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Art and architecture of Babylonia and Assyria

The culture of Assyria, and still more of Babylonia, was essentially literary; we miss in it the artistic spirit of Egypt or Greece.

In Babylonia the abundance of clay and want of stone led to the employment of brick; the Babylonian temples are massive but shapeless structures of crude brick, supported by buttresses, the rain being carried off by drains, one of which at Ur was of lead. The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster and column, as well as of frescoes and enamelled tiles. The walls were brilliantly coloured, and sometimes plated with bronze or gold as well as with tiles. Painted terra-cotta cones were also embedded in the plaster. Assyria in this, as in other matters, the servile pupil of Babylonia, built its palaces and temples of brick, though stone was the natural building material of the country, even preserving the brick platform, so necessary in the marshy soil of Babylonia, but little needed in the north.

As time went on, however, the later Assyrian architect began to shake himself free: from Babylonian influences and to employ stone as well as brick. The walls of the Assyrian palaces were lined with sculptured and coloured slabs of stone, instead of being painted as in Chaldaea. We can trace three periods in the art of these bas-reliefs; it is vigorous but simple under Ashurnasirpal II, careful and realistic under Sargon II, refined but wanting in boldness under Ashurbanipal. In Babylonia, in place of the bas relief we have the figure in the round, the earliest examples being the statues from Telloh which are realistic but somewhat clumsy. The want of stone in Babylonia made every pebble precious and led to a high perfection in the art of gem-cutting.

Nothing can be better than two seal-cylinders that have come down to us from the age of Sargon of Akkad. No remarkable specimens of the metallurgic art of an early period have been found, apart perhaps from the silver vase of Entemena , but at a later epoch great excellence was attained in the manufacture of such jewellery as ear-rings and bracelets of gold. Copper, too, was worked with skill; indeed, it is possible that Babylonia was the original home of copper-working, which spread westward with the civilization to which it belonged. At any rate the people were famous from an early date for,their embroideries and rugs. The ceramic history of Babylonia and Assyria has unfortunately not yet been traced; at Susa alone has the care demanded by the modern methods of archaeology been as yet expended on examining and separating the pottery found in the excavations; and, Susa is not Babylonia. We do not even know the date of the spirited terracotta reliefs discovered by Loftus and Rawlinson. The forms of Assyrian pottery, however, are graceful; the porcelain, like the glass discovered in the palaces of Nineveh, was derived from Egyptian originals. Transparent glass seems to have been first introduced in the reign of Sargon. Stone as well as clay and glass were employed in the manufacture of vases, and vases of hard stone have been disinterred at Tello similar to, those of the early dynastic period of Egypt.

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This article was originally based on content from the 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica. Update as needed.

Last updated: 06-02-2005 20:49:10
Last updated: 08-17-2005 14:06:58