Manual of Oriental Antiquities - Babelon, Ernest. Librarian of the Department of Medals and Antiques in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Manual of Oriental Antiquities, including the Architecture, Sculpture, and Industrial Arts of Chaldæ, Assyria, Persia, Syria, Judæ, Phœnicia, and Carthage. London: H. Grevel and Co. 1906.
The Chaldæn -- Assyria -- Elamites (Archeological Discoveries at Souza) -- The Phœnicians & The Cypriots -- The Hittites
To conceal the poverty of the material of their brick or clay structures, the Assyrians, as we have said, conceived the idea of lining the walls with thin slabs of limestone or gypseous alabaster of a yellowish shade, which they extracted at small expense from the neighbouring mountains of Ninevah. These slabs could be sculptured and polished with marvelous ease.
The most ancient bas-reliefs that the excavations in Assyria have brought to light come from the palace of Assur-nasir-pal [B.C. 882-857] at Calah [Nimroud]. What a distance there is between this epoch and that of the ruins of Tello! But from the reign of this prince to the fall of Nineveh, towards the end of the seventh century--that is to say, during three centuries--there is an abundance of documents for the history of [p. 91] sculpture; they have been disinterred principally from the palaces of Assur-nassir-pal, Shalmaneser, Samsi-Rammanu, Rammanu-nirari, Tiglath-Pileser, Sargon, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal, --palaces which these princes had built in order to immortalize their fame, and the walls of which they covered with the scenes of their valour and the narrative of their exploits.
Besides the interior walls of the chambers, no bas-reliefs were found in the palaces except on the principal façade. These sculptures on the façe;ade have peculiar characteristics upon which we must lay stress. In the first place, they are exclusively devoted to religious and mythological subjects: not the smallest allusion is found to the exploits of the prince. They represent especially divine heroes, winged genii with human bodies and eagles' claws and beaks, winged lions and bulls which guard the royal residence and defend the approaches to it, whether against evil spirits or against foreign invasion. Accordingly the figures in these exterior sculptures are of colossal proportions, as it is fitting for god and heroes. There was also a reason drawn from the laws of perspective in this enlargement of the figures, since the façe;ade of the palace was intended to be seen at a greater distance. The winged bulls at the Louvre, which come from Khorsabad, are from 13 ft. to 16 ft. high. The groups which represent Izdubar, the Assyrian Hercules, strangling a lion under his arm, are as much as 19 1/2 ft. The Assyrians multiplied their winged bulls at the entrance of the doors. Twenty-six pairs of them were found in the palace of Sargon, and as many as ten in a single façe;ade of the palace of Sennacherib. Assyrian texts speak of them as kirubi [cherubim?] or sedi [genii]. The considerable projection of their figures from the walls makes them partake of the bas-relief and of the statue in the round at the same time. Some of these bulls have a relief of about 8 in.; placed at the corner of the doors to support the archivolt, they seemed, like Atlas upholding [p. 93] the world, to bear upon their head the whole mass of the building. Carved on two sides, they are like statues half -buried in the thickness of the wall. They were generally arranged in fours, two being on the plane of the wall, facing one another on each side of the door, and the other two facing the visitor as he entered, while their heads stood out from the façade and their hinder parts remained inside the passage. The visitor arriving from without saw before him at once the bodies of the first two in profile and the full face of the two others. Before the building or within the doorway he still saw at the same time full faces and bodies in profile. By an illusion, he seemed to behold continually, and in every position, the whole of a bearded monster, with his thick mane on his chest, his neck furnished with tufts of hair, his legs, in which the muscles, speaking emblems of material strength, are powerfully marked, his wings formed of rows of plumes, and reaching, like gigantic fans, as high as the achivolt.
Except in the palace of Sennacherib, these winged bulls, in order that the illusion may be more complete, are represented with five legs; two hind legs and three fore legs, of which two are straight and one is bent. [p. 94]
The object of this trick was always to show four legs, whatever might be the position of the spectator. In fact, standing before the beast, the spectator sees his two fore legs; on the side, one of these two being no longer visible, the artist has replaced it by a third which is seen in profile in the background. This quaint device of the Assyrian sculptor is never met with in Egypt.
