Babylonian Sculpture

PHYSICAL AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS. The earliest centre of civilization in Western Asia was in the lower part of the valley through which the Tigris and Euphrates take their course before emptying into the Persian Gulf. This civilization was that of Babylonia. Its early history is not nearly as well known as that of Egypt we cannot yet say which was the more ancient, though the probabilities seem to be in favor of an antiquity for the culture of western Asia equal to that of Egypt. The situation of Babylonia favored the growth and spread of its influence. The empire of Elam developed by its side along parallel lines; Assyria was its heir as well as its rival. Their collective civilization, by conquest and influence, moulded the development of Persia, Syria, Phoenicia, Armenia, the Kingdoms of the Hittites, of Upper Mesopotamia, and southeastern Asia Minor.

In Babylonia the population was of mixed race, partly Shemitic and partly non-Shemitic. The probability is that the Shemites acquired supremacy as early as about 4000 B.C., and maintained it with slight exceptions until the seventeenth century B.C., when the Kosseans, or Kassites, from the eastern mountains established a dynasty in Babylon. The earliest political condition shows us, not a united state, but a number of independent cities. These were divided into two groups, one at the south and one at the north. The principal southern cities were Eridu, the sacred city nearest to the sea; Ur, the largest in the group; Larsa, Erech, Lagash, Mar, and Nisin. To the northern group belong Nippur, Borsippa, Babel or Babylon, Kish, Kutha, Agadhe, and Sippara.

Native traditions indicate the cities nearest to the Persian Gulf as the earliest to become civilized under the influence of Ea, the god of Eridu, the divinity of the sea and of wisdom, half-fish and half-man, who came up out of the waters of the gulf to teach mankind civilization. The two terms, Sumer and Akkad, served in Babylonian literature to designate the two main divisions of the race and land. Chaldaea was the most southern region, and its name came into prominence at about the time when the writers of the Old Testament came into contact with the civilization of Babylonia. The name is not applicable to the whole country, though in some books it is so used. Under the heading ” Babylonia ” we include the entire country.

The parallel lines of the two rivers made possible a great system of irrigation by means of canals that added to the natural fertility of the soil and gave it an almost fabulous productivity. The chief energies of the Babylonian rulers were directed toward maintaining and perfecting this system, by public works that had no equal until Roman times. But two great curses often sapped agricultural prosperity; the south and east winds that swept over the country, overwhelming it with sands from the desert, and the swarms of locusts that left not a blade standing in their path. Many are the exorcisms of Babylonian magic against these, and Babylonian imagination could conjure up nothing more fearful in the world of evil spirits.

HISTORY. We conjecture that before 4000 B.C. there was a period characterized by independent cities, which developed a more or less autonomous system of religious belief and social and political institutions. Apparently the first sovereign to found an empire was Sargon I., of Agadhe, who lived circa 3800 B.C. He was of Shemitic race, and his reign was one of great military achievement and cultured advance. His conquests brought the coasts of Phoenicia, Syria, and Palestine, and even Cyprus, under Babylonian influence. Shortly afterward t h e regime of independent cities appears to have returned until about 2900, when Ur became, under King Ur-bau, the capital of a dynasty that held sway over the greater part of Babylonia, and established for that city a preeminence which it retained until about seven hundred years later, when Babylon took its place. Then came a period when the Elamites under Kudur-mabug invaded and conquered the country, making the kinglets of the Babylonian cities their viceroys.

The Elamite was driven from the land shortly after 2200 b.c. by Hammurabi, who founded a dynasty at Babylon, and that city became, for the first time, and thenceforth remained, the political and religious capital of the country. This dynasty was the last before the decay of the country set in. When, about four centuries later, the Kossean mountaineers came down from the east and overturned the national rulers, the harmonious development of the state was imperilled, and shortly afterward the Assyrians, emboldened by this evident weakness, commenced the long struggle, first for independence and then for supremacy, which, after lasting with varying fortunes for some eight centuries, ended in the complete subjugation of the southern empire to her more vigorous and compact northern rival.

