Chaldean And Assyrian Painting And Decoration

THOUGH the art of the two Assyria and Chalda—was practically one growth, whose roots were first planted in the soil of the lower, or southern kingdom, yet it is to Assyria, rather than to Chaldæa, that we must look for the best evidence that would enable us to form a fair idea of the character and style of the painting and colour finish adopted by the ancient people of the land of Mesopotamia, in the interiors and on the exteriors of their great buildings. This is principally accounted for by the fact that very few fragments of the building materials, on which colour has been applied, have been brought to light from the Chaldæan ruins, up to the present date, compared with the number of examples of designs in colour found on glazed bricks and stucco, and the traces of colouring on the sculptured slabs that have been unearthed in Assyria. But from those remains that have been found in the former places, and from the Greek historians’ texts, we know that the younger civilization—the more northern nation of Assyria—was indebted to Chaldæa, not only for her art, but for her language, religion, writing and science as well.

Just as Rome copied and assimilated the art of Greece, so did Nineveh adopt that of Babylonia. More examples of colour decoration have been found at Nineveh, Nimroud, and Khorsabad than at Babylon, Mugheir, Warka, and Borsippa, but we are not without hope that still more examples will be found at the latter places, and, as a good sign of this, it may be mentioned that a party of German explorers, in 1900-1902, found a finely-coloured painting of a lion, done in enamel colours on glazed bricks, in the ruins of the Kasr-mound, identified as the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, at Babylon, this lion being almost similar in design, pose, and colour, as the animals painted on what is known as the ” Lion’s Frieze,” from the ancient Persian palace at Susa. The Babylonian lion was evidently the prototype of the later Persian lion, which was also executed in enamel colours on glazed bricks.

In the domain of sculpture, however, the Assyrians excelled the Chaldæans. This was mainly owing to the fact that stone was more plentiful in the more northern and mountainous country, whereas in Chaldæa there was no building stone to be found. Therefore the architects of the latter country were compelled to use bricks and tiles for their building material, which were made from the clay, or alluvial deposits, that were brought down in great abundance by the rivers, and spread over the length and breadth of the lower Mesopotamian lands. Stone was too costly for use in Chaldæa, owing to the great distance from which it would have to be imported, consequently there have not been in the lower country any important sculptural remains that compare with the great alabaster figures of half man and half bull or lion, that formed the mighty portal entrance features to the palaces of Nineveh. The student will be acquainted with these great colossi, and with carved wall slabs with which the Assyrian architect flanked his doorways, and used as the wall linings to the halls and corridors of the palaces, many examples of which may be seen in the British Museum.

Although stone was plentiful in Assyria its use in the buildings was confined to the portal figures, dadoes, plinths, lower wall linings, and pavements. The main structural mass of their buildings consisted, like those of the Chaldæans, of bricks and mortar. Cedar-wood from the forests of Lebanon, and metals, as gold, silver, iron, lead, and copper, were largely used by both nations as building, but more especially as decorative materials. Perhaps owing to the scarcity of stone as a building material the Chaldæans seem to have made a great use of metals, by which, together with the extensive employment of enamelled bricks and tiles, they obtained a sumptuous style of decoration, that covered and enhanced the salient points, and all positions of importance in their buildings.

Philostratus, the Greek historian, in his Life of Apollonius, says that ” the palaces of the King of Babylon are covered with bronze which makes them glitter at a distance ; the chambers of the women, the chambers of the men, and the porticoes are decorated with silver, with beaten and even massive gold instead of pictures,” and Herodotus speaks of the ” silvered and gilded battlements of Ecbatana.”

The ” exceeding great city of Nineveh,” that had a circumference equal to the distance of ” three days’ journey “—sixty miles—as described by the prophet Jonah, embraced the sites of the palaces of Nimroud, Kouyundjik, and Khorsabad. The discoveries at the two former places by Sir H. Layard, and at the latter by MM. Place and Botta, the French explorers, have enabled us to form a good idea of the decoration and colour of those magnificent palaces, built by the ruthless race of Assyrian monarchs for their own use and aggrandizement ; for the usual custom of these kings, like that of other Eastern rulers, was each to erect a palace for himself, and so discard that which had been built by his father or predecessor, so when a new king came to the throne he signalized his accession to power and gratified his pride of splendour by commencing to build, whether he lived to finish it or not, a new palace for himself.