The philosophical idea expressed in these bulls and lions, these impassable and majestic sentinels, is that of physical strength, calm and sure of itself; it is the conception of the Egyptian sphinxes and of the Græco-Roman Hercules in repose, with a half-smile upon his face. Only, while in the Greek Hercules the human element alone comes in, and in the Egyptian Sphinx there are only two elements, the man and the lion, four, and even more are found in the Assyrian Kirubu: the man, the bull, the lion, and the eagle. The artist's chief merit is that he was able to give fair proportions to this fantastic beast, and to combine these various elements which he borrowed from nature, so as to create a figure of harmonious forms, in which nothing shocks the taste, and the expression of which is noble, majestic, and natural. To us, though we are the children [p. 95] of another civilization, nothing seems grotesque or deformed in these fine and vigorous creations of the Assyrian genius, which could, as skillfully as the Egyptian genius, associate the human form with the animal form in the symbolic representation of deity and of supernatural beings. It is on the banks of the Tigris that we find the prototypes of the Loves, the Centaurs, the Chimūras, the Sphinxes, the Gryphons, the Pegasi, the Hippocampi of Greek art.
It has been calculated that the series of bas-reliefs from the halls of Sargon's palace at Khorsabad, placed end to end, would form a line a mile and a half long. Those who have visited the British Museum will remember the Nimroud and Kouyunjik galleries, and the Assyrian Basement, each one of which is larger than the Assyrian gallery at the Louvre. What a quantity of material for writing the history of Assyrian sculpture during three centuries is here in our hands! In the interval between every campaign, that is to say, between two springtides, the king had bas-reliefs sculptured to exhibit before men's eyes his prowess in the [p. 97] chase or in war, and the manifold episodes of official life. Taken as a whole, the sculptures in the interior of the palaces are always in honour of the prince. Everything is for the king, who symbolizes the life of his whole people; he does everything, and nothing is accomplished except by his hands or by his orders; nowhere is the ferocious egotism of Eastern monarchs more conspicuous than in these bas-reliefs. Egyptian sculptures often contain scenes of civil life from which the Pharaoh is excluded: agricultural labour, games, festivals, public markets, and many other episodes in the existence of the ancient Egyptian Fellaheen. In Assyria we find nothing of this sort; the speaking walls repeat, without a moment's pause, the warlike chronicle of the kings.
This exclusively official side of the Ninevite sculptures compelled art to confine itself to abstract types, created once for all, which, multiplied to satiety, produce a certain fatigue in our minds. There is no more proportion [p. 97] or scale in the Assyrian bas-reliefs than among the Egyptians or the Chinese; perspective is absent, or rather the artists made vain efforts to calculate and reproduce its effects. Men are taller than the chariots that they mount and the horses which draw them; they even overtop the fortresses that they besiege. As in Egypt, the king is always represented as taller than his ministers, and in general the Assyrians are taller than their enemies. Greek heroes, in classical art, are also often taller than the warriors who surround them; the same facts have been remarked in Chinese art. The practice is naïve, but it is common to all arts and easily explained by the absence of perspective. At the present day, when our artists can at their pleasure arrange several planes in their pictures, and produce distances and backgrounds in the scenes which they wish to render, they are satisfied to make the important scene stand out and place the principal actors in the foreground. [p. 98] Before perspective was understood and many planes could thus be created, there was no means of bringing out the principal actors except the device of a disproportionate enlargement.
Generally speaking, the Assyrian artist shows a fondness for picturesque spots, mountains, and rivers. But he renders them with the strangest errors in the relative proportions of the objects: for instance, the fish among the waves are as large as the boats; the birds in the forests are as large as the trees or the hunters; the vultures on the field of battle are as big as the horses.
When the artist wishes to reproduce the human countenance, he always places the eye in full, even when the face is in profile. When the sculptor is obliged to represent his figures in full face, or in any other attitude than the simple profile, he is much embarrassed, and shows his hesitation and his [p. 99] incapacity; unable to foreshorten the feet, he draws them entirely in profile, while the whole of the upper portion of the body is in full face--an error which gives an appearance of dislocation to the figure. He turns the heads round as if they were put on the wrong way; the hands present the same deformity: it might sometimes be supposed that the artist has put them on backwards.
