Persian Sculpture

THE ELAMITES. The Elamite kingdom, with its capital at Susa, rivalled in antiquity the civilization of Babylonia. In fact, for a certain period in the third millennium B.C., it held a large part of Babylonia under its dominion. We know from documentary evidence that the Elamites practised sculpture, but, as no excavations have been undertaken as yet that would disclose their monuments, we can judge of their style merely from a few rock-cut sculptures. The kingdom was destroyed, shortly before 65o B.C., by the Assyrian king Assur-bani-pal, and the country afterwards became a province of the Persian empire, distinguishing itself in art from Persia proper by a stricter adherence to Assyrian and Babylonian traditions, as has been shown by the interesting discoveries made by M. Dieulafoy at Susa, where the use of enamelled bricks for relief sculpture prevailed over stone.

THE PERSIAN EMPIRE AND ART. The Persian civilization arose, at the close of the sixth century, upon the ruins of the Babylonian and Assyrian powers, and it inherited their artistic style, which was at first the predominant element in the development of the different branches of art throughout the empire. This element was, however, speedily tempered by the introduction of two strong influences; that of Egypt after its conquest by Cambyses, and that of Greece after the Persian contact with the Greek cities of Asia Minor.

In sculpture, however, the Assyro-Babylonian style was at first preserved in almost its original purity. Some subjects, such as the human-headed bulls and the king fighting monsters, were treated so much in the same style that they appear to be almost copies. The main difference lay in the greater roundness of Persian technique, in its loss of the force and directness of Assyrian art, in the lack of vitality and expression in the figures, and in the narrowness of the range of subjects—all of which are qualities that might be expected in an art that was not original but derived. At the same time, there was often visible a trace of archaic Greek influence, especially in the treatment of drapery and in the decoration. As in Assyria, the relief was the favorite form of sculpture, and it was also in connection with the royal palaces that the great masses of sculpture were employed. The new form of the Persian pal-aces made the arrangement of the sculptures somewhat different from that in the Assyrian royal residences, and there was not the same opportunity for continuous friezes and for variety of subjects. Reliefs decorated both sides of the main stair-way ascending to the palace. The entrances were flanked, as in Assyria, by colossal winged bulls. The Apadana, or main hall, of the Persian palace, which, with its many rows of columns, was quite an innovation in the East, was decorated with the reliefs of the king and his attendants. The reliefs were not upon slabs used as a facing for brick walls, as in Assyria, or for detached decoration, as often in Babylon, but were carved in the stone used in the construction itself, in the limestone sub-structures of the palace platforms and the faces of the limestone portals. No full-sized statues in the round are known to have existed.

HISTORY, SUBJECTS, METHODS. Persian sculpture flourished little over a century, consequently it has but little history and varies only slightly during the course of its development. We notice toward the close the increased influence of Greek artists from Thessaly or from Asia Minor. The earliest sculpture known is that of the winged figure of King Cyrus, standing in an attitude of adoration, carved over a door jamb at Pasargadea, and dating probably from the first years of Darius. The largest series of sculptures thus far discovered is that of the palace of Darius at Persepolis. The subject of these sculptures is the glorification of the king. All the figures are rep resented as directing their steps toward a central point. A double procession, on either side of the stairway, mounts the steps, and there is another procession higher up on the inner faces of the door frames. These are the subject-peoples bringing to the king their gifts and tributes—horses, wild asses, camels, rich stuffs, rare products, objects in precious metals; and these figures are passing through the long array of life guards, officers, and courtiers, the Medes in flowing garments and the Persians in tight-fitting dress. Further on we see the king, either enthroned on his high platform supported by caryatid-like figures of the conquered nations, or walking under a sunshade, or plunging a dagger into some wild beast who represents the foes of his majesty.

The range of Persian sculpture was the glorification of the king in one great composition. In the rock-cut relief of the royal tombs the same subject was repeated in a simplified form. There was no variety, as in Assyrian art, either in subject or in treatment. As no distinct event, but only a symbolic representation, was given, the scene had an air of unreality. At the same time, it had distinct merits. For the first time Oriental sculpture attempted to give the soft texture of drapery and imitated its natural folds, and here we trace distinctly the influenoe of archaic Ionic Greek sculpture. There was also a distinct advance in the ability to bring sculpture into its proper relationship to architecture. Instead of scattering scenes broadcast over the surface, as in Egypt, in fine disregard of any distinctive grouping or subordination; instead of using sculpture as an art connected with architectural structure, as in Assyria, the Persians showed some of the Greek conception of the harmonious relationship possible between the two arts. Thus, the processions carved on the sides of the staircases followed the natural architectural outlines, as was the case later. with the stairway at Pergamon, and the faces of the limestone portals were used for reliefs, like the inner sides of the Roman triumphal arches. But this peculiar merit was shown especially in the use of sculpture for distinctly architectural decoration. The colossal bull-capitals at Persepolis and Susa were masterpieces. The treatment of the bulls in these works was the greatest triumph of Persian sculpture, for naturalism, technique, and spirit.

EXTANT MONUMENTS. Casts of a number of the sculptures of Persepolis have recently been made for the South Kensington (London) and Metropolitan (New York) Museums. Aside from the great capital from Susa, in the Louvre, there are no important pieces of Persian sculpture in Western museums.