As a people the Babylonians typify the most refined civilization of Asia. They were apparently without crudeness of any sort. At all times literature, art, and science were held by them in the highest esteem. They were by nature imaginative, fanciful, symbolic in their thought, creators and lovers of abstractions far more than the more matter-of-fact Egyptians. Their civilization was determined by their religion, which was theocratic. All victories and all successes were attributed to the gods. Hence the temple was the great centre of each Babylonian city. The priests were the most important class of citizens, and the king was the high-priest even more than the political ruler. This is what made separatism so difficult to eradicate, for the religion and the state centred around the special patron deity in each city.

RELIGION. There was no unity in religious belief during the early period of Babylonian development. On the one hand, there was a belief in a world of spirits, in which the hosts of good and evil were opposed, and none of these spirits seemed to stand out separately from the mass. On the other hand, there was a more systematic and simple belief in three great gods : Anu the heaven-god, Bel the demiurge, and Ea the god of the sea and the under-world. Connected with them were minor deities that stand in a relation of dependence. Each male deity had its female counterpart, usually a mere reflection. Midway between these two beliefs stood the majority of early cults. The same gods were worshipped in different cities under different names and with varying attributes. With political centralization came also religious unification. There were no longer as strict racial distinctions as at first ; a national pantheon was made necessary, and the principal deities, patrons of the various cities that formed the empire, were brought into a system with a planetary basis, made all the easier because the sun, the moon, and the stars had always been more or less the symbols of the principal deities. After the supreme trio of Anu, Bel, and Ea come Shamash the sun-god, Sin the moon-god, Ramman the god of the atmosphere, Marduk (Jupiter), Ishtar (Venus), Adar (Saturn), Nergal (Mars), Nabu (Mercury). This system passed over to the Assyrians, for whom these formed, with Asshur, the twelve great gods.

The Babylonians lived in a constant superstitious terror. For them the air was peopled with innumerable armies of maleficent demons and beneficent spirits marshalled into many classes. Their art, literature, medical practice, astrology, magic, daily life, and thoughts were profoundly moulded by this belief and constant preoccupation. They recited incantations, offered sacrifices, hung up and buried statuettes and reliefs in order to conjure or combat the machinations of the evil spirits.

The power of the Babylonian fancy was never exercised in a more original manner than in the creation of sculptural types embodying their conceptions of these spirits of different and opposite order. On the one hand were the noble monsters that defended the people, the city, and the king from evil, placed at the gates of cities, temples, royal palaces, and private houses. These were the lion-headed men, fish-men, griffins, winged lions, and man-headed winged bulls, creatures of calm power or repressed impetuosity, strongly built and made to seem most real, however hybrid they might be in form. On the other hand, and opposed to these, were the more lithe evil demons, ghoul-like, snarling and vicious, ready to spring and swoop, full of cunning perversity and malice.

SUBJECTS. The Babylonian did not aim at the preservation of the body of the deceased, but burned it. Hence he lacked all the incentives that stimulated the early Egyptian sculptor to reproduce realistically the external form of the deceased and to depict faithfully his different occupations and possessions. He turned therefore at once to religious, historic, and symbolic subjects. The monuments as yet discovered have been so few as to make any adequate classification or knowledge impossible. This is due, not to any lack of productivity—for the excavations at ‘Bello have shown that sculpture was popular from the earliest period—but to the fact that no scientific excavations in Babylonia have been undertaken until the present decade.

It was therefore not the tomb, but the temple and the pal-ace, that were the home of early sculpture. The form of the Babylonian temple was peculiarly suited to the natural con-formation of the land. It arose from a wide platform in the form of a great stepped pyramidal mound. In the courts around its base were minor sanctuaries, while the great god dwelt in the higher structure. The pyramidal form seems to have been determined by their idea of the form of the universe. The sky was a great metal dome, resting on a circular base ; within it, at the bottom, rose the earth, washed by water that divided it from the base of the heavens, while at the east and west were the gates of the sun. The earth itself rose under this dome in the form of a stepped pyramid.