The Ninevite palaces and temples served, not only for the residence of the monarch, or for the worship of the gods, but were also the depositories of the national archives, together with texts and prayers, or invocations to the spiritual divinities, not written on perishable materials, but carved on the lasting stone. These inscriptions were not arranged in any kind of a systematic order, or used in a decorative sense, like the hieroglyphical writing of the Egyptians, but were boldly carved across the sculptured forms of the human figures, bas-reliefs of gods, demons, animals, and chimerical creations evolved from the fertile imagination of the Assyrian artist.

The lower parts of the palace walls were lined with the sculptured alabaster slabs, each slab being from eight to ten feet high, four to six wide, and about one foot in thickness, and on these slabs were carved the bas-relief decoration and inscriptions. The wall spaces above this bas-relief dado were either of enamelled bricks, or tiles, richly coloured, or were of sun-dried bricks, over which a thin coating of plaster was spread, and this surface, in each case, was usually painted with figures and with ornamental designs arranged as borders, bands, or friezes. Although there have been no vestiges of a roof found in any of the ruins of the Assyrian or Chaldæan buildings, it has been conjectured by Layard that the roofs were flat, probably made of cedar, and were panelled or coffered, while M. Place, Loftus, and some other explorers argue that the roofs were vaulted. Layard found a good deal of charred wood and wood ashes in the Ninevite ruins, and from this circumstance, and the authority of some texts, he came to the conclusion that flat roofs did exist, and that they have been destroyed by fire. Tiles, metal, and ivory, inlaid in some cases with lapis-lazuli, were used as panels, probably to fit into the cedar-wood coffers, and even tiles with a curved section have been found, which points out that they may have been made to fit the curved surfaces of vaulted ceilings. In either case the ceilings, as well as the floors, must have been decorated with ornament, and the former especially with precious metals, ivory, and coloured tiles, or enamelled bricks. Some floor pavement slabs have been found at Nineveh and Khorsabad, bearing a similarity to the design of the Egyptian ceiling patterns, and such designs suggest what one would expect to see on the flat ceiling of an Assyrian building. Some ivory carvings were found by Layard in the interior debris of the chambers, parts of which were inlaid with lapis-lazuli, and some portions gilded—the gold-leaf still adhering to them—and in one instance a brick was found faced with gold. These ornaments must have formed parts of the decoration of either walls or ceilings. The Egyptian-like designs on the ivory carving were evidently copies of others that had been brought from Egypt, but they had an unmistakable style in the workman-ship that proved them to have been carved by Assyrian artists.

The designs of the distemper-painted decoration on the walls, above the slabs of sculptured alabaster, in the Ninevite palaces, consisted usually of representations of the king, followed by eunuchs and warriors, receiving prisoners and tribute, with other designs of animals, divinities, hunting scenes, geometric and floral forms. The colours of these designs were mostly blue, red, black, and white. When these parts of the walls were first uncovered the tempera colours were as vivid and bright as they must have appeared when they were first laid on, but they quickly faded and perished when exposed to the light and air.

In some cases, where the sculptured slabs were absent, a dado or plinth was imitated by a coating of black paint, as in certain chambers of the palace of Sargon at Khorsabad. The height of this dado varied in accordance with the height of the rooms. The wall space above this black painted dado was usually covered with a simple tint of unbroken colour, or the pure white stucco ground in some instances was left untouched. In several chambers, however, when cleared out by the explorers at Nimroud, the walls were found to have horizontal bands of colour, alternately red, green, and yellow, painted on them, and in some instances, where the sculptured slabs were absent, and -also the black painted dado, the lower parts of the walls were treated with alternating coloured stripes.

