoration in which figures were some two and three feet high, was well suited for use in lofty situations where those restricted to the surface of a single brick would have been hardly visible. The latter must, then, have been fixed on the lower parts of the wall, but as none of them have yet been found in place we cannot say positively that it was so.

Such representations were, moreover, quite exceptional. Most of the pieces of glazed brick that have been found in the ruins show nothing but the remains of figures and motives ornamental rather than historical in their general character.[381] Besides the rosettes of which we have had occasion to speak so often we encounter at every step a spiral ornament the design of which remains without much modification, while a certain variety is given to its general effect by changing the arrangement of its colours. In the example reproduced in Fig. 126 large black disks, like eyes, are embraced by a double spiral in which blue and yellow alternate.[382]

[Illustration: FIG. 126.--Ornament upon enamelled brick. British Museum.]

There is one curious class of glazed tiles in which this motive continually reappears. These tiles are thinner than the ordinary brick. Their shape is sometimes square but with their sides slightly concave (Fig. 127), sometimes circular, in the form of a quoit (Fig. 128). In each case similar designs are employed, flowers, palmettes, &c. These are carried out in black upon a white ground and arranged symmetrically about a round hole in the middle of the tile. These things must have been manufactured for some special purpose, and the name of Assurnazirpal, that may be read upon our first fragment (Fig. 127), shows that they belonged to some great work of decoration whose main object was to glorify the name of that sovereign. It has been guessed that they formed centres for a coffered ceiling, and there is nothing to negative the conjecture. The opening in the centre may have been filled with a boss of bronze or silver gilt. As we have already shown, applique work of this kind played a great part in Assyrian decoration; doors were covered with it and there are many signs that both in Chaldaea and Assyria many other surfaces were protected in the same fashion.

[Illustration: FIG. 127.--Fragment of a glazed brick. Width 14 inches.

British Museum.]

[Illustration: FIG. 128.--Fragment of a glazed brick. Diameter 17 inches.

British Museum.]

After the careful examination of its ruins Taylor came to the conclusion that the upper story of a staged tower at Abou-Sharein had gilt walls. He found a great number of small and very thin gold plates upon the plateau that formed the summit of the building, and with them the gilded nails with which they had been fixed.[383] In his life of _Apollonius of Tyana_, Philostratus gives a description of Babylon that appears taken from authentic sources, and he notices this employment of metal. "The palaces of the King of Babylon are covered with bronze which makes them glitter at a distance; the chambers of the women, the chambers of the men and the porticoes are decorated with silver, with beaten and even with massive gold instead of pictures."[384] Herodotus speaks of the silvered and gilded battlements of Ecbatana[385] and at Khorsabad cedar masts incased in gilded bronze were found,[386] while traces of gold have been found on some crude bricks at Nimroud.[387] Seeing that metal was thus used to cover wide surfaces, and that, as we shall have occasion to show, the forms of sculpture, of furniture, and of the arts allied to them in Mesopotamia, prove that the inhabitants of that region were singularly skilled in the manipulation of metal, whether with the chisel or the hammer, the above conjecture may very well be true; the sheen of the polished surface would be in excellent harmony with the enamelled faence about it.

It has been suggested that some of the carved ivories may have been used to ornament the coffers. This suggestion in itself seems specious enough, but I failed to discover a single ivory in the rich collection of the British Museum whose shape would have fitted the openings in the tiles.[388] It is certain, however, that ivory was used in the ornamentation of buildings. "I incrusted," says Nebuchadnezzar, "the door-posts, the lintel, and threshold of the place of repose with ivory."

The small rectangular plaques with which several cases and many drawers are filled in the British Museum may very well have been used for the decoration of doors, and the panels of ceilings and wainscots. They were so numerous, especially in the palace of Assurnazirpal at Nimroud, that we cannot believe them all to have come off small and movable pieces of furniture. We are confirmed in this idea by the fact that none of these ivories are unique or isolated works of art. In spite of the care and taste expended on their execution they were in no sense gems treasured for their rarity and value; they were the products of an active manufactory delivering its types in series, we might almost say in dozens. The more elegant and finished among them are represented three, four, and five times over in the select case in the British Museum. We may safely say that the examples preserved of any one model are by no means all that were made; in fact, in the drawers in which the smaller fragments are preserved, we noticed the remains of more than one piece which had once been similar to the more perfect specimens exhibited to the public.