In connection with the main temple and its satellites there usually arose a royal palace of considerable extent, with three divisions : (1) for the king and state ceremonies; (z) for the harem ; (3) for the dependencies. In them the mass of sculpture was placed. Under the thresholds were the ” teraphim,” or small images of metal or terracotta, to frighten away the evil spirits : at the gateways stood the protecting genii : in the courts were erected the triumphal and commemorative carved stelae and the royal statues: in the temple-cellas were the figures of the gods. Several classes of subjects can be distinguished.

First, the representations of the gods in relief and in the round, which were far more common in Babylonian than they were in the later Assyrian sculpture. There were many small figures of the gods in terracotta, buried in the ground, and others in bronze ending in spikes, stuck in the ground—to ward off evil. The gods were also carved on reliefs used for wall decoration or cut on the faces of commemorative steles, and sometimes appeared in the form of statues which were placed in the inner sanctuaries. Miniature reproductions of the statues and reliefs of the gods can be studied in great numbers in the cut seals and cylinders.

In a second series of subjects the gods were no longer alone, but were represented in relief, receiving the sacrifices, the offerings, or merely the homage of their worshippers. Often each god was accompanied by his goddess, and the worshippers were shown as being brought forward by the priest.

Related to these scenes were a series of mythological or legendary subjects from the histories of gods and heroes. The greatest favorites among these last were the combat of Merodach with the powers of chaos, which ended in the creation of the world, the legends of Ishtar, the Babylonian Venus, and the adventures of Izdubar, or, as his name is now read, Gilgames, the prototype of Herakles and the beau-ideal of Babylonian heroism.

At the very outset the Babylonian sculptor created also a purely historical class of compositions, in which the king was either represented at peace, surrounded by his court, or at war, fighting, overthrowing and executing his enemies, burying his dead, and offering thank-sacrifices to his gods. There are traces, also, of genre scenes showing the labors and amusements of daily life, such as husbandry and music. And then came those fantastic creations of good and evil spirits which, in conception and technical conventions, stand quite apart.

Of all these works of sculpture the statues of the divinities placed in the temples were the most sacred possessions of the city. They were the palladium, to be carefully hidden or carried away from the enemy. When taken they were prized by the captors as the greatest trophy of the victory. There are many cuneiform texts attesting this. The memory of such sculptures was handed down for centuries. An instance is the statue carried back from Susa to Nineveh by Assur-bani-pal, who notes that thirteen hundred years before it had been carried away from Assyria by the Elamite conquerors (circa 2200 B.C.).

TECHNICAL METHODS AND CONVENTIONS. Stone, terracotta, bronze, and rare stones were employed by the earliest Babylonian artists with whom we are acquainted. In the absence of home quarries, the stone was brought not from the mountains which, at a later period, provided the Assyrians with the soft and fine limestone and alabaster slabs, but it came by sea, apparently, from quarries in the land of ” Magan.” The favorite quality of stone employed for large statuary was a variety of diorite, almost as hard as granite or porphyry, and similar to that used by the Egyptian sculptors of the Ancient Empire. The mechanical difficulties of so obdurate a material prevented any such lavish display as was made hy the Assyrian artists in decorating with rows of reliefs all their principal halls. Softer stones were employed for delicate work in relief in smaller sculptures, and in the time of Naramsin (circa 3750 B.C.) the material was worked with matchless fineness. In bronze-work future discoveries will doubtless show that hammered work preceded casting. At present, however, figures of cast bronze are found among the earliest works in the reign of Ur-Nina of Lagash, probably before 4000 B.C. Hitherto, no reliefs in bronze have come to light. It is to be sup-posed that ivory, so great a favorite with the Assyrians, was not neglected by Babylonian artists, but no works in this material have yet been found. The long, flat plain of the Tigris-Euphrates was not diversified by any forests that could afford a convenient supply of timber for purposes of sculpture, and probably for this reason wooden statues appear hardly to have existed. It was natural that terracotta should be a favorite material for the sculptor, but it appears to have been used only for small figures, and not for work entirely in the round. The figurines were cast in a mould, and not executed or even finished by hand. No trace of polychromy has been found, though there is every reason to suppose the Babylonians employed it in connection with their reliefs.

