A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 8

[Illustration: FIG. 24.--The suite of Sargon, _continued_. Bas-relief from Khorsabad. Alabaster. Height 97 inches. Drawn by Saint-Elme Gautier.]

All these military officers and administrators, these priests of the different gods, and the domestics who were often the most powerful of all, looked to the hand of the king himself and depended upon no other master.

Courage and military talent must have been the surest roads to advancement, but sometimes, as under the Arab caliphs and the Ottoman sultans, the caprice of the sovereign would lead him to raise a man from the lowest ranks to the highest dignities of the state. The _regime_ of Assyria may be described in the words applied to that of Russia, it was despotism tempered with assassination. "And it came to pass, as he (Sennacherib) was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead."[123] Sennacherib's father, Sargon, perished in the same fashion.

These murders were, perhaps, the revenge for some outrage or punishment imprudently inflicted in a moment of anger; but however that may have been, neither in the one case nor the other did they hinder the legitimate heir from succeeding his father. Sennacherib replaced Sargon, and Esarhaddon Sennacherib. The Assyrian supremacy was only supported by the constant presence, at the head of the army, of a king ready for every eventuality; a few weeks of anarchy or interregnum would have thrown the whole empire into confusion; the royal power was the keystone of the arch, the element upon which depended the stability of a colossal edifice subjected to various strains. In such a society, art could hardly have had a mission other than the glorification of a power without limit and without control--a power to which alone the Assyrians had to look for a continuance of their dearly-won supremacy. The architect, the sculptor, and the painter, exhausted the resources of their arts, the one in building a palace for the prince on a high mound raised to dominate the surrounding plain, the others in decorating it when built and multiplying the images of its almost divine inhabitant. The exploits of the sovereign, his great and never-ending achievements as a conqueror and destroyer of monsters, as pontif of Assur and the founder of palaces and cities--such are the themes to which Assyrian sculpture devoted itself for many centuries, taking them up and varying them in countless ways, and that, apparently, without any fear that he for whom the whole work was intended would ever grow weary of the repetition.

Such themes presuppose the actual occurrence of the events represented and the artists' realization either from personal observation or from descriptions. This gives rise to a very sensible difference between Chaldaean sculpture and that of Assyria, so far at least as the latter is to be studied in the decorations of a palace. In those characteristics and qualities of execution which permit of a definition, the style is no doubt the same as in Chaldaea. The artists of Babylon and those of Nineveh were pupils in one school--they saw nature with the same eyes; the same features interested and attracted the attention of both; they had the same prejudices and the same conventions. The symbols and combinations of forms we have noticed as proper to Chaldaean art are here also; scenes of invocation to gods and genii; ornamental groups and motives. An instance of the latter is to be found in the rich embroidery with which the robes of the Assyrian kings are covered.[124] Finally, we must remember that all Assyrian art was not included in the adornment of the palace. Before a complete and definite judgment can be formed upon it the monuments of religious and industrial art should be passed under review, but, unhappily, no temple interior, and a very small number of objects of domestic luxury and daily use, have come down to us. These gaps are to be regretted, but we must not forget that the bas-reliefs were ordered by the king, that the thousands of figures they contain were introduced for the sake of giving _eclat_ to the power, the valour, and the genius of the sovereign, and that the best artists of which Assyria could boast were doubtless entrusted with their execution. Under the reserves thus laid down we may, then, devote ourselves to the study of the Ninevite sculptures that fill the museums of London and Paris; we may consider them the strongest and most original creations of Assyrian art.

[Illustration: FIG. 25.--Fragment of a bas-relief in alabaster. Louvre.

Height 23 inches. Drawn by Saint-Elme Gautier.]

Now the sculpture upon the alabaster slabs with which the palace walls of Shalmaneser and Sargon, of Sennacherib and Assurbanipal, were covered, confines itself mainly to marches, combats, and sieves, it is more _realistic_ than the sculpture of Chaldaea, a country that had done less, especially upon fields of battle, but had invented more and done more thinking than its bellicose rival. We owe no small debt of gratitude to the swordsmen of Assyria, in spite of the blood they shed and the horrible cruelties they committed and delighted in seeing commemorated in the figured histories of their reigns. The works entrusted to their artists have left us precious documents and the elements for a restoration of a vanished world. Philologists may take their time over the decipherment of the texts inscribed on the reliefs, but the great people of prey who, for at least four centuries, pillaged all Asia without themselves becoming softened by the possession of so much accumulated wealth, live, henceforward, in the long series of pictures recovered for the world by Layard and Botta. The stern conquerors reappear, armed, helmeted, and cuirassed, as they passed before the trembling nations thirty centuries ago. They are short of stature, but vigorous and sturdy, with an exceptional muscular development. They were, no doubt, prepared for their military duties from infancy by some system of gymnastic exercises, such as have been practised by other nations of soldiers. Their noses are high and hooked, their eyes large, their features as a whole strongly Semitic (see Fig. 25).