Thus there are in the Museum four replicas of the little work shown in our Fig. 129.[389] The head of a woman, full face, and with an Egyptian head-dress, is enframed in a narrow window and looks over a balcony formed of columns with the curious capitals already noticed on page 211. Beside these four more or less complete examples, the Museum possesses several detached heads (Fig. 130) which once, no doubt, belonged to similar compositions.

[Illustration: FIG. 129.--Ivory tablet in the British Museum. Drawn by Saint-Elme Gautier.]

The beauty of the ivory surface was often enhanced by the insertion of coloured enamels and lapis-lazuli in the hollows of the tablet. Traces of this inlay may be seen on many of the Museum ivories, especially on those recently brought from Van, in Armenia. The tablets also show traces of gilding.

[Illustration: FIG. 130.--Fragment of an ivory tablet.]

All this proves that the Mesopotamian decorator had no contemptible resources for the ornamentation of his panelled walls and coffered ceilings. These chiselled, enamelled, and gilded ivories must have been set in frames of cedar or cypress. The Assyrian texts bear witness in more than one place to the use of those fine materials, and the Hebrew writers make frequent allusion to the luxurious carpentry imitated by their own princes in the temple at Jerusalem.[390] In one of his invectives against Nineveh Zephaniah cries: "Desolation shall be in the thresholds: for he shall uncover the cedar work."[391]

The more we enter into detail the richer and more varied does the decoration of these buildings appear. In our day the great ruins are sad and monotonous enough. The rain of many centuries has washed away their paint; their ornaments of metal and faence, of ivory and cedar, have fallen from the walls; the hand of man has combined with the slow action of time to reduce them to their elements, and nothing of their original beauty remains but here and there a fragment or a hint of colour. And yet when we bring these scanty vestiges together we find that enough is left to give the taste and invention of the Assyrian ornamentist a very high place in our respect. That artist was richly endowed with the power of inventing happy combinations of lines, and of varying his motives without losing sight for an instant of his original theme.

We may show this very clearly by a more careful study of two motives already encountered, the rosette, and the running ornament which is known in its countless modifications as the "knop and flower pattern." These two motives are united in those great thresholds which have been found now and then in such marvellous preservation. They also occur in certain bas-reliefs representing architectural decorations, so that we are in possession of all the documents required for the formation of a true idea of their varied beauties. In the Assyrian Basement Room of the British Museum there is a fine slab of gypsum of which we reproduce one corner in our Fig. 131.[392] Besides the daisy shaped rosette which is so conspicuous, there is one of more elaborate design which we reproduce on a larger scale and from another example in our Fig. 132. It is inclosed in a square frame adorned with chevrons. This frame with the rosette it incloses may be taken as giving some idea of the ceiling panels or coffers.

[Illustration: FIG. 131.--Threshold from Kouyundjik. From Layard.]

In this rosette it should be noticed that beyond the double festoon about the central star appears the same alternation of bud and flower as in the straight border. That flower has been recognized as the Egyptian lotus, but Layard believes its type to have been furnished, perhaps, by a scarlet tulip which is very common towards the beginning of spring in Mesopotamia.[393] We ourselves believe rather in the imitation of a motive from the stuffs, the jewels, the furniture, and the pottery that Mesopotamia drew from Egypt at a very early date through the intermediary of the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians themselves appropriated the same motive and introduced it with their own manufactures not only into Mesopotamia but into every country washed by the Mediterranean. Our conjecture is to some extent confirmed by an observation of Sir H. Layard's. This lotus flower is only to be found, he says, in the most recent of Assyrian monuments, in those, namely, that date from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., centuries during which the Assyrian kings more than once invaded Phoenicia and occupied Egypt.[394] In the more ancient bas-reliefs flowers with a very different aspect--copied in all probability directly from nature--are alone to be found. Of these some idea may be formed from the adjoining cut.