In the earliest monuments, like those of Ur-Nina of Lagash, the workmanship is extremely crude, the relief low, the out-lines poor. At this early date the names of the persons were written on or beside the reliefs. The features, such as nose, eyes, and ears, were of immense size. As early, however, as the time of Sargon (3800 13. C.) the sculptors were in possession of all their technical skill, and the art then developed its permanent characteristics.

The conventional attitude of the figures in relief was to show the head in profile, the shoulders partly or entirely in front view, and the lower limbs again in profile. The shoulders were not always as absolutely equilateral as in Egypt, nor were they as frankly profilized as in Assyria. Quite often a front view of the face was given. It is worthy of note that the full face of the national hero, Gilgames, was quite generally given, perhaps so as to show more clearly his lion-like lineaments and mane-like hair. While the Assyrians seldom allowed themselves to represent the nude body, the Babylonians had no such scruple : Ishtar and Belit, Gilgames, and Heabani, the various good and evil spirits, were some of the types usually undraped. The bodies of the slain in battle were also shown undraped. The wonderful skill shown in anatomical drawing in some of the earlier gems proves that the Babylonians excelled all artists in this respect until surpassed by the Greeks at the close of the sixth century B.C. In some of the Tello sculptures there is shown a talent for realistic portraiture in face and body that was always foreign to Assyria.

The drapery was given in a simple and interesting fashion. The garment of the Babylonians was a woollen mantle with a shawl-like fringe called kaunakes, which was wound around the figure many times and draped over one shoulder, leaving the other shoulder and arm bare. It is this peculiarity which makes the robes of priests and divinities appear like pleated skirts. And this use of heavy woollen stuffs concealed the figure far more effectually than the gauze-like garments of the Egyptians, and probably accounts for a more rigid figure in Babylonian art than in Egyptian art. There is no attempt at perspective, or at representing figures on more than one plane. The reliefs are arranged in superposed bands, sometimes giving successive stages of one action.

The Babylonians were decidedly more anthropomorphic than the Egyptians, both in their ideas and in their representations of the gods. One god was not distinguished from another by having the head of a hawk, a dog, a cat, or a jackal on a human body, but each god had his full complement of human form and was distinguished by some emblem carried in the hand (as was later the case in Greek art) or placed near the figure. The emblem of Shamash was the sun, of Sin the moon, of Ramman the thunderbolt, of Ishtar the star Venus, of Ea the serpent, of Ninip the bull. Where animals were used as symbols they were commonly placed under the feet of their deity and were often astronomically related to them. Some-times, especially in later Babylonian sculpture, the symbols were employed alone, without the divine figures, and were set up for worship or carved on boundary stones to terrify the evil-doer. There are, however, some traces of the existence of representations of the gods with heads and other parts of animals, as in Egypt, though such forms were not artistically welcomed.

HISTORIC DEVELOPMENT. Five periods may be distinguished :

(1) The PRIMITIVE PERIOD, lasting until shortly after 4000 B.C.

(2) The ARCHAIC, extending from before the time of Sargon I. (3800 B.C.) to Ur-Gur of Ur (2900 B.C.).

(3) The DEVELOPED, ending with the advent of the Kossean or Kassite dynasty in the seventeenth century.

(4) The DECADENCE, ending with the completion of the Assyrian conquest in the ninth century.

(5) The ARCHAISTIC REVIVAL, during the century covered by the period of the Neo-Babylonian empire founded by Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar and ended by the conquest of Cyrus.

