Ancient Persian Painting And Decoration

THE architecture, sculpture, and decorative motives of Ancient Persian art were hardly indigenous to that country, which geographically is known as the plateau of Iran. There is nothing to show that the art of Persia had any roots in the country, for nothing previously existed in the nature of native germs of art before the days of the foundation of the First Empire, under Cyrus (about 530 B.C.). The oldest Persian art is of a highly complex, or composite character, and mainly consisted of a mixture of borrowed forms and motives from Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Grecian sources, but skilfully selected and adapted by the Persian architects and decorators to suit the desires and tastes of the native rulers, when they began to build their palaces and tombs for their own glory and gratification.

At Persepolis, Pasargadæ, and Susa, which have been the three chief cities of the empire, mighty palaces have been built by Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes, who employed Assyrian, Phoenician, Egyptian, and Greek architects and artificers in the work of erecting and decorating these edifices with sculpture, enamelled tiles, ivory, and metals. Although the employment of foreign artists in Persia is a matter beyond dispute, yet the excellent taste of the Persian kings, or of those who were the chief controllers of their architectural works, has been the means of creating a classical style of art that eventually became national in its character. We say, became national, for in its early stages it was by no means so, seeing that it was not, in its inception, a native creation, or a spontaneous inspiration of her people, like the art of Egypt, Chaldæa, or Greece, but was the growth of exotic forms and motives, brought from the neighbouring and conquered countries, and being more or less engrafted on each other, developed and flowered into luxuriant grace and beauty in Persian soil, under the fostering care and attention of the powerful and wealthy lords of Asia.

Nearly all the art of Ancient Persia was lavished on the palaces, great halls, and tombs of the kings ; nothing was wanting in these luxurious edifices, with all their wealth of ornament, to render them magnificent, in order that they might minister to the glorification both in life and in death of the royal princes of a great empire.

Persia as a nation may be said to begin its historic life under the rule of Cyrus, the first king of the Achæmenid dynasty, about the middle of the sixth century B.C. It was in his reign, after he had through successful wars become master of western Asia, that the Persians began to think of building the famous palaces at Pasargadæ, Susa, and Persepolis. The countries of Assyria, Phoenicia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Asiatic Greece had all in their turn succumbed before the victorious armies of united Persia under Cyrus and Cambyses, and not only did these nations pay enormous tribute to swell the coffers of the Persian kings, but many architects and artists of the conquered countries were induced to enter the service of these monarchs, who could so well afford to recompense them for their labour, but also many sought employment in Persia in order that they might escape from political oppressions, and from the harder life they experienced in their own countries. It is then little wonder that there was so much in the cosmopolitan art of Persia, which reminds us of the decided characteristics of the motives, forms, and colouring of the art of those nations that lay to the west and north-west of the Iranic table-lands. Therefore, in order to properly understand the beginnings and subsequent development of Persian art in its best period, namely, during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., we shall have to be mindful of the character and forms of the art that then existed in the neighbouring countries, and more particularly of those that lay nearest—Babylonia and Assyria. To these countries Persia was indebted in a greater degree than to Asiatic Greece or Egypt for the models of her architecture, and for the motives and themes of its decoration. In the history of all art development it has generally been found that the art of a young nation has been strongly influenced by that of an older civilization which happens to lie nearest it, and, as the dyer’s hand is subdued to what he works in, it is not a matter of surprise to find that the art of Persia was in a great measure a continuance and development of that of the Mesopotamian schools. But other influences, both foreign and native, modified the character of the original Babylonian and Assyrian styles adopted by the Persians, which in the end produced a new, if somewhat complex, variety of national art. It is clear, however, that through all the ages and changes of dynasties and governments, down to the present time, the whole art of Ancient and Modern Persia has been, and is still, strongly reminiscent of the character, forms, and colour that have been transmitted down from its cradle-land of Mesopotamia. Persia has often been at the mercy of the nations that have invaded and conquered her, yet from her infancy as a kingdom she has kept her individuality, and in a great measure her art, for none of her conquerors have yet succeeded in absorbing the character of her national life, nor the spirit and forms of her art ; on the contrary, Persian architecture, decoration, and more especially that of the design and colouring of the applied arts in pottery, tiles, metal-work, and textiles, have been immeasurably far-reaching in their influence on the industrial arts of Europe and of the East.

