Assyrian Sculpture

PHYSICAL CONDITIONS, HISTORY, RELIGION. During the second millennium B.C., a country had been developing on the northern boundary of Babylonia which, after being the dependent and then the rival, finally became the conqueror of the older empire. This was Assyria. The country was a narrow, insignificant strip of land, hardly sixty miles in width, between the Tigris and the mountains. Its inhabitants were a hardy and vigorous race who made up in unity what they lacked in numbers. They were not of mixed race, like the Babylonians, but were pure Shemites. Not until the very close of their history do they show signs of being contaminated by the luxurious life of the Babylonians. In religion they worshipped Asshur as supreme god, and Ishtar was their goddess; but they followed the example of the Babylonians, and, besides their special patrons, adopted the official Babylonian mythology with its twelve great deities.

In the seventeenth century B.C. the rulers of Assyria first took the title of kings ; and in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries they were in frequent conflict with the Babylonian kings. The period of conquest did not begin, however, until the time of Tiglath-pileser I. in the twelfth century, to be renewed on an even grander scale by Assur-nazir-pal in the ninth century, though between the times of these two great monarchs the Assyrian empire had relost nearly all its accretions. From Assur-nazir-pal’s reign until the fall of Assyria two and a half centuries later, there was an uninterrupted course of conquests. Armenia, the Hittites, Babylonia, Palestine, Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, and finally Elam became subjects of Nineveh. The Assyrian kings ruled from the Persian Gulf to Asia Minor. Nineveh became the commercial and artistic as well as the political capital of the entire East until the unity, so burdensome to the subject races, was finally burst asunder by the Babylonians shortly before 600 B.C.

The strength of the Assyrians lay in their wonderful political and social organization, which enabled them to establish securely their hold upon new conquests. We know far more of the Assyrian organization than of the Babylonian. The personality of the king, by a gradual growth, came to overshadow the whole land. He, and not the priests, was the direct intermediary between the gods and the country. He was the favorite, the ” firstling,” the beloved, of the gods. His personality was blazoned forth in a palace that was his very own, built for him, and made to glorify his reign. Its inscriptions and its sculptures were the official records of his deeds. Imprecations were called down upon any of his successors who either failed to keep his palace in repair or diverted any of its decoration from its purpose.

No city in the Oriental world could compare with the Nineveh of the Sargonid kings as a world metropolis, as a centre of art, industry, and commerce, as a place where works of art were brought from all countries, where colonies of foreign artists settled and worked, and where Assyrian art, with its clearly defined and impressive individuality, could exercise an influence that would be spread over the entire East and be carried by the Phoenicians as far as the Greek islands.

The Assyrians were not by nature a literary or artistic people. They appropriated much from the older civilization of Babylonia, upon which they were at first largely dependent. The Assyrian kings established libraries like those which had existed since 4000 B.C. in the Babylonian cities, and caused the contents of the Babylonian libraries to be copied for the use of the Assyrian people. Thus the northern race entered into the inheritance of the southerners, and borrowed from their mythology, their literature, and their art. But, while this led at first to almost complete dependence, as soon as the latent qualities of the Assyrians were developed, toward the twelfth century, a civilization radically opposed in many ways to the Babylonian resulted. This is shown very clearly in the political organization of Assyria. For as strongly as Babylonia stands for local government, just so strongly does Assyria represent centralization. The difference between the two peoples is shown even more clearly in sculpture.

SUBJECTS. The Assyrian royal palace, more than the temple, was the shrine of art. Every king wished to build at least one palace that should be a memorial of his reign and perpetuate his name forever. Of the three sections into which the royal palace was always divided—state apartments, harem, and servants’ quarters—the first was more or less thoroughly deco-rated with sculptures in relief throughout the main halls and corridors, and Place calculates that the reliefs in the palace of Sargon at Khorsabad, if placed end to end, would cover a distance of about a mile and a half.

In the temples were placed images of the gods. Judging from the bas-reliefs which represent soldiers carrying such images, they appear to have been less than life-size, usually from three to four feet high. Mythological subjects were but seldom represented, except in the seal cylinders. The scenes with which the discoveries of Layard and Place have made us familiar are almost entirely secular and genre subjects. They differ from the corresponding subjects in Egyptian art in not relating to the lives of private individuals, but to the life of the king. His horses are represented led by grooms to water. His private parks are shown stocked with lions and gazelles. He is portrayed as reclining at a banquet, his table being sup-plied by a procession of viand-bearing attendants. He starts out to hunt the lion, the wild ass, or the gazelle, in his chariot or on his horse, accompanied by soldiers, courtiers, and huntsmen. Sometimes the hunt is open, and at other times great battues are organized and the game surrounded by serried lines of warriors into which the king breaks to bring the hunt to a close. Then he returns, his attendants bearing the game. The bodies are laid on the ground and offered to Asshur by the pouring out of a libation. If there is war and conquest, the court sculptor, in true Oriental style, gives all the credit to the royal prowess. The king is the central figure in the march and in the stricken field. The camp is depicted, the grooming of horses, the cooking of rations, the establishment of tetes-de-pont, the propitiatory offerings on the march, the setting up of commemorative stelae as the army passes along after victory. We see all the details of the attack on a walled city —the archers firing from behind skin-covered shields, the soldiers pushing forward a battering-ram and pouring water upon its front to prevent it from being fired by the torches cast down by the besieged, and, in front of the gates, prisoners being impaled to strike terror, while others are led away. In the representations of battle-scenes many successive stages of the conflict are given, even portraying (as in the siege of Susa) the fate of the particular leaders. Then follow the submission of the vanquished, the presentation of tribute, the soldiers bringing in the heads of slain enemies to be counted.

