Ancient History & Civilisation

IV. ASSYRIAN ART

Minor arts—Bas-relief—Statuary—Building—A page from “Sardanapalus”

At last, in the field of art, Assyria equaled her preceptor Babylonia, and in bas-relief surpassed her. Stimulated by the influx of wealth into Ashur, Kalakh and Nineveh, artists and artisans began to produce—for nobles and their ladies, for kings and palaces, for priests and temples–jewels of every description, cast metal as skilfully designed and finely wrought as on the great gates at Balawat, and luxurious furniture of richly carved and costly woods strengthened with metal and inlaid with gold, silver, bronze, or precious stones.56 Pottery was poorly developed, and music, like so much else, was merely imported from Babylon; but tempera painting in bright colors under a thin glaze became one of the characteristic arts of Assyria, from which it passed to its perfection in Persia. Painting, as always in the ancient East, was a secondary and dependent art.

In the heyday of Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, and presumably through their lavish patronage, the art of bas-relief created new masterpieces for the British Museum. One of the best examples, however, dates from Ashurnasirpal II; it represents, in chaste alabaster, the good god Marduk overcoming the evil god of chaos, Tiamat.57 The human figures in Assyrian reliefs are stiff and coarse and all alike, as if some perfect model had insisted on being reproduced forever; all the men have the same massive heads, the same brush of whiskers, the same stout bellies, the same invisible necks; even the gods are these same Assyrians in very slight disguise. Only now and then do the human figures take on vitality, as in the alabaster relief depicting spirits in adoration before a palmetto tree,58 and the fine limestone stele of Shamsi-Adad VII found at Kalakh.59 Usually it is the animal reliefs that stir us; never before or since has carving pictured animals so successfully. The panels monotonously repeat scenes of war and the hunt; but the eye never tires of their vigor of action, their flow of motion, and their simple directness of line. It is as if the artist, forbidden to portray his masters realistically or individually, had given all his lore and skill to the animals; he represents them in a profusion of species—lions, horses, asses, goats, dogs, deer, birds, grasshoppers—and in every attitude except rest; too often he shows them in the agony of death; but even then they are the center and life of his picture and his art. The majestic horses of Sargon II on the reliefs at Khorsabad;60 the wounded lioness from Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh;61 the dying lion in alabaster from the palace of Ashurbanipal;62 the lion-hunts of Ashurnasirpal II and Ashurbanipal;63 the resting lioness,64 and the lion released from a trap;65 the fragment in which a lion and his mate bask in the shade of the trees66—these are among the world’s choicest masterpieces in this form of art. The representation of natural objects in the S reliefs is stylized and crude; the forms are heavy, the outlines are hard, the muscles are exaggerated; and there is no other attempt at perspective (than the placing of the distant in the upper half of the picture, on the same scale as the foreground presented below. Gradually, however, the guild of sculptors under Sennacherib learned to offset these defects with a boldly realistic portrayal, a technical finish, and above all a vivid perception of action, which, in the field of animal sculpture, have never been surpassed. Bas-relief was to the Assyrian what sculpture was to the Greek, or painting to the Italians of the Renaissance—a favorite art uniquely expressing the national ideal of form and character.

We cannot say as much for Assyrian sculpture. The carvers of Nineveh and Kalakh seem to have preferred relief to work in the round; very little full sculpture has come down to us from the ruins, and none of it is of a high order. The animals are full of power and majesty, as if conscious of not only physical but moral superiority to man—like the bulls that guarded the gateway at Khorsabad;67 the human or divine figures are primitively coarse and heavy, adorned but undistinguished, erect but dead. An exception might be made for the massive statue of Ashurnasirpal II now in the British Museum; through all its heavy lines one sees a man every inch a king: royal sceptre firmly grasped, thick lips set with determination, eyes cruel and alert, a bull-like neck boding short shrift for enemies and falsifiers of tax-reports, and two gigantic feet full poised on the back of the world.

We must not take too seriously our judgments of this sculpture; very likely the Assyrians idolized knotted muscles and short necks, and would have looked with martial scorn upon our almost feminine slenderness, or the smooth, voluptuous grace of Praxiteles’ Hermes and the Apollo Belvedere. As for Assyrian architecture, how can we estimate its excellence when nothing remains of it but ruins almost level with the sand, and serving chiefly as a hook upon which brave archeologists may hang their imaginative “restorations”? Like Babylonian and recent American architecture, the Assyrian aimed not at beauty but at grandeur, and sought it by mass design. Following the traditions of Mesopotamian art, Assyrian architecture adopted brick as its basic material, but went its own way by facing it more lavishly with stone. It inherited the arch and the vault from the south, developed them, and made some experiments in columns which led the way to the caryatids and the voluted “Ionic” capitals of the Persians and the Greeks.68 The palaces squatted over great areas of ground, and were wisely limited to two or three stories in height;69 ordinarily they were designed as a series of halls and chambers enclosing a quiet and shaded court. The portals of the royal residences were guarded with monstrous stone animals, the entrance hall was lined with historical reliefs and statuary, the floors were paved with alabaster slabs, the walls were hung with costly tapestries, or paneled with precious woods, and bordered with elegant mouldings; the roofs were reinforced with masive beams, sometimes covered with leaf of silver or gold, and the ceilings were often painted with representations of natural scenery.70