The architecture of the First Empire was particularly distinguished by the great use that was made of graceful and ornate columns, which supported the wooden beams of the flat and panelled ceiling. This type of architecture was therefore of a trabeated, or pillar and beam variety, but during the Sassanid dynasty (A.D. 226-652), after the Greek and Parthian occupations of the country had come to an end, the Persians reverted to the use of another order of architecture, namely, the domed and vaulted style, a type which had been formerly used by the Chaldæans and Assyrians. That domed and vaulted buildings were erected by the Assyrians is proved by a bas-relief found at Nineveh, where groups of them are represented, and Strabo the Greek historian and geographer expressly tells us that ” all the houses of Babylon were vaulted.” Some remains of these domed and vaulted structures have been found at Ferüz-Abad and at Sarvistan, and one also at Ferash-Abad, where a portion of the domed roof still exists. The domes are elliptical in section, or ovoid in contour, as also are some of the arched openings of entrances and of window-heads, while some of the latter are circular-headed. In some cases the arched head of the openings turns inwards at the springing points on the tops of the piers and jambs, thus showing an early illustration of the horse-shoe arch that is so very characteristic of Modern Persian and Saracenic architecture. The principal cupolas or ovoid domes of these buildings were supported by resting on the four walls, which formed the square hall or chamber underneath. The centre of the principal façade was occupied by the large ovoid-arched opening, which was used as the chief entrance. This great doorway has always been, and still is, an important feature of Persian and Saracenic buildings, as may be seen in the huge vaulted portals of mosques, houses, caravanserais, and other edifices of Modern Persia, India, Egypt, Turkey, and Asia Minor, and in fact in all Mohammedan architecture. These domed buildings of the Sassanid period were built of roughly dressed stones and bricks, which were well cemented together with lime mortar. The walls and surfaces of vaults and domes were plastered, and on the interior walls of the building at Ferüz-Abad, around the circular-headed niches and doorways there are mouldings, with the Egyptian “gorge ” as a horizontal crowning feature, and superimposed decoration in low relief. Here we find that which was a very characteristic structural feature of the earlier Achaemenid buildings, as the doorways framing mouldings and the gorge-headed entablature of the palace of Darius at Persepolis, copied in low relief as mere decoration in the vaulted and domed structures of the Sassanid period.

From the circumstances that these buildings were undoubtedly copied from the Assyrian and Babylonian vaulted structures, and their secondary forms of decoration were borrowed from the architecture of the Achaemenid period, we must look upon them as a type of Persian renaissance. Though most of them belong to the Sassanid period, it is conjectured that some of the earlier ones were erected in the previous dynasty, by the Parthian kings ; it is indeed more than likely that buildings of this kind existed in Persia from its earliest period, and may have been transferred to Persia from Mesopotamia before the time of Cyrus. The problems of arch, vault, and of dome construction had been worked out, with progressive improvements, throughout Persia and Asia Minor during the Sassanid period, and in later times culminated in the great domed structure of Santa Sophia, built at Constantinople by Greek architects (A.D.527–565), which served as a perfect model of the Byzantine domed-type of architecture for all later buildings of this description.

The surfaces of domes, vaults, walls, and piers, in the buildings we have been describing, always have presented admirable situations, and large spaces, which lent themselves to decoration and colour, in such mediums as distemper, fresco, coloured tiles, and mosaics. The use of stucco, or plaster, as a superimposed decoration in Persian buildings began, as we have seen, in some of the earlier Sassanid, or perhaps Parthian, domed structures, and was a process which developed to such a great extent as a surface decoration in the subsequent Arabian, or Saracenic, architecture that it has become one of the distinguishing features of the style. This decorative plaster work, it is hardly necessary to say, offered great opportunities for illumination in polychromy, which has been carried to extreme limits by the Saracen decorators.

The most precious remains of Persian painting, as applied to architectural decoration, have been found at Susa (now Shuster), once the strong-hold of the Elamites, and for a long time the favourite residence of the Persian kings. It was for a considerable period the most important place in Asia, and is one of the oldest cities in the world. The Chaldæan art of enamelling in colours on bricks and tiles was carried on and greatly developed by the Susian artists. At Susa M. Dieulafoy, the French explorer, in 1884-1886, found sufficient fragments of enamelled bricks that enabled him to put together and restore the famous designs of the ” Lions Frieze ” and the ” Archers Frieze,” which are now in the Louvre, at Paris. The ruins in which these fragments were found have been identified, by the inscriptions, to be those of the palace of Darius, son of Hystaspes. This building was anterior in date to another that had been erected on the same spot by Artaxerxes Mnemon, the latter building having been cleared out and identified by Loftus, the English explorer, in 1851.

The art of the enamellist had its birthplace, as we have seen, in Chaldæa, and as the country of Susiana was geographically a close neighbour of the former kingdom, and like it was almost devoid of stone as a building material, it is therefore a matter of no surprise that the Susians should build and decorate their palaces in the same style, and use the same processes as those which obtained in the older kingdom. The art of enamelling on bricks was known to the Susians centuries before it reached Persia proper, or at least before it was in universal use in the latter country. We mentioned formerly the striking similarity, both in the design and colouring, of the Babylonian lion on the enamelled bricks to that of the lions on the frieze found at Susa, which settles all doubts as to the origin of the enamelled brick and pottery decoration of Persia. The ” Archers Frieze,” of Susa is somewhat similar in colour and in treatment to the decoration of the ” Lions Frieze,” and is extremely interesting, inasmuch as it shows that, although this kind of work has only been found at Susa, it is more than likely that a similar kind of decoration has been used at Persepolis and other places in Persia, seeing that the palaces at Susa and many other palaces and halls in Persia were built for, and used alternately as royal residences by the same Persian prince. Enamelled decoration was not used in Persia proper to the same. extent as in Susiana; this was due to the fact that stone was more plentiful in the former country, and consequently we find that the sculptured bas-reliefs and other limestone sculptures, were used in such positions at Persepolis as would be occupied in the Susian buildings by the coloured enamelled decorations. Some fragments of unglazed terra-cotta animal and figure forms were found at Susa, which may have been used as wall decoration, but not to any great extent. The fragments found had the appearance of being made from soft red clay, which had been pressed in moulds and afterwards burnt in a kiln. Some of these fragments when put together by Dieulafoy represented figures of animals with and without wings, and which he supposed were placed on either side of the entrances of the Susian palaces.