The principal efforts of the sculptor were aimed at the head, the legs, and the arms. He makes the muscles stand out enormously, while they are not always in their proper anatomical position. Bold curves form the outline of the knee-cap and mark the leg-muscles and the biceps; the feet and hands are not only clearly carved out, but chiseled to an excessive depth. The Assyrians scarcely knew more than two types of the human head, which they constantly reproduce: the bearded head and the beardless head. An attempt may be made, however, to establish more exact definitions and distinctions. The bearded head may wear its hair curled in very short ringlets, or else the beard and the hair may be twisted in parallel and symmetrical tresses: this last form is reserved for figures of gods, heroes, kings, the chief functionaries of the court, and soldiers. The beardless heads must be recognized as the type set apart to represent eunuchs. These personages, some of whom played an important part at court, like the Kislar-Agha, or chief of the black eunuchs at Constantinople, are characterized by their fleshy and sensual countenances.
Among the works of Chaldæn and Egyptian art there are faces which belong to old men, to young men, [p. 101] and to children. In Assyria it may be said that the faces never change, or rather three or four fixed types are exclusively met with: kings, officers, slaves, and even gods, have all the same physiognomy, which belongs to the age between youth and maturity. When children are met with, they have a prematurely old appearance, and their stature alone distinguishes them. The Ninevite artists rarely represented women, and when they did so proved their absolute inexperience. Their veiled women have vulgar features, from which all ideas of physical beauty are banished. Examine the scene in which King Assurbanipal and one of his wives are drinking from goblets [fig. 77]. The face of the queen is almost masculine in appearance; even her hair is dressed like that of men; she wears a peculiar diadem, and is draped in sumptuous robes, embroidered and enriched with jewels.
The Assyrian sculptor had not the skill to draw a true portrait and to study individual likeness, except perhaps in certain royal heads. [Menant, Remarques sur les portraits des rois assyro-chaldéans, 1882.] Nor had he the skill [p. 101] to give to the types which he created the least expression, betraying any motion whatever of joy or sadness; his figures remain impassive, whether taking part in joyous banquets, in the excitement of hunting, in battle, or even amidst the most atrocious tortures. The countenance of the Assyrian is always imperturbable, never laughs and never weeps; the gestures of his arms alone are designed to express and interpret his impressions. The hand raised and drawn back to the height of the nape of the neck is a sign of introduction or of an appeal; the hand raised in front of the mouth is a sign of mourning and of violent grief; the [p. 103] hands held in such a way that one grasps the wrist of the other, make a gesture which implies an acknowledgment of servitude and absolute submission, due only to the sovereign or to the gods. Assyrians are sometimes seen in the act of prayer, raising one hand as high as the face, while the other hangs loosely by the side; but some adopt the Christian posture in prayer, raising their two hands and pressing the palms against one another.
As the bas-reliefs of the Ninevite palaces are specially devoted to the representation of the military campaigns of the kings against foreign nations, the artist has often been led to draw men or women of distant countries, distinguished from the Assyrians by their national costume or by certain ethnographical characteristics. It is sometimes possible to understand these distinctions between Assyrians and foreigners in the sculptures: for instance, the Jewish type could scarcely be better expressed at the present day than it is in the figure of one of the captives coming to make their submission to King Sennacherib in his camp before the walls of Lachish [fig. 78].
Moreover, with regard to the human form, the scope of Assyrian sculpture was greatly limited in consequence of the false modesty of the East, which was in existence in ancient times as it is in our own day among [p. 105] the Arabs, and prevented the artist from studying the human frame in the nude and in the living model. The Assyrian, like the Arab, is always draped in his thick burnoos, and this fashion, observed with religious strictness, contributed to no small extent to the sudden arrest of the progress of art. The long linen tunic, garnished with embroideries, only allows the head, feet and fore-arm to be seen; the working dress of the slaves, or sometimes the tunic of the soldiers, descends no further than the knee; the large fringed shawl, when it is worn, envelops the body like the Arab burnoos and the Roman toga.
The Assyrian, therefore, in consequence of a Semitic prejudice, could never express natural and ideal beauty: herein lies his inferiority in comparison with the Egyptian sculptor; we know from thousands of examples how the artists of Thebes or Memphis treated the human torso, and several of their statues and even of their bas-reliefs are masterpieces. Rarely has the Ninevite sculptor ventured to represent the human form in the state of [p. 105] nudity, except in the case of the goddess Istar, and in that of a few figures of slaves or of corpses lying on the battle-field; and these exceptional cases betray his complete want of experience.