It reproduces a bouquet held in the hand of a winged genius in the palace of Assurnazirpal (Fig. 133).

[Illustration: FIG. 132.--Rosette.]

The lotus flower is to be found moreover in monuments much older than those of the Sargonids, but that does not in any way disprove the hypothesis of a direct plagiarism. The commercial relations between the valleys of the Nile and the Euphrates date from a much more remote epoch, and about the commencement of the eighteenth dynasty the Egyptians seem to have occupied in force the basin of the Khabour, the principal affluent of the Euphrates.

Layard found many traces of their passage over and sojourn in that district, among them a series of scarabs, many of which bore the superscription of Thothmes III.[395] So that the points of contact were numerous enough, and the mutual intercourse sufficiently intimate and prolonged, to account for the assimilation by Mesopotamian artists of a motive taken from the flora of Egypt and to be seen on almost every object imported from the Nile valley. This imitation appears all the more probable as in the paintings of Theban tombs dating from a much more remote period than the oldest Ninevite remains, the pattern with its alternate bud and flower is complete. Many examples may be found in the plates of Prisse d'Avennes' great work;[396] one is reproduced in our Fig. 134.

[Illustration: FIG. 133.--Bouquet of flowers and buds; from Layard.]

[Illustration: FIG. 134.--Painted border; from Thebes, after Prisse.]

The Assyrians borrowed their motive from Egypt, but they gave it more than Egyptian perfection. They gave it the definitive shapes that even Greece did not disdain to copy. In the Egyptian frieze the cones and flowers are disjointed; their isolation is unsatisfactory both to the eye and the reason. In the Assyrian pattern they are attached to a continuous undulating stem whose sinuous lines add greatly to the elegance of the composition. The distinctive characters of the bud and flower are also very well marked by the Assyrian artists. The closed petals of the one the open ones of the other and the divisions of the calix are indicated in a fashion that happily combines truth with convention. In our Fig. 135 we reproduce, on a larger scale, a part of the slab already illustrated at page 240, so that the merits of its workmanship may be better appreciated.

[Illustration: FIG. 135.--Fragment of a threshold; from Khorsabad. Louvre.

Drawn by Bourgoin.]

[Illustration: FIG. 136.--Door ornament; from Kouyundjik. After Rawlinson.]

The painter also made use of this motive. In a bas-relief from the palace of Assurbanipal we find the round-headed doorway illustrated in Fig. 136.

Its rich decoration must have been carried out in glazed bricks, similar to those discovered by M. Place on one of the gates of Khorsabad. Here, however, the figures of supernatural beings are replaced by rosettes and by two lines of the knop and flower ornament.

[Illustration: FIG. 137.--Palmette; from Layard.]

[Illustration: FIG. 138.--Goats and palmette; from Layard.]

Vegetable forms brought luck to the Assyrian decorator. Even after taking a motive from a foreign style of ornament he understood, so to speak, how to naturalize a plant and to make its forms expressive of his own individuality. Our only difficulty is to make a choice among the numerous illustrations of his inventive fertility; we shall confine ourselves to reproducing the designs embroidered upon the royal robes of Assurnazirpal.

We need hardly say that these robes do not now exist, but the Ninevite sculptor copied them in soft alabaster with an infinite patience that does him honour. He has preserved for us every detail with the exception of colour. The lotus is not to be found in this embroidery; its place is taken by the palmette or tuft of leaves (Fig. 137), through which appear stems bending with the weight of the buds they bear. Animals, real and imaginary, are skilfully mingled with the fan-shaped palmettes; in one place we find two goats (Fig. 138), in another two winged bulls (Fig. 139). Bulls and goats are both alike on their knees before the palmette, which seems to suggest that the latter is an abridged representation of that sacred tree which we have already encountered and will encounter again in the bas-reliefs, where it is surrounded by scenes of adoration and sacrifice.