The sculptured slabs, when uncovered from the mass of rubbish that had hidden them for centuries, showed clearly many traces of colouring, though, unlike the colour treatment of the Egyptian bas-reliefs, they were found to be only partially coloured. Whether this partial colour treatment was purposely done in order to bring these masses in harmony with the illuminated colouring on the upper walls and ceilings, or only to relieve the monotony of their dark grey surfaces, is a matter of speculation. The fact remains that colour has been found on such parts of the sculptures as the eyeballs of the figures, which were painted white, and the pupil, iris, eyebrows, hair and beard, black. The head-dresses of kings and their chief ministers, rosettes as dress ornamentation belts, sashes, sandals, earrings, fans, sceptres, studs, weapons, horse and chariot trappings, and other parts where it was thought necessary to give emphasis, were generally painted red, though a bright blue was also used as an alternating colour with the red. These colours, though used sparingly on the sculptures, were as a rule strong and positive in their hues.

Similar colours, as we have seen, were used in the distemper decorations, on the walls above the sculptured slabs, but were purposely paler or lighter in their tints, as suited the general scheme of the colour decoration. These lighter tints would be made by adding white to the positive colours, or would be obtained by thin washes of transparent colour laid on the white stucco ground.

There has been no trace of colour found on any of the isolated or independent statues, or rounded steles that were carved in very hard igneous stones—diorite and basalt—but the smaller statuettes which were modelled in clay and sun-dried, or baked, have been coated over with a uniform tint, generally an azure blue, and in the case of representations of demons, black. The great love of colour, however, that characterized the people of ancient Mesopotamia, and which is the heritage of those who may be called their present-day representatives, through the old Persian nation, found expression in their distemper paintings, enamelled bricks, tiles, pottery, and embroideries, rather than in their sculpture.

MM, Perrot and Chipiez, in their History of Art in Chaldæa and Assyria, argue not without good reasons that Chaldæa was the birthplace of the art of enamelling on bricks and tiles, and that colour was used in the lower country to a greater extent than in Assyria, notwithstanding that up to the date of their writing there had been many more examples of coloured work found in the Assyrian ruins than in Babylonia. They based their conclusions mainly on the facts that a greater use of bricks and enamelled slabs for building purposes was made in a country like Chaldæa, that possessed no stone worth naming, and almost no wood ; also that the fragments of coloured and enamelled bricks, which have been found in the ruins of Babylon, are covered with a thicker and much superior kind of enamel than that which covered the Assyrian bricks, which they hold was only a poorer imitation of the Chaldæan enamel.

The decorative motives on the enamelled bricks of Babylonia were first modelled in low relief, before the enamel colours were applied; this considerably enhanced the beauty of the colouring, and rendered them more effective as decoration. On the other hand, the surface of the enamelled bricks of Assyria were smooth and level, the colours being laid on in flat tints. No previous modelling of the ornament was attempted, before applying the colours, if we except the small raised bosses in the centres of the rosettes or daisy-like flowers, which the Assyrians used in great quantities on the upper parts of the walls, and around many of the doorways at Khorsabad, and other places. The recent discovery of the figure of a lion already mentioned, painted on enamelled bricks, and found in the Kasr-mound at Babylon, provides a further proof that Chaldæa was the cradle of the enamelled tile decoration, and that when Babylon was in the heyday of its greatness, the interiors and exteriors of its temples and palaces must have presented glowing pictures of brilliant and almost sensuous colouring, for it is reasonable to believe the parts of the buildings that were not already lined with the enamel coloured slabs, would hardly be left in the plain white tint of the stucco covering. Painting in distemper and fresco are older arts than enamel painting, it is therefore more than likely that these arts would be largely practised in Babylonia, and that the stuccoed surfaces, which covered the bricks of the buildings, would have their proper share of coloured decoration.

The larger enamelled friezes, or dado pictures, of the Babylonian palaces took the place of the sculptured slabs, which were found in similar situations in the Assyrian halls and chambers, while in both countries, as we have seen, the walls above the dadoes were painted in distemper, on stucco grounds, with figures, animals, and ornament. The ceilings, whether flat or vaulted, of wood or of brick, were enriched with panels of metal, tiles, or ivory, and the colouring of these would in consequence be restful and more re-strained than that on the walls.