PRIMITIVE PERIOD. The earliest works yet known are in low relief and belong to a period apparently earlier than 4000 B.C., though how much earlier we cannot yet assert. The style is crude and heavy, with weak outlines and details marked always with scratched lines. Several works of this class have been found at Tello, the ancient Lagash. Of a style somewhat less crude are three naive plaques of King Ur-Nina of Lagash in which the details are no longer scratched but carved.

ARCHAIC PERIOD. Toward 4000 B.C. a great advance appears to have been made, for the monuments inscribed with the names of Sargon I. (3800) and his son Naramsin prove that the Babylonian sculptors had attained to a high degree of artistic perfection. We may place at the beginning of this period the monuments of King Eannadu of Lagash, whose ” Stele of the Vultures ” is so dramatic and forceful in conception. Toward the close of this, the epic period, should be placed the monuments of Sargon and Naramsin, for they show, together with strength and simplicity, that union of delicacy and refined treatment of detail which became the characteristic of the succeeding period.

DEVELOPED PERIOD. In the few pieces of this period that have been found there is an exquisite refinement that anticipates the style of the eighteenth dynasty in Egypt and makes it possible to gain a clear idea of the details of costume and decoration. This was also the period of monumental sculpture in connection with a great development of temple and palace architecture. The large statues of Gudea found at Lagash have the merits and the defects of an art whose greatest successes were attained in gem-cutting and minute stone and metal sculpture. This developed style was probably that of the schools of Ur, Erech, and other cities during the reigns of the kings of Ur, Ur-gur and his son Dunghi (circa 2850), and also under the Babylonian dynasty of Hammurabi. It is natural to suppose that it ceased with the advent of the Kossean invaders in the seventeenth century. At all events, we find proof that shortly after their advent Babylonian sculpture declined. It was during this developed period that we may place the bulk of Babylonian gem-cutting, though it did not surpass in perfection the developed gem-cutting of the Sargon period.

DECADENCE. Sculpture between 1600 and 800 had lost in vitality and in strength. Apparently it was no longer much used in monumental works or works in the round, but mainly for miniature carvings in low relief. The sacred relief of the temple of the Sun-god at Sippara, the royal stele of King Marduk-iddin-akhi, and the numerous boundary stones and reliefs now in the British Museum, show great care in the workmanship, and an elaborate and faithful reproduction of detail. The difference between the Babylonian sculpture of the period of decadence and contemporary Assyrian sculpture can be appreciated by a comparison between any Assyrian relief of the time of Assur-nazir-pal and the interesting small slab from the temple of Shamash at Sippara. Both were executed in the first half of the ninth century.

REVIVAL. The last period of Babylonian art is still as obscure in history as the earliest. From the numerous inscriptions we judge that the dominant idea of Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar was a return to the traditions of early Babylonia, and this was broken, first by the Kosseans and then by the Assyrians. Everywhere their restoration of the temples erected by such early kings as Hammurabi (2200), Ur-gur (2900), and Naramsin (3750) is praised as being exactly in the style of the old work. The seals and cylinders show that the art was then, in a sense, archaistic, in the same way as the sculpture of Augustus was in one of its phases a revival of the archaic Greek style of the pre-Pheidian period.

EXTANT MONUMENTS. The principal monuments thus far known are those unearthed at Tello, the ancient Lagash, by the French consul, M. de Sarzec. Almost all of these, including the statues of Gudea and the stele of the Vultures, were taken to the Museum of the Louvre (Paris) : some pieces recently found have gone to Constantinople. The Museum of Constantinople has a number of other Babylonian sculptures. The British Museum has a fine collection of small works illustrating the later period, principally boundary stones and slabs, carved with symbols of the gods and astronomical symbols, scenes of adoration, etc. The two most interesting pieces are the small sacred relief of the temple of Shamash at Sippara and the royal stele of King Marduk-iddin-akhi.

Some idea of Babylonian sculpture may be gathered from the collections of Babylonian carved gems. The most important of these are in (r) the Metropolitan Museum, New York ; (2) the British Museum ; (3) the collection of M. de Clercq, in Paris ; (4) the Museum of the Louvre, Paris ; (5) the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.