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Art and Paintings of Babylonian and Assyrian Civilization

Art and Paintings of Assyria

Paintings and Art of Babylonian, CHALDÆO-Assyrian Civilization
Art Motives and Methods of Babylonian Assyrian Painting

Babylonian AssyrianTo find Assyria, Chaldæa, Babylonia, travalers must leave the banks of the Nile, and, crossing the Arabian desert eastward for a thousand miles, they shall reach the mouth of another river, that flows through and fertilizes another barren land—the river Euphrates. The Nile flows northward to the Mediterranean Sea; the Tigris and Euphrates, joining their lower course, flow together southward to the Persian Gulf. As Egypt is the gift of the Nile, so Babylonia and Mesopotamia are in a lesser degree the gift of Tigris and Euphrates.

TIGRIS-EUPHRATES CIVILIZATION: In many respects the civilization along the Tigris-Euphrates was like that along the Nile. Both valleys were settled by primitive peoples, who grew rapidly by virtue of favorable climate and soil, and eventually developed into great nations headed by kings absolute in power. The king was the state in Egypt, and in Assyria the monarch was even more dominant and absolute. For the Pharaohs shared architecture, painting, and sculpture with the gods; but the Sargonids seem to have arrogated the most of these things to themselves alone.

Religion was perhaps as real in Assyria as in Egypt, but it was less apparent in art. Certain genii, called gods or demons, appear in the bas-reliefs, but it is not yet settled whether they represent gods or merely legendary heroes or monsters of fable. There was no great demonstration of religion by form and color, as in Egypt. The Assyrians were Semites, and religion with them was more a matter of the spirit than the senses—an image in the mind rather than an image in metal or stone. The temple was not eloquent with the actions and deeds of the gods, and even the tomb, that fruitful source of art in Egypt, was in Chaldæa undecorated and in Assyria unknown. No one knows what the Assyrians did with their dead, unless they carried them back to the fatherland of the race, the Persian Gulf region, as the native tribes of Mesopotamia do to this day.

ART MOTIVES: As in Egypt, there were two motives for art—illustration and decoration. Religion, as we have seen, hardly obtained at all. The king attracted the greatest attention. The countless bas-reliefs, cut on soft stone slabs, were pages from the history of the monarch in peace and war, in council, in the chase, or in processional rites. Beside him and around him his officers came in for a share of the background glory. Occasionally the common people had representations of their lives and their pursuits, but the main subject of all the valley art was the king and his doings. Sculpture and painting were largely illustrations accompanying a history written in the ever-present cuneiform characters.

But, while serving as history, like the picture-writings of the Egyptians, this illustration was likewise decoration, and was designed with that end in view. Rows upon rows of partly colored bas-reliefs were arranged like a dado along the palace-wall, and above them wall-paintings, or glazed tiles in patterns, carried out the color scheme. Almost all of the color has now disappeared, but it must have been brilliant at one time, and was doubtless in harmony with the architecture. Both painting and sculpture were subordinate to and dependent upon architecture. Palace-building was the chief pursuit, and the other arts were called in mainly as adjuncts—ornamental records of the king who built.

THE TYPE, FORM, COLOR: There were only two distinct faces in Assyrian art—one with and one without a beard. Neither of them was a portrait except as attributes or inscriptions designated. The type was unendingly repeated. Women appeared in only one or two isolated cases, and even these are doubtful. The warrior, a strong, coarse-membered, heavily muscled creation, with a heavy, expressionless, Semitic face, appeared everywhere. The figure was placed in profile, with eye and bust twisted to show the front view, and the long feet projected one beyond the other, as in the Nile pictures.


This was the Assyrian ideal of strength, dignity, and majesty, established probably in the early ages, and repeated for centuries with few characteristic variations. The figure was usually given in motion, walking, or riding, and had little of that grace seen in Egyptian painting, but in its place a great deal of rude strength. In modelling, the human form was not so knowingly rendered as the animal. The long Eastern clothing probably prevented the close study of the figure. This failure in anatomical exactness was balanced in part by minute details in the dress and accessories, productive of a rich ornamental effect.


Hard stone was not found in the Mesopotamian regions. Temples were built of burnt brick, bas-reliefs were made upon alabaster slabs and heightened by coloring, and painting was largely upon tiles, with mineral paints, afterward glazed by fire. These glazed brick or tiles, with figured designs, were fixed upon the walls, arches, and archivolts by bitumen mortar, and made up the first mosaics of which we have record. There was a further painting upon plaster in distemper, of which some few traces remain. It did not differ in design from the bas-reliefs or the tile mosaics.

The subjects used were the Assyrian type, shown somewhat slighter in painting than in sculpture, animals, birds, and other objects; but they were obviously not attempts at nature. The color was arbitrary, not natural, and there was little perspective, light-and-shade, or relief. Heavy outline bands of color appeared about the object, and the prevailing hues were yellow and blue. There was perhaps less symbolism and more direct representation in Assyria than in Egypt. There was also more feeling for perspective and space, as shown in such objects as water and in the mountain landscapes of the late bas-reliefs; but, in the main, there was no advance upon Egypt. There was a difference which was not necessarily a development. Painting, as we know the art to-day, was not practised in Chaldæa-Assyria. It was never free from a servitude to architecture and sculpture; it was hampered by conventionalities; and the painter was more artisan than artist, having little freedom or individuality.


HISTORIC PERIODS: Chaldæa, of unknown antiquity, with Babylon its capital, is accounted the oldest nation in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, and, so far as is known, it was an original nation producing an original art. Its sculpture (especially in the Tello heads), and presumably its painting, were more realistic and individual than any other in the valley. Assyria coming later, and the heir of Chaldæa, was the

Second Empire: There are two distinct periods of this Second Empire, the first lasting from 1,400 B.C., down to about 900 B.C., and in art showing a great profusion of bas-reliefs. The second closed about 625 B.C., and in art produced much glazed-tile work and a more elaborate sculpture and painting. After this the Chaldæan provinces gained the ascendency again, and Babylon, under Nebuchadnezzar, became the first city of Asia. But the new Babylon did not last long. It fell before Cyrus and the Persians 536 B.C. Again, as in Egypt, the earliest art appears the purest and the simplest, and the years of Chaldæo-Assyrian history known to us carry a record of change rather than of progress in art.

ART REMAINS: The most valuable collections of Chaldæo-Assyrian art are to be found in the Louvre and the British Museum. The other large museums of Europe have collections in this department, but all of them combined are little compared with the treasures that still lie buried in the mounds of the Tigris-Euphrates valley. Excavations have been made at Mugheir, Warka, Khorsabad, Kouyunjik, and elsewhere, but many difficulties have thus far rendered systematic work impossible. The complete history of Chaldæo-Assyria and its art has yet to be written.


HISTORY AND ART MOTIVES: The Medes and Persians were the natural inheritors of Assyrian civilization, but they did not improve their birthright. The Medes soon lost their power. Cyrus conquered them, and established the powerful Persian monarchy upheld for two hundred years by Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes. Substantially the same conditions surrounded the Persians as the Assyrians—that is, so far as art production was concerned. Their conceptions of life were similar, and their use of art was for historic illustration of kingly doings and ornamental embellishment of kingly palaces. Both sculpture and painting were accessories of architecture.

Of Median art nothing remains. The Persians left the record, but it was not wholly of their own invention, nor was it very extensive or brilliant. It had little originality about it, and was really only an echo of Assyria. The sculptors and painters copied their Assyrian predecessors, repeating at Persepolis what had been better told at Nineveh.


TYPES AND TECHNIC: The same subjects, types, and technical methods in bas-relief, tile, and painting on plaster were followed under Darius as under Shalmanezer. But the imitation was not so good as the original. The warrior, the winged monsters, the animals all lost something of their air of brutal defiance and their strength of modelling. Heroes still walked in procession along the bas-reliefs and glazed tiles, but the figure was smaller, more effeminate, the hair and beard were not so long, the drapery fell in slightly indicated folds at times, and there was a profusion of ornamental detail. Some of this detail and some modifications in the figure showed the influence of foreign nations other than the Greek; but, in the main, Persian art followed in the footsteps of Assyrian art. It was the last reflection of Mesopotamian splendor. For with the conquest of Persia by Alexander the book of expressive art in that valley was closed, and, under Islam, it remains closed to this day.

ART REMAINS: Persian painting is something about which little is known because little remains. The Louvre contains some reconstructed friezes made in mosaics of stamped brick and square tile, showing figures of lions and a number of archers. The coloring is particularly rich, and may give some idea of Persian pigments. Aside from the chief museums of Europe the bulk of Persian art is still seen half-buried in the ruins of Persepolis and elsewhere.



THE TRADING NATIONS: The coast-lying nations of the Eastern Mediterranean were hardly original or creative nations in a large sense. They were at different times the conquered dependencies of Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece, and their lands were but bridges over which armies passed from east to west or from west to east. Located on the Mediterranean between the great civilizations of antiquity they naturally adapted themselves to circumstances, and became the middlemen, the brokers, traders, and carriers of the ancient world. Their lands were not favorable to agriculture, but their sea-coasts rendered commerce easy and lucrative. They made a kingdom of the sea, and their means of livelihood were gathered from it. There is no record that the Egyptians ever traversed the Mediterranean, the Assyrians were not sailors, the Greeks had not yet arisen, and so probably Phœnicia and her neighbors had matters their own way. Colonies and trading stations were established at Cyprus, Carthage, Sardinia, the Greek islands, and the Greek mainland, and not only Eastern goods but Eastern ideas were thus carried to the West.


Politically, socially, and religiously these small middle nations were inconsequential. They simply adapted their politics or faith to the nation that for the time had them under its heel. What semi-original religion they possessed was an amalgamation of the religions of other nations, and their gods of bronze, terra-cotta, and enamel were irreverently sold in the market like any other produce.

ART MOTIVES AND METHODS: Building, carving, and painting were practised among the coastwise nations, but upon no such extensive scale as in either Egypt or Assyria. The mere fact that they were people of the sea rather than of the land precluded extensive or concentrated development. Politically Phœnicia was divided among five cities, and her artistic strength was distributed in a similar manner. Such art as was produced showed the religious and decorative motives, and in its spiritless materialistic make-up, the commercial motive. It was at the best a hybrid, mongrel art, borrowed from many sources and distributed to many points of the compass. At one time it had a strong Assyrian cast, at another an Egyptian cast, and after Greece arose it accepted a retroactive influence from there.

It is impossible to characterize the Phœnician type, and even the Cypriote type, though more pronounced, varies so with the different influences that it has no very striking individuality. Technically both the Phœnician and Cypriote were fair workmen in bronze and stone, and doubtless taught many technical methods to the early Greeks, besides making known to them those deities afterward adopted under the names of Aphrodite, Adonis, and Heracles, and familiarizing them with the art forms of Egypt and Assyria.


As for painting, there was undoubtedly figured decoration upon walls of stone and plaster, but there is not enough left to us from all the small nations like Phœnicia, Judea, Cyprus, and the kingdoms of Asia Minor, put together, to patch up a disjointed history. The first lands to meet the spoiler, their very ruins have perished. All that there is of painting comes to us in broken potteries and color traces on statuary. The remains of sculpture and architecture are of course better preserved. None of this intermediate art holds much rank by virtue of its inherent worth. It is its influence upon the West—the ideas, subjects, and methods it imparted to the Greeks—that gives it importance in art history.


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