Thus the Assyrian sculptor excelled in telling a story, clearly and with no superfluous details. His work was naturalistic and somewhat narrow in its scope, but it was greatly varied in its detail. The power of observation was cultivated far more than with the Bahylonians. And there was a sympathy with animal life that went far to redeem the hardness and rigidity of the style. The lions and lionesses, in repose and action, bounding to the attack or in their last agonies ; the fleeing, prancing, kicking wild asses, the horses stretching themselves in fleet course, with quivering nostrils—are given with wonderful naturalness and artistic sense : they are full of life and of true plastic simplicity. The reality is so great that one can scientifically identify many breeds of birds and animals from the sculptures. With plants, trees, and flowers the sculptor had far less success, as his material was less suited to their representation in the low relief which was his only method of modelling.

MATERIALS, METHODS, AND CONVENTIONS. The Assyrians did not employ to any extent diorite or other hard stone for sculpture, as did the Babylonians. Such stones were suited more particularly to work in the round, for which the Assyrians did not care. At most they used such material for an occasional commemorative stele or obelisk. Bas-relief was their specialty, and they found excellent material in the alabaster and soft lime-stone quarried from the mountains on their borders. This use of soft material, so easily handled by the sculptor, was not without influence both on the quality and quantity of the monuments produced. The Assyrian sculptor seemed to revel in the facility with which he could fashion the stone, indulging in the minutest detail work and exaggerating lines, muscular development, and expression.

This artistic plasticity and freedom of hand, with which the Assyrian artist appears to have been far more liberally endowed than his Babylonian predecessor, is nowhere more clearly shown than in the terracottas. These were not cast in moulds—as with the Babylonians, Phoenicians, and Greeks—but executed with free hand in the lump of clay. At other times, when the clay was covered with a glaze, a mould was employed, but the style remained free and bold.

Bronze figures were not, apparently, so common as with the Babylonians, but, on the other hand, the working of bronze in relief was carried to a perfection unknown to Babylonia. The hammer, chisel, and burin were used with wonderful skill in the production of bronze doors, plaques, dishes, vases, etc. The delicacy of touch and beauty of detail that distinguished Assyrian artists were also shown in their ivory carvings. Amid Egyptian and Phoenician imported works, so numerous among the finds at Nineveh, the native Assyrian ivories stand out most markedly. They are in precisely the same style as the larger sculptures, but with freer modelling and greater refinement of type.

The Babylonian custom of using seals and cylinders in all public documents was followed in Assyria, and the characteristics that we find in large sculpture are equally evident in these small works of the engravers. It is as easy to distinguish Assyrian from Babylonian work in cut seals as in the larger monuments. We find in them the same sharp outlines, the same precise rendering of details and muscular exaggeration, the same symmetry of composition as contrasted with the less artistic grouping of the Babylonian artists.

Beside the mass of work in low relief, some few statues in the round have been preserved, and a number of statuettes, but they are in themselves proof of the inaptitude of the Assyrian artists to work in the round. It is true that many statues of the gods are mentioned in the texts as existing in the temples, and in the bas-reliefs we see Assyrian soldiers transporting such divine statues on their shoulders, but sculpture in the round was not the best or the most frequent expression of the Assyrian artist. The colossal figures of genii that guarded the city and palace gates were of a type midway between statuary and relief, and they were certainly the most original and impressive works of the school.

One must not overlook the fact that the Assyrians followed the common Asiatic custom of carving colossal reliefs on the surface of rocks along the course of their expeditions. These were monuments to commemorate treaties or victories, and representing the gods and the king. Such a monument is that at Bavian, of the time of Sennacherib, and another is at Malthai. Analogous works were executed by the Elamites and Hittites.

As a rule, the sculptor showed remarkable ability in eliminating all superfluous elements from the compositions. The figures were always arranged on a single plane, except where two figures were shown standing side by side, one immediately behind the other. When an action was depicted which, like the drawing of a colossus on rollers, necessitated the deployment of several lines of men, the lines were placed one over the other in profile, their grouping being in plan. So, if it was desired to show soldiers mounting a hillside, they were carved in profile ascending along a section of the hill marked by a line drawn along its surface, upon which the soldiers stepped.

The figure was represented quite perfectly in profile, and here we see marked superiority to the Babylonian school, but, on the other hand, we find no examples of the use of the full face, which was by no means unknown to the Babylonians. The sculptor employed but a single type of face—that of the Shemitic Assyrians—its only variant being a reproduction of the cognate Jewish type.