The six mightiest warriors of Assyria were also its greatest builders. Tiglath-Pileser I rebuilt in stone the temples of Ashur, and left word about one of them that he had “made its interior brilliant like the vault of heaven, decorated its walls like the splendor of the rising stars, and made it superb with shining brightness.”71 The later emperors gave generously to the temples, but, like Solomon, they preferred their palaces. Ashurnasirpal II built at Kalakh an immense edifice of stone-faced brick, ornamented with reliefs praising piety and war. Nearby, at Balawat, Rassam found the ruins of another structure, from which he rescued two bronze gates of magnificent workmanship.72 Sargon II commemorated himself by raising a spacious palace at Dur-Sharrukin (i.e., Fort Sargon, on the site of the modern Khorsabad); its gateway was flanked by winged bulls, its walls were decorated with reliefs and shining tiles, its vast rooms were equipped with delicately carved furniture, and were adorned with imposing statuary. From every victory Sargon brought more slaves to work on this construction, and more marble, lapis lazuli, bronze, silver and gold to beautify it. Around it he set a group of temples, and in the rear he offered to the god a ziggurat of seven stories, topped with silver and gold. Sennacherib raised at Nineveh a royal mansion called “The Incomparable,” surpassing in size all other palaces of antiquity;73 its walls and floors sparkled with precious metals, woods, and stones; its tiles vied in their brilliance with the luminaries of day and night; the metal-workers cast for it gigantic lions and oxen of copper, and the sculptors carved for it winged bulls of limestone and alabaster, and lined its walls with pastoral symphonies in bas-relief. Esarhaddon continued the rebuilding and enlargement of Nineveh, and excelled all his predecessors in the grandeur of his edifices and the luxuriousness of their equipment; a dozen provinces provided him with materials and men; new ideas for columns and decorations came to him during his sojourn in Egypt; and when at last his palaces and temples were complete they were filled with the artistic booty and conceptions of the whole Near Eastern world.74

The worst commentary on Assyrian architecture lies in the fact that within sixty years after Esarhaddon had finished his palace it was crumbling into ruins.75 Ashurbanipal tells us how he rebuilt it; as we read his inscription the centuries fade, and we see dimly into the heart of the King:

At that time the harem, the resting-place of the palace . . . which Sennacherib, my grandfather, had built for his royal dwelling, had become old with joy and gladness, and its walls had fallen. I, Ashurbanipal, the Great King, the mighty King, the King of the World, the King of Assyria, . . . because I had grown up in that harem, and Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Ramman, Bel, Nabu, Ishtar, . . . Ninib, Nergal and Nusku had preserved me therein as crown prince, and had extended their good protection and shelter of prosperity over me, . . . and had constantly sent me joyful tidings therein of victory over my enemies; and because my dreams on my bed at night were pleasant, and in the morning my fancies were bright, . . . I tore down its ruins; in order to extend its area I tore it all down. I erected a building the site of whose structure was fifty tibki in extent. I raised a terrace; but I was afraid before the shrines of the great gods my lords, and did not raise that structure very high. In a good month, on a favorable day, I put in its foundations upon that terrace, and laid its brickwork. I emptied wine of sesame and wine of grapes upon its cellar, and poured them also upon its earthen wall. In order to build that harem the people of my land hauled its bricks there in wagons of Elam which I had carried away as spoil by the command of the gods. I made the kings of Arabia who had violated their treaty with me, and whom I had captured alive in battle with my own hands, carry baskets and (wear) workmen’s caps in order to build that harem. . . . They spent their days in moulding its bricks and performing forced service for it to the playing of music. With joy and rejoicing I built it from its foundations to its roof. I made more room in it than before, and made the work upon it splendid. I laid upon it long beams of cedar, which grew upon Sirara and Lebanon. I covered doors of liaru-wood, whose odor is pleasant, with a sheath of copper, and hung them in its doorways. . . . I planted around it a grove of all kinds of trees, and . . . fruits of every kind. I finished the work of its construction, offered splendid sacrifices to the gods my lords, dedicated it with joy and rejoicing, and entered therein under a splendid canopy.76

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