This motive has the double advantage of awakening religious feeling in the spectators, and of provoking a momentary elegance of line and movement in the two pairs of animals. On the other hand we can hardly explain the motive represented in our Figs. 140 and 141--a motive already met with in the figured architecture of the bas-reliefs and in the glazed tiles--by anything but an artistic caprice. In some cases the rosette and the palmette are introduced in a single picture (142).

[Illustration: FIG. 139.--Winged bulls and palmette; from Layard.]

We have ventured to supplement the scanty remains of architectural decoration by these illustrations from another art, because all Babylonian ornament, whether for carpets, hangings, or draperies, for works in beaten metal, in paint or enamelled faence, is governed by the same spirit and marked by the same taste. In every form impressed upon matter by the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia the same symbols, the same types, and the same motives are repeated to infinity. The examples we have brought together suffice to show the principal characteristics of that decoration.

It had doubtless one great defect, it was too easily separated from the building to which it belonged; it was fragile, apt to fall, and therefore unlikely to have any very long duration. But the architect was not to blame for that. The defect in question was consequent on the poverty of the material with which he had to work. Given the conditions under which he laboured, and we cannot deny that he showed great skill in making the best of them. He understood how to contrast wide unbroken surfaces with certain important parts of his _ensemble_, such as cornices, plinths, and especially doorways. Upon these he concentrated the efforts of the painter and sculptor; upon these he lavished all the hues of the Assyrian palette, and embellished them with the carved figures of men and gods, of kings and genii, of all the countless multitudes who had fought and died for Assyria and its divine protector, the unconquered and unconquerable Assur.

[Illustration: FIG. 140.--Stag upon a palmette; from Layard.]

[Illustration: FIG. 141.--Winged bull upon a rosette; from Layard.]

If, not content with this general view of Assyrian decoration, we enter into it in detail, we shall find its economy most judiciously arranged and understood. When the sculptor set himself to carve the slabs that enframe a door or those that protect the lower parts of a wall, he sought to render what he saw or imagined as precisely and definitely as possible. He went to nature for inspiration even when he carved imaginary beings, and copied her, in fragments perhaps, but with a loyal and vigorous sincerity.

Everywhere, except in certain pictures with a strictly limited function, he obeyed an imagination over which a sure judgment kept unsleeping watch. His polychromatic decorations fulfilled their purpose of amusing and delighting the eye without ever attempting to deceive it. Such is and must always be the true principle of ornament, and the decorators of the great buildings of Babylon and Nineveh seem to have thoroughly understood that it was so; their rich and fertile fancy is governed, in every instance to which we can point, with unfailing tact, and to them must be given the credit of having invented not a few of the motives that may yet be traced in the art of the Medes and Persians, in that of the Syrians, the Phoenicians, the peoples of Asia Minor, and above all in that of the Greeks--those unrivalled masters who gave immortality to every artistic combination that they chose to adopt.

[Illustration: FIG. 142.--Stag, palmette, and rosette; from Layard.]


[326] The cuneiform texts mention the "two bulls at the door of the temple E-schakil," the famous staged tower of Babylon. Fr. LENORMANT, _Les Origines de l'Histoire_, vol. i. p. 114 (2nd edition, 1880).

[327] RICH, _Narrative of a Journey to the Site of Babylon in 1811, and a Memoir on the Ruins_, p. 64. LAYARD, _Discoveries_, p. 507. According to Rich, this lion was of grey granite; according to Layard, of black basalt.

[328] LOFTUS says nothing of this lion in those _Travels and Researches_ which we have so often quoted. It was, perhaps, on a later occasion that he found it. We came upon it in a collection of original sketches and manuscript notes (_Drawings in Babylonia by W. K. Loftus and H. Churchill_) in the custody of the keeper of Oriental antiquities at the British Museum.

We have to express our acknowledgments to Dr. Birch for permission to make use of this valuable collection.

[329] PERROT, GUILLAUME ET DELBET, _Exploration archeologique de la Galatie_, vol. ii. pl. 32.

[330] _Exploration archeologique_, vol. ii. pl. 11.

[331] LAYARD, _Discoveries_, p. 508.

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