He tried to remedy the defect which we have just indicated by striving after perfection in details. No art has treated with greater complaisance and refinement all the features of the costume, not forgetting a single tress of the hair or a single fringe in the drapery. Here is, for instance, a bas -relief from Khorsabad [ fig. 80], which represents Sargon attended by an eunuch. Observe with what inimitable perfection the embroidery of the tiara, of the mantle decorated with rosettes, and of the robe with its elegant diaper pattern is rendered; the silky softness of the fringes in the enuch's dress is almost to be felt. The hands and feet, beard and hair, of the two figures, are treated with the delicacy of a cameo. Secondary matters thus assume an exaggerated importance detrimental to the effect of the whole; the muscles are so strongly marked that they become monstrous; the relative proportions of the different parts of the body are no longer conformed to nature. In this respect again Assyrian sculpture remains greatly inferior to its rival on the banks of the Nile. It cannot be too often repeated that the minute study of detail and devotion to the infinitely little ruined Assyrian art by helping to make it forget the general features of the work; the sculptor, led astray by this false object, looked at his figures too closely, omitting to improve their proportions and to give them more suppleness, life, and movement; even when most finished, they always give us an impression of geometrical stiffness. [p. 107]
If the direct study of bodily form was neglected by the Assyrian artist in the case of human beings, it was not so in the case of animals. Accordingly Ninevite sculpture shows itself to far greater advantage in the representation of the animals of different kinds found in Mesopotamia. In this province it may claim a considerable superiority over Egyptian art, and reaches, in the time of Assurbanipal, that is to say, at them moment before the fall of Ninevey, a degree of perfection which may sustain comparison with the finest creations of Hellenic art. Its masterpiece is the figure of a lioness succumbing to the shafts of the hunters, from the palace of Assurbanipal at Kouyunjik. Her spinal column is broken by an arrow which pierces it through; the blood gushes in streams from the wound, but though on the point of expiring, the savage beast makes a heroic effort to raise herself upon her forelegs and to utter a last roar. In order to render this dramatic attitude with so much truth, the artists must often have followed the [p. 107] royal hunting expeditions and witnessed terrible scenes in the deserts where the wild beasts had their haunts. Other bas-reliefs show us, with an almost equally successful execution, lions springing onto the royal chariot, dashing boldly towards the boats which plough the waters of the river, or, on the other hand, lying carelessly asleep on the plain, and lazily stretching out their limbs, the modelling of which is free and truthful.
Next to the lion, the Assyrian artist takes the greatest pleasure in representing the horse. In one scene it is the wild horse, starting and bounding as he is caught by the lasso of the hunters; in another it is the war-horse, dashing at full gallop towards the enemy, and ridden by a warrior who draws his bow or brandishes his lance; or again it is the draught-horse, harnessed to the royal chariot, trampling corpses under his feet, or drawing the heavy wagons in which the booty from the enemy's country is transported into Assyria. Such was the skill of the artist, that naturalists have been able to decide from the study of the bas-reliefs what breeds of horses were produced in Assyria. The dog, the goat and the sheep, the ibex and the wild boar, the bison and the wild ass, the deer and the gazelle, the camel and the dromedary, are also among the animals which frequently occur in the bas -reliefs designed to perpetuate the memory of particularly successful hunting [p. 109] expeditions, or of the capture of herds belonging to a vanquished people. The artist took pleasure in placing them in the most fanciful attitudes, sometimes with the happiest effect. It was also his delight to introduce in procession the figures of foreign animals, sent to the King of Assyria by tributary nations, such as th elephant, the ape, and the rhinoceros. But the rarity of such animals in Mesopotamia explains the peculiar clumsiness of the Assyrian sculptor in the reproduction of them. Here are apes treated with an almost grotesque naïveté they look like men disguised in the skins of animals, and trying to walk on all fours [fig. 83].
Among birds we find the eagle, the vulture and the gerfalcon hovering heavily and ungracefully over the battlefields, though the anatomical details of these birds are sometimes executed with skill [Layard, Monuments of Nineveh, vol i., pl. 26, and passim.] The ostrich, a sacred bird, appears on cylinders and among the embroidered designs on official robes. Locusts, that plague of the whole East, figure in the character of offerings to the gods, and, no doubt, represent legions of evil spirits. In the rivers eels, crabs, and fish are placed. In the field, on the mountains, or on the [p. 109] river-banks we find palms and trees of every species, onions, ears of corn, lotus-flowers, vines, marsh-plants. But if the scrupulous imitation of nature sometimes leaves nothing to be desired in these sculptured forms, ignorance of the laws of perspective has forced the artist to employ devices of childish simplicity. Thus to indicate that trees grow on each side of a stream, he has placed them upright on the further bank, and stem downwards on the nearer.