[Illustration: FIG. 26.--Bas-relief of Tiglath Pileser II.; from Nimroud.

British Museum. Height 44 inches. Drawn by Saint-Elme Gautier.]

[Illustration: FIG. 27.--Feast of Assurbanipal; from Kouyundjik. British Museum. Height 20-3/4 inches. No. 1, The servants of the feast.]

[Illustration: FIG. 28.--Feast of Assurbanipal, _continued_. No. 2, The king and queen at table. Drawn by Saint-Elme Gautier.]

The moral character of the people is shown with no less clearness. The ferocity they preserved amid all the luxurious appliances of their civilization is commemorated. Atrocities of every kind find a place in the reliefs. Among the prisoners of war the most fortunate are those led by a cord passed through their lips. Others are mutilated, crucified, flayed alive. Tiglath Pileser II. is shown to us besieging a city, before whose walls he has impaled three prisoners taken from the defenders (see Fig.

26). Elsewhere we find scribes counting over heaps of heads before paying the price for them.[125] When these had come from the shoulders of important enemies they were carried in procession and treasured as honourable trophies. In one relief we find Assurbanipal, after his return to Nineveh from the subjugation of the southern rebels, lying upon a luxurious couch in the garden of his harem and sharing a sumptuous meal with a favoured wife. Birds are singing in the trees, an attendant touches the harp, flowers and palms fill the background, while a head, the head of the Elamite king, whom Assurbanipal conquered and captured in his last campaign, hangs from a tree near the right[126] of the scene (see Figs. 27 and 28). The princes who took pleasure in these horrors were scrupulous in their piety. We find numberless representations of them in attitudes of profound respect before their gods, and sometimes they bring victims and libations in their hands (see Fig. 29). Thus, without any help from the inscriptions, we may divine from the sculptures alone what strange contrasts were presented by the Assyrian character--a character at once sanguinary and voluptuous, brutal and refined, mystical and truculent.

[Illustration: FIG. 29.--Offerings to a god; Alabaster relief. Louvre.

Height 10 feet. Drawn by Saint-Elme Gautier.]

It is not only by what it says, it is by what it leaves untold, by what it forgets to tell, that art has left us such a sincere account of this singular nation. The king and his lieutenants, his ministers and household officers, the veterans who formed the strength of his legions and the young men from whom their numbers were recruited, did not constitute the whole of the Assyrian nation. There were also the tillers of the soil, the followers of those countless trades implied by a civilized society--the peasants, artisans, and merchants of every kind, who fed, clothed, and equipped the armies; the men who carried on the useful but modest work without which the fighting machine must soon have come to a standstill. And yet they are entirely absent from the sculptures in which the artist seems to have included everything that to him seemed worthy of interest. We meet them here and there, but only by accident. They may be descried now and then in the background of some scene of war, acting as labourers or in some other humble capacity. Otherwise the sculptor ignored their existence. They were not soldiers, which was much as to say they were nothing. Can any other instance be cited of an art so well endowed entirely suppressing what we should call the civil element of life? Neither do we find women in the bas-reliefs: that in which the queen of Assurbanipal occurs is quite unique in its way. Except in scenes representing the capture of a town and the carrying off of its inhabitants as prisoners of war, females are almost entirely wanting. On those occasions we sometimes find them carried on mules or in chariots (see Figs. 30 and 31). In certain bas-reliefs of Assurbanipal, treating of his campaign against Susa, women are playing the tambourine and singing the king's praises. But all these are exceptions.

Woman, whose grace and beauty were so keenly felt by the Egyptians, is almost completely absent from the sculpture of Assyria.

[Illustration: FIG. 30.--Convoy of prisoners. Kouyundjik. From Layard.]

By thus limiting its scope, sculpture condemned itself to much repetition and to a uniformity not far removed from sameness; but its very silences are eloquent upon the inhuman originality of a system to which Assyria owed both the splendour of her military successes and the finality of her fall.

The great entrenched camp, of which Nineveh was the centre, once forced; the veteran ranks, in which constant war, and war without quarter, had made such wide gaps, once broken, nothing remained of the true Assyria but the ignorant masses of a second-class state to whom a change of masters had little meaning, and a few vast buildings doomed soon to disappear under their own ruins.

[Illustration: FIG. 31.--Convoy of prisoners. Kouyundjik. From Layard.]

When we have completed our examination of Assyrian sculpture, so rich in some respects, so poor in others, we shall understand the rapidity with which silence and oblivion overtook so much glory and power; we shall understand how some two centuries after the victory of Nabopolassar and the final triumph of Babylon and her allies, Xenophon and his Greeks could mount the Tigris and gaze upon the still formidable walls of the deserted cities of Mespila and Larissa without even hearing the name of Nineveh pronounced. Eager for knowledge as they were, they passed over the ground without suspecting that the dust thrown up by their feet had once been a city famous and feared over all Asia, and that the capital of an empire hardly less great than that of the Artaxerxes whom they had faced at Cunaxa, had once covered the ground where they stood.


[117] DIODORUS, ii. 29.

[118] Fr. LENORMANT, _Manuel de l'Histoire ancienne de l'Orient_, vol. ii.

p. 252.

[119] LOFTUS, _Travels and Researches in Chaldaea and Susiana_, p. 309. The Greeks gave the appropriate name of klimakes to those stepped roads that lead from the valley and the sea coast to the high plains of Persia.

[120] HERODOTUS, i. 200. A similar article of food is in extensive use at the present day in the western islands of Scotland, and upon other distant coasts where the soil is poor.--ED.

[121] Upon the subject of this cylinder, in which George Smith wished to recognize a representation of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent, see M.

JOACHIM MeNANT'S paper entitled, _La Bible et les Cylindres Chaldeens_ (Paris, 1880, Maisonneuve, 8vo). M. Menant makes short work of this forced interpretation and of several similar delusions which were beginning to win some acceptance.

[122] Upon the sacred functions of the king, see LAYARD, _Nineveh_, vol.

ii. p. 474.

[123] 2 Kings xix. 37.

[124] LAYARD, _The Monuments of Nineveh_ (folio, 1849), plates 43-50.

[125] LAYARD, _A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh_ (folio, 1853), plates 26 and 27. The scribes in question seem to be writing upon rolls of leather.

[126] Throughout this work the words "right" and "left" refer to the right and left of the cuts, _not_ of the reader. By this system alone can confusion be avoided in describing statues and compositions with figures.--ED.




-- 1.--_Materials._

Chaldaea was the cradle of the civilization, and consequently of the art, whose characteristics we have to define. Now the soil of Chaldaea to a great depth beneath the surface is a fine loose earth, similar to that of the Nile Delta. At a few points only on the plain, and that near the Persian Gulf, are there some rocky eminences, the remains of ancient islands which the gradual encroachment of the two great rivers has joined to the mainland of Asia. Their importance is so slight that we may fairly ignore their existence and assert generally that Chaldaea has no stone. Like all great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates in the upper and middle parts of their courses carry down pieces of rock from their native mountains, but after they enter upon the alluvial ground near the boundary between Assyria and Chaldaea their streams become sluggish, and these heavy bodies sink to the bottom and become embedded in the soil; the water no longer carries on with it anything but the minute particles which with the passage of centuries form immense banks of clay. In the whole distance between Bagdad and the sea you may take a spade, and, turn up the soil wherever you please, you will not find a stone as big as a nut.

In this absence of a natural stone something had to be found to take its place, and the artificial material we call brick was invented. The human intellect refuses to give up the contest with nature before the first obstacles that seem to bar its progress; if it cannot brush them aside it turns their flank. The least accident is often enough to suggest the desired expedient. The origin of almost all the great discoveries that are studded over the history of civilization may be traced to some lucky chance. The first inhabitants of Chaldaea fashioned rude kitchens for the cooking of their simple food out of moist and plastic clay, the fires of reed and broken wood lighted on these simple hearths reddened and hardened the clay till it became like rock. Some bystander more observant than the rest noted the change and became the father of ceramics. We use the word in its widest, in its etymological sense. _Ceramics_ is the art of fashioning clay and burning it in the fire so as to obtain constructive materials, domestic utensils, or objects of luxury and ornament.[127]

Even before the first brick or pottery kiln was erected it must have been recognized that in a climate like that of Chaldaea the soil when dried in the sun was well fitted for certain uses. Among the _debris_ left by the earliest pioneers of civilization we find the remains of vases which seem to have been dried only in the sun. But porous and friable pottery like this could only be used for a few purposes, and it was finally renounced as soon as the art of firing the earth, first in the hot ashes of the domestic hearth, and afterwards in the searching flames of the close oven, was discovered. It was otherwise with brick. The desiccation produced by the almost vertical sun of Mesopotamia allowed it to be used with safety and advantage in certain parts of a building. In that condition it is called crude brick, to distinguish it from the harder material due to the direct heat of wood fires.