The enamelled bricks of Assyria are extremely interesting from the peculiar character of their colour arrangements, and afford sufficient proof that in the majority of cases the colours schemes adopted were harmonious and refined. In their enamel decoration the Ninevite artists often aimed for a harmony of closely related tones, as distinct from the colouring of their sculptured forms, and more so than the Babylonians, who sought rather for a more decided harmony of contrast. The former kind of harmony was more apparent in their figure and animal motives of decoration, while, on the other hand, we find more decided contrasts of colour on the bricks, which have designs of simple patterns, such as rosettes, palmate forms, guilloches, bands, scrolls, and arcaded patterns. It will thus be seen that the nobler and more important motives of the decoration were treated in quieter and more subtle tones of colour than the purely geometric and less important units of the designs. This reveals a proper sense of the expression of fitness on the part of the Assyrian decorators, for in the higher forms of decorative art there is less obligation to use strong and violent contrasts of colour, while the lower we descend in the scale of decorative forms, and especially when they are used with great repetition, a greater contrast of alternating colours of bright and positive hues is permissible. The colour schemes employed by the Assyrian decorators are generally harmonious, whether in the arrangements of low and broken tones, or of positive hues, for in no case could they be deemed rank or harsh.

The pigments used by both nations in their enamel painting were derived from minerals.

The opaque, or stanniferous, white was an oxide of tin ; the yellow, an antimoniate of lead and some tin, similar to Naples yellow ; the blue, an oxide of copper ; blue from lapis-lazuli was also used ; greens were derived from copper ; dark brown, from iron; red is a suboxide of copper. The opaque white made from tin oxide used by the early Mesopotamian artists, was afterwards handed down through the Persians and Arabs to the Italians and modern Europeans. It forms the body of the beautiful white stanniferous glaze of the Persian and Arab tiles and pottery. The Saracens introduced it into Spain, where it was used on the Hispano-Moresque ware, and through the same people it found its way to Italy, where it is seen as the opaque white glaze on the Della Robbia ware and on the majolica faience. The French used it on the Rouen ware, and the Dutch on the Delft variety of pottery. In fact the term ” glazed earthenware ” postulates majolica, or any opaque tin-glazed ware that has a pale yellow, or reddish-coloured, clay body.

There was no attempt made by the Assyrian or Babylonian decorators to render the colouring of nature on figures of men, animals, or plants. They treated them all in a more or less conventional way, as purely ornamental features, or as arrangements of form and colour, to please the eye, when placed in certain positions as in archivolts, in dadoes, bands, or friezes running horizontally on the walls, or around doorways. A human figure, a bull, a bird, a tree, or a plough might be all represented in one flat tint of colour, say of blue, or yellow. The tints used evidently did not matter much as long as the decorator attained his desired end of obtaining an agreeable colour finish on the walls of the building.

We have seen that the Egyptians used their strong and warm colouring on almost every inch of their architecture and sculptured reliefs ; there was therefore little attempt to use it in a structural sense, but in the employment of colour on their buildings the Assyrians and Chaldaeans, as far as we can judge from the discovered fragments and other available data, never lost sight of the decorative and structural value of colour, and consequently they were more sparing and reticent in their use of it than the Egyptians. In their colour schemes as applied to large surfaces the general effect was a cooler arrangement without being positively cold, than that which obtained with the latter nation, owing perhaps to their greater employment of blue pigments than was the case with the Egyptian decorators. Blue was the dominant colour in Mesopotamian decoration, and still is with the present-day art of the Persians.

If we consider the subject of colour decoration on the Chaldæan and Assyrian buildings in its broadest sense, we may come to the conclusion, that when the halls and chambers of the palaces and temples had received their final touches of colour finish, they must have furnished examples of one of the best systems of structural colour decoration, that has been known in the history of architecture.