In the same way, when he wishes, for instance, to show us what passes within the enclosure of a fortress [see fig. 57], he is reduced to display it on the ground with the bastions and battlements in profile around it, turned outward like the points of a coronet; at the same time he arranges all his scenes within this enclosure in divisions one above the other, without regard for the laws of proportion, and without even taking the trouble to contain himself, as he has done with regard to the enclosure, within the spaces marked out by radii starting from th e center. By a further neglect of perspective, in the representation of an ox or other horned animal, he places the horn in profile projecting forwards from the head.
Besides the bas-reliefs which were displayed upon the walls of the palace-chambers, there were secondary pieces of sculpture in which the originality of the Assyrian genius comes to light. A notable example is found in the decoration of the thresholds of the palaces, which were carved in such a way that they looked like rich carpets. One of the most remarkable of these is a large slab of gypsum found at Kouyunjik, [fig. 84], in which the lotus or tulip-flower is combined with rosettes, open daisies and geometrical designs most harmonious in effect; nothing more elegant in decorative sculpture has ever been conceived.
To sum up, Assyrian sculpture triumphs in the bas relief, and in the patient and minute labour of ornamental design. If the work of the Ninevite chisel is compared to that of the Greeks in the archaic period, down to the appearance of the Æginetan school, a surprising affinity will be observed between them. The stela of Aristion, that primitive Athenian bas-relief, known under the incorrect name of the Warrior of Marathon, looks, at first sight, as if it had been taken from the walls of Sargon's or Sennacherib's palace. At Khorsabad a cippus, acquired by Victor Place, is adorned with parallel flutings terminating in a hemisphere of elegant palmettes; it presents the appearance of a Greek stela. [Perrot and Chipiez, History of Art in Chaldæa and Assyria, vol. i., p. 257]
If we compare the sculpture of Kouyunjik, Nimroud, Khorsabad and Kalah Shergat with one another, we observe, beneath the general uniformity that we have indicated, differences important enough to enable us to characterize the progress of art during the three centuries before the fall of Nineveh, and not simply [p. 111] the result of the varying talent of the artists. We seem to be able to distinguish in Assyrian art, as we learn to know it in the bas-reliefs, three periods or three successive developments. Under Assur-nasir-pal the figures are already bold and powerful, but thick-set, and they appear in small numbers in the scenes represented; their motions are sober, but full of truth. The artist has the singular habit, only observed in Assyrian art, of covering a portion of his figures with long inscriptions explaining the scenes which he intends to portray [see fig. 83]; we have already seen that the Chaldæn statues of Gudea are covered with inscriptions, and Herodotus' statement [Herod. ii. 106] that the figures of "Sesostris" in Ionia, doubtless the Hittite figures described below, bore inscriptions across their breasts [p. 113] is probably based on a confusion with the Assyrian figures in Syria and elsewhere. Under Sargon and Sennacherib, the sculptors became more experienced and more ambitious. In their works the figures are far more numerous, and concur more visibly in a common action; they have more life and movement; the scenes representing battles, hunting expeditions, the worship of the gods, or slaves engaged in public works are more varied; the gestures of the figures are more marked and more energetic, the muscles of the legs and arms more deeply outlined; lastly, the human forms are no longer covered with inscriptions; these are placed at the side, as explanatory legends.
In the time of Assurbanipal, a more natural art, and one which conformed more to the true principles of sculpture in bas-relief, came into being. Instead of giants, we find on the contrary small figures forming a series of pictures, containing the greatest variety of scene, and full of freshness and action. This art reaches its apogee in the figure of the lioness which we have cited [fig. 81]. It must be added that all the parts of the same bas-relief are seldom sculptured by the same artist, and that figures of very unequal merit are met with. The master's chisel reserved for itself the principal personages, the royal train and the officers who surrounded it; the disciples worked at the secondary portions, the [p. 113] corpses of the enemy, the processions of prisoners, the background of the landscape. Matters were not managed differently with regard to the sculptures of the Parthenon. [p. 114]
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The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication.