Assyrian Art (c.1500-612 BCE)
NOTE: For more about the earliest cultures
As explained in our article on Sumerian art (c.4500-2270 BCE), the land of Mesopotamia was ruled by the Sumerians until about 2270 BCE, when it was overrun by the Semitic-speaking kings of the Akkadian Empire. The country was united for a period (c.2334-2154) under the dynasty of Akkad, after which there was a Neo-Sumerian revival led by the powerful city-state of Ur. The 3rd dynasty of Ur collapsed in 2003 BCE before the Amorites, who moved in from the desert and established their own series of Semitic dynasties. However, neither the Akkadians nor the Amorites made any significant contributions to Mesopotamian art, which remained true to its Sumerian roots.
Even when the Semite King Hammurabi (c.1810-1750 BCE) finally hammered a single Babylonian empire out of the confusion of quarrelling racial groups and jealous city-states, each with its own rulers and gods, it was again Sumerian art, rather than anything distinctively Babylonian, that lived on. The city of Babylon now became the capital, giving a new name to the empire, and it was, according to existing records, adorned with palaces and temples magnificently conceived and decorated. Unfortunately later invasions, and the decay of Babylonian power before Hittite, Kassite, and finally Assyrian assaults, completely destroyed the architectural monuments. Even the sculpture and minor relics of this period are scarce, and not very important.
The stele containing the Code of Hammurabi (1750 BCE, Louvre, Paris), preserved because it was carried away by a Persian conqueror, is one of the most famous archeological finds of modern times, but its value is primarily sociological. A rounded diorite shaft nearly eight feet in height is inscribed with 3600 lines of cuneiform text, setting forth the laws newly codified by Hammurabi for the just conduct of the people of his kingdom. Above the inscription the stele is adorned with a carved relief, showing the sun-god handing the code down to the king. The workmanship is good and somehow the very simplicity of conception makes the work memorable. The standard of official art was thus good, but not distinguished. The stele, hardly more than a routine official work, shows no advance over average Sumerian sculpture; yet it is competent and attractive, considering the date.
In short, Babylon's temporary political supremacy added nothing to the artistic culture established by the Sumerians.
At the time of Hammurabi's death in 1750, the ancient land of Mesopotamia was divided into two countries: Assyria in the north, Babylon in the south. Northern Mesopotamia was dominated by the Assyrians, while the southern half was controlled by the Babylonians. Previously a dependency of the more northerly Mitanni and Hatti kingdoms, Assyria emerged as an independent entity during the 15th century BCE, after which it gradually achieved a dominant role over all Mesopotamia, eventually (in the 8th century BCE) uniting most of the Middle East - from Egypt to the Persian Gulf - within its empire. See also: Hittite Art (c.1600-1180 BCE).
An Assyrian artistic style first began to appear around 1500 BCE. It featured finely detailed narrative relief sculpture in stone or alabster - found mainly in the royal palaces - depicting most hunting episodes and military affairs. Animal forms, of horses and lions, are magnificently represented in some detail, although human figures are more rigid. Typical themes include scenes of battle or individual combat. The finest examples of this kind of Assyrian stone sculpture include the alabaster carvings of lion-hunts featuring Ashurnasirpal II (ruled 883-859 BCE) and Ashurbanipal (ruled 668-627 BCE), now in the British Museum, London.
Assyrian sculptors produced very few statues, except for huge animal or anthropomorphic figures (typically lions and winged beasts with human heads, sculpted in high relief on two sides of a rectangular stone block, with the heads effectively in the round) which flanked royal gateways, or other fortified entrances.
Archeologists have found a variety of ancient pottery, as well as some items of goldsmithing and jewellery art, and even small examples of ivory carving, but in general, no significant art forms appear until leadership has passed to the Assyrians of the upper Mesopotamian Valley. The Semitic peoples there - origins unknown - had coalesced into an independent state two centuries earlier, and had maintained their own character, and, to an extent, their own institutions, under Babylonian domination, while doubtless assimilating Babylonian-Sumerian cultural traits. Shortly after 1300 BCE they began looking to rule the entire Mesopotamian area. It was, however, only after four more centuries of changing fortunes that, in 885 BCE, there came the dawn of the era of Assyrian imperial magnificence and expansion, inaugurated by the king-god Ashurnasirpal.
Assyrian magnificence and glory were very militaristic, and in this period we see a wholehearted devotion to art concerned with conqueror-kings and wars and hunts. The heavenly deities are rearranged to bring a war-god to supreme position. Campaign follows campaign under successive great monarchs - Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and finally Ashurbanipal - until even Egypt is conquered; and the exploits of each campaign is meticulously recorded by court artists and scribes. More blood flows in this pictorial art than in any other in world history.
The era is summed up in the magnificent architecture and sculptural adornments of the palaces of Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, and of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud, (ancient Kalhu). Until it became the capital city under Ashurnasirpal, Nimrud had been no more than a provincial town. There are other works, of course: statues and vases and seals. Even the sculptured reliefs of the palace walls are more than a depiction of violent exploits. We can read in them of gardens and plants, of fishing, excursions, and feasts, of gods and love, of luxurious carpets and richly embroidered garments, and of women and children. There is here a mine of information, not only for the student of manners and customs but for the botanist and ethnologist. In a depicted group of tribute-bearers the characteristics of each physical type can be recognized: the Jews, for instance, show those striking facial traits that can be seen in some Jewish people to this day. (The time of Sennacherib is the age of the prophecies of Isaiah.) But in the subject-matter of the reliefs war is first, hunting a good second, and the rest of life an incidental third.
Sennacherib transformed the hamlet of Nineveh into the capital of an empire, possibly to avoid developed cities and elaborate palaces associated with earlier kings. There he set out to build distinctively and gloriously in his own name. There he erected for himself "the palace that has no rival," which was actually its official name.
The palaces of the Assyrian kings were more than places of royal residence and imperial business. Long before, the rulers had claimed divine sanction if not divine heritage: the king was part god and directly related by function or birth to the supreme national deity. So the temple was a wing of the palace, or perhaps its very heart. But a wise and practical king did not leave too much of the business of foresight and protection to the gods. The temple-palace was a fortress as well.
There must have been a striking difference in visual effect between the outside fortified walls and towers, plain and grim, and the pomp and magnificence of decoration and life within. A whole cityful of favoured people dwelt there: nobles, defenders, favourites, politicians. For the king's quarters and those of his wives, the gods, and their priests, the appointments were sumptuous, but the utilitarian outside brick walls were comparatively sheer and blank - a combination to be noted often in later history, in Byzantine church, medieval keep, Florentine palace, and Spanish castle. A ceremonial doorway brought the colour and enrichment of the interior to the facade in flanking sculpture and inset copper reliefs, and in narrow bands of glazed brick that continued out along the fortress walls. The traditional architectural features were, in most particulars, from the Sumerian by way of the Babylonian, and the ritual ziggurat or tower dominated; but the sentinel figures at the main entry are said to be of Hittite origin. And of course there were luxurious embellishments from farther east. Already, too, there had been for long an exchange of art products with Egypt. All this the Assyrian monarchs brought into one focus, one show of art. It is likely that the designers and craftsmen were largely imported from other countries - Phoenicia and Syria and Egypt - each doing his part without a clear idea of the whole. But the result was grand.
King Sennacherib himself tells of his palace at Nineveh, in a tablet dictated to one of his scribes and translated in our own time at the British Museum: "Cedar, cypress, and pine, timbers from Sinai and thick bars of bronze, did I set in the doorways, and in the dwelling-rooms did I leave openings like lofty windows. Great statues of alabaster wearing crowns with thorns did I set on either side of the doorways, and great winged bulls of white stone did I carve in the City of Tastriate beyond the Tigris for the great gates, and great trees did I cut from the neighbouring forests to build rafts on which to transport them. With much effort and amid many difficulties were they brought to the gates of my palace." The temple portion of the building was especially sumptuous, and was described by the king as "rooms of gold and silver, of precious metalwork, crystal, alabaster, and ivory, built for the dwelling of my God."
There is here, in the monarch's planning of dazzling outlays of architectural and decorative works, and in his arrogating to himself as imperial master the products of creative artists, a prototype of Hadrian and of Louis XIV. But if the "I" of his account is to be taken literally, Sennacherib did indeed have the born constructor's sense of sound engineering and inventive building; for he speaks familiarly of problems of lighting successfully met, in ways that dispelled "the darkness of the old palaces," and of hydraulic inventions that brought running water into the buildings.