The master sculptors appear to have executed models on a small scale both in terracotta and in stone, which were after-ward used by the workmen to whom the bulk of the execution was confided. The production of bas-reliefs was so immense, at the time of the construction of any royal palace, that some such method as this was required in order to insure uniformity of style and type in the different parts. Color was quite an important element in the effect. The hair, eyes, and drapery were generally brightened with it, and it is probable that this peculiarity passed from the Assyrians to the Greeks, who succeeded them in the perfect mastery of relief sculpture.

The sculptors were, so to speak, a part of the organization of the state, and their work was an official act. They were not only employed in temples and palaces, but accompanied the army on its campaigns to carve memorials of its victories on the nearest cliff or to erect obelisk-like step carved with images of the king and the figures or symbols of the great gods, and sometimes, even, scenes from the campaign.

HISTORY. There is less variety of style in Assyrian than in Babylonian sculpture. There seems to have been but one school, one technique, one style. And yet it is possible to distinguish at least two periods of production; one from the heginning up to the reign of Sargon, the other from Sennacherib to the fall of Nineveh. One of the earliest pieces of Assyrian sculpture is a nude female figure of a goddess in the British Museum, with an inscription of King Assur-bel-Kala, which reproduces so perfectly a well-known type on the Babylonian seal cylinders that it would lead one to conjecture that in the twelfth century, when Assyria was in the course of establishing an autonomous civilization, she had not yet broken loose from an imitation of Babylonian work. At the same time, the few remains of the reign of Tiglath-pileser I. prove that at this date (circa 1120) the Assyrian artists had formed their style. We know nothing of the development of Assyrian sculpture during the following centuries. The next monuments in date are those of the reign of Assur-nazir-pal (885–86o) which constitute one of the greatest series known, and are the most impressive and grand of all the Assyrian work. The artists had reached their apogee in the reliefs from the royal palace at Kalah. The figures are large, and the story is told simply and clearly. There are no backgrounds of scenery, no elaborate attempts at establishing different planes in the same relief. The carved marble dado along the palace halls has but a single row of figures. The relief is exceedingly low, but the muscularity and the features are strongly accentuated. The desire to tell the story clearly is so predominant as often to lead the sculptor to carve the historic inscriptions straight across the reliefs which illustrate them, much to the detriment of artistic effect. It was at this period that the colossal genii that flanked the palace gates, the lions, and the man-headed bulls were executed with greatest power. The same style was followed under Assur-nazir-pal’s successors. There remain two remarkable monuments of the reign of his son Shalmaneser II., a basalt obelisk found at Nimroud and the bronze gates to a palace which he built at Balawat. The few sculptures from that date to the reign of Tiglath-pileser II. (745–727) continue the traditions of the previous century.

With Sargon (722–705) comes the decadence of the grand, epic style. The figures are less lifelike, the relief is higher, but character and sharpness are lost instead of gained by a softer gradation of the surfaces. The inscriptions no longer cross the reliefs, and occasionally an attempt is made to intro-duce picturesque accessories into the background. Sennacherib, his immediate successor (705-681), inaugurated a new artistic ideal ; and the art of his time aims at being picturesque, varied, lifelike, and dramatic. We find scenery and accessories, a multitude of small figures, a detailed representation of incident. The stone dado is carved in several super-posed lines of relief, so that the processions of impressive large figures are lost. But the change of style seems unfortunate, and the effect is confused. The artists of a later king, Assur-bani-pal (668), the last great patron of art, showed better insight. They returned in part to the old simple style, with greater delicacy of treatment and higher finish. In compositions, such as battle-pieces, they retained the style of Sennacherib, but succeeded better in being dramatic, and in portraying scenes full of a multitude of small figures without lapsing into confusion. Such are some of the hunting and garden scenes. On the other hand, in the battle-pieces, like that of the defeat of the Elamites at Susa, the artist has not succeeded wholly in avoiding the confused compositions characteristic of the reliefs of Sennacherib.

EXTANT REMAINS. Rock-cut sculptures of Tiglath-pileser I., at Korkhar (N. of Diarbekr) ; of Sennacherib at Bavian (N.N.E. of Mosul); of Essarhaddon and other kings near the Nahr-el-kelb in Phoenicia (near Beyrouth) ; of a Sargonid king at Malthai (N. of Mosul): The British Museum contains the results of Layard’s excavations, especially the numerous series of reliefs of Assur-nazir-pal and Assur-bani-pal, and less important series of Tiglath-pileser III. and Sennacherib, the obelisks of Assur-nazir-pal and Shalmaneser II., and the latter’s bronze gates. The Museum of the Louvre is especially rich in the series of Sargon reliefs found in this king’s palace by Place. There are small collections of reliefs at the Vatican Museum, at the Historical Society in New York, at Amherst College, etc. The British Museum is especially rich in remains of industrial art of all kinds, while Assyrian seals and cylinders are numerous, not only there and at the Louvre, but also in the collections mentioned as being rich in Babylonian carved gems.