The enamelled tiles or slabs found at Susa have the figures of lions and men modelled in low relief on the surface made up of many slabs, after which the enamel colours would be applied, then the slabs would be taken down, after their positions in the general design were marked, and would be fired in a kiln in order to secure and fix the colours. Each separate colour in the designs was usually outlined with a raised line in ceramic slip.” This slip line has been the means of protecting and preserving from injury the colours of the hollows which it enclosed, besides giving great value, by means of a separating outline, to the various tones and hues.

The colours used were yellows, yellow-greens, blues, mostly turquoise in hue, brown, and white that was sometimes toned to a pale warm grey. Red as a pure colour was hardly ever used in the Susian enamels, but may have been mixed with the yellows in some cases to give them an orange hue.

Other decorative materials were used besides the enamelled slabs, which greatly enriched and added colour effects to the Persian and Susian palaces, among which may be mentioned the metals of bronze, silver, electrum, and gold. A great use was also made of ivory, various marbles, and richly coloured textile hangings and carpets. We may add that painting in distemper which must have been often renewed, also, plaster coloured in the wet state before it was spread on walls, and the natural colour of bricks, must all be taken into account in the general colour scheme.

Aristotle in The World’s Treatise says :—” As historians tell us, the pomp and circumstance in the reigns of Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes reached a very high pitch of magnificence and majesty. Report says that the king had his residence at Susa or Ecbatana, behind walls that hid him from the vulgar gaze, within a palace where the glitter of gold, of electrum, and ivory was seen everywhere.” We know also from other ancient authorities that the Persians under Cambyses, who conquered Egypt, carried away with them immense quantities of gold, silver, ivory, and precious stones from her temples (as well as the Egyptian artificers), and with this rich booty of material wealth embellished and decorated the magnificent palaces at Persepolis, Susa, and Media, which were built immediately after the Egyptian conquest.

We have evidence from the bas-reliefs and the enamelled tile designs, supported by the authority of historians’ texts, that the Persians used richly coloured hangings, portières, canopies, and carpets, which were employed not only to shade off the rays of the sun, and as furnishings to the palaces, but also by means of their colour bestowed the finishing touches to the decorative beauty of the royal edifices. The floors of the palaces were composed of sectile pavements of various coloured marbles, and in design were not unlike the patterns of woven textiles, from which they may have been copied, but on the other hand the designs of the more elaborate hangings, of the patterns on the embroidered dresses of kings, and of the horse-trappings were similar to those of the Assyrian embroideries, which consisted of the same motives that were represented on the stone bas-reliefs, such as rows of walking lions, processions of warriors, hunting scenes, floral forms, and conventional ornament. The principal, or more common theme, however, was the design composed of two figures, chiefly of griffons, in the Persian textiles, one of which was placed on either side, facing each other, and in the centre between them appeared a conventional tree form. This design was an adaptation of the two divinities offering homage to the sacred tree which is so often seen in Assyrian art, a motive in which may be seen the origin of all the important pattern of textile design. The central form is usually a, tree, plant, or flower, sometimes a vase of flowers, at other times the vase only, or even any kind of central object; but invariably there are similar objects or figures on either side, which may be each a divinity, demon, griffon, quadruped, or bird form. This design may be traced as the chief motive in diaper patterns of woven textile hangings from its first germ in Assyrian art down through the Persian, Arabian, Byzantine, Sicilian, Palermitan, Italian, French, to modern English designs, especially those of silks, velvets, cretonnes, and carpets. The beautiful colouring also of both mediaeval and modern Persian, Turkey, and other Eastern carpets and rugs had its common origin in the Assyrian and Ancient Persian textiles and embroideries.

In the first chapter of the Book of Esther we read, that the King Ahasuerus (the Xerxes of the Greeks), sat on the throne of his kingdom which was in Shushan, his palace,” and, in ” the third year of his reign he made a feast unto all his princes and servants; the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces being before him.” And that ” he showed them the riches of his glorious kingdom.” And after-wards he made another feast, this time to his people, ” both great and small, seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace, where were white, green, and blue hangings, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and pillars of marble ; the beds (couches) were of gold and silver upon a pavement of red and blue, and of white and black marble. And they gave them drink in vessels of gold (the vessels being diverse one from another) and royal wine in abundance, according to the state of the king.”

The writer of the Book of Esther must have been an eye-witness of these feasts, and of the glories of the sumptuous palace which he describes. We can form an idea from his description, and also from other historians’ texts, together with our knowledge obtained from the fragments of the architecture and decoration which have been brought to light in recent years, that the royal houses of the Persian princes could hardly have been excelled in any age for the magnificence of their architecture and furnishings, and for the richness and splendour of their decorative colouring.