In any case the clay destined for use as a building material was subject to a first preparation that never varied. It was freed from such foreign bodies as might have found their way into it, and, as in Egypt, it was afterwards mixed with chopped or rather pulverized straw, a proceeding which was thought to give it greater body and resistance. It was then mixed with water in the proportions that experience dictated, and kneaded by foot in wide and shallow basins.[128] The brickmakers of Mossoul go through the same process to this day.

As soon as the clay was sufficiently kneaded, it was shaped in almost square moulds. In size these moulds surpassed even those of Egypt: their surfaces were from 15-1/4 to 15-1/2 inches square, and their thickness was from 2 to 4 inches.[129] It would seem that these artificial blocks were given this extravagant size to make up for the absence of stone properly speaking; the only limit of size seems to have been that imposed by difficulties of manufacture and handling.

Crude brick never becomes hard enough to resist the action of water. In Greek history we read how Agesipolis, King of Sparta, when besieging Mantinea, directed the stream of the Ophis along the foot of its walls of unburnt brick, and so caused them to crumble away. Cimon, son of Miltiades, attacked the defences of Eion, on the Strymon, in the same fashion. When desiccation was carried far enough, such materials could be used, in interiors at least, so as to fulfil the same functions as stone or burnt brick. Vitruvius tells us that the magistrates who had charge of building operations at Utica would not allow brick to be used until it was five years old.[130] It would seem that neither in Chaldaea nor still less in Assyria was any such lengthy restriction imposed. It is only by exception that crude bricks of which the desiccation has been carried to the farthest possible point have been found in the palaces of Nineveh; almost the only instance we can give is afforded by the bricks composing the arches of the palace doorways at Khorsabad. They are rectangular, and into the wedge-shaped intervals between their faces a softer clay has been poured to fill up the joints.[131] As a rule things were done in a much less patient fashion. At the end of a few days, or perhaps weeks, as soon, in fact, as the bricks were dry and firm enough to be easily handled, they were carried on to the ground and laid while still soft.

This we know from the evidence of M. Place, who cut many exploring shafts through the massive Assyrian buildings, and could judge of the condition in which the bricks had been put in place by the appearance of his excavations. From top to bottom their sides showed a plain and uniform surface; not the slightest sign of joints was to be found. Some might think that the bricks, instead of being actually soft, were first dried in the sun and then, when they came to be used, that each was dipped in water so as to give it a momentary wetness before being laid in its place. M. Place repels any such hypothesis. He points out that, had the Assyrian bricklayers proceeded in that fashion, each joint would be distinguishable by a rather darker tint than the rest of the wall. There is nothing of the kind in fact. The only things that prove his excavations to have been made through brick and not through a mass of earth beaten solid with the rammer are, in the first place, that the substance cut is very homogeneous and much more dense than it would have been had it not been kneaded and pressed in the moulds; and, secondly, that the horizontal courses are here and there to be distinguished from each other by their differences of tint.[132]

The art of burning brick dates, in the case of Chaldaea, from a very remote epoch. No tradition subsisted of a period when it was not practised. After the deluge, when men wished to build a city and a tower which should reach to heaven, "they said to one another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly; and they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar."[133]

The Babylonian bricks were, as a rule, one Chaldaean foot (rather more than an English foot) square. Their colour varies in different buildings from a dark red to a light yellow,[134] but they are always well burnt and of excellent quality. Nearly all of them bear an inscription to the following effect: "Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, restorer of the pyramid and the tower, eldest son of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon, I." In laying the brick the face bearing this inscription was turned downwards. The characters were impressed on the soft clay with a stamp. More than forty varieties have already been discovered, implying the existence of as many stamps (see Fig.

32). In Assyria these inscriptions were sometimes stamped, sometimes engraved with the hand (Fig. 33).

Most of the bricks are regular in shape, with parallel and rectangular faces, but a few wedge-shaped ones have been found, both in Chaldaea and Assyria. These must have been made for building arches or vaults. Their obliquity varies according to their destined places in the curve.[135]

The body of the enamelled bricks differs from that of the ordinary kind. It is softer and more friable, appearing to be scarcely burnt.[136] This difference, at which M. Place was so much surprised, had its reason. The makers understood that their enamel colours when vitrified would penetrate deeper into and be more closely incorporated with the material upon which they were placed were the latter not so completely hardened.

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