Whether he had taste or artistic vision to weld this effort into a unity or a sustained and vigorous style is more open to question. Certainly the winged bulls that he had such trouble with before he got them installed at his front gate were dull and lifeless enough. (Two similar ones, from the palace of Ashurnasirpal, now repose in the entry hall of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.) And one suspects a very mixed effect in the interiors. They were colourful and showy, no doubt, with sculptured alabaster panels, glazed-tile insets, painted stucco murals, and lots of furnishings set around. But the restorations of the archeologists and the recovered fragments themselves will not convince the modern observer of a subtly designed ensemble or a distinctively beautiful style.
The obsession with pain, torture, and conquest is illustrated particularly in the alabaster reliefs and terracotta sculpture with which the brick walls were lined inside the main rooms. Some are of Sennacherib's time. The ones better known to the public are of Ashurbanipal's era, two reigns later. There is no reason to read sadism into these records of violence and suffering; they demonstrate rather the candid realism of rulers who lived by a philosophy of "might is right." The king spread out a picture-book of his career as he would like his subjects to think of it. His predecessors were depicted trampling their dead enemies or holding nets filled with severed heads. His artists must show more heads in his net and greater heaps of the slaughtered and trampled. It is a point of honor that they outdo all earlier chroniclers in setting forth the magnitude of his conquests. They conveniently forget any defeats and reverses - what patriotic artist does not? - and they exaggerate the numbers of the enemies slain or of the lions killed.
They convey the grisly lessons of war effectively and in detail. But it is when they come to the depiction of animals in the hunt that they display deep emotional feeling, as well as a more sensitive hand in delineation. The human figure is almost without exception stiffly conventional, even wooden. But the animals are observed with a sort of cold sympathy and are superbly drawn. They are living, nobly strong, lithe. Most lifelike of all are the hunted lions when they are wounded. The artist has observed these dying beasts with a camera eye and has got down the salient and telltale facts, the drag of paralyzed legs, the snarling jaws, the fury of the final leap.
The merit here is, of course, one of realism. The reliefs touch a high spot in pictorial Mesopotamian sculpture, but one perhaps not so high as the Victorian discoverers of the Nineveh treasures judged. The stone murals constitute a remarkable achievement; they tell stirring stories in an idiom ornamentally formalized, if a bit heavy, with thrusts into compelling realism at intervals; but in general they lack the architectural unity of superlatively great sculpture. Within a traditional formalization there is disturbing reversion to naturalistic imitation for its own sake. Every rosette on a costume is worked out minutely, every nail on a hand, all the reins from charioteer to horses, and every feather in a wing. Seldom does the placing of the figures on the background, or the grouping, approach the intuitive compositional sense long before displayed in Egyptian sculpture and stonework. We are aware of the achievement of records as colossal and audacious as the kingly dictators could have desired. But we are seldom aware of the artist's vision transcending his mission and his materials.
Although we may feel disturbed at the thought of visual art whose sole job was to glorify a political leader, we know that it was as much a victim of established Babylonian-Assyrian tradition as of Ashurbanipal's selfishness. As a matter of fact, there is other evidence of Ashurbanipal's genuine interest in the things of the mind. He took an epochal step forward when he gathered documents and books and established one of the earliest known libraries. The 22,000 inscribed tablets, collected at his order to preserve accumulated knowledge in fields of religious tradition, scientific discovery, history, and general literature, and systematically catalogued, have been found in the ruins of the palace at Nineveh. Ashurbanipal himself made a special point of the fact that, as a prince, he had learned reading and writing, in addition to the more noble arts of riding and hunting and ruling.
After the fall of Assyria, which came about, the historians say, because too many men were taken from the farms and impressed into the army, the ruling power passed southward again, to Babylon, now resurgent under another invading people, the Chaldeans. These were destined to rebuild the Mesopotamian empire, to dominate the Near East briefly, then to see their Neo-Babylonian empire collapse because the ruling class overreached the limits of safe exploitation. This downfall marked the end of Babylonian-Assyrian independence, the last stand of the local Semites against a succession of foreign overlords; foreign domination began in 538 BCE with the Persians, and continued into the twentieth century.
- Art of Ancient
Persia (3,500 BCE onwards)
For more about arts and crafts in Assyria, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ANCIENT ART