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Jan 2009 Journal

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Art notes (review)

Like his modern successor, Saddam Hussein, Nebuchadnezzar wanted his city and his name to last forever. But was this emperor, who ruled from 605-562BC, the cruel tyrant described in the Old Testament – or was his name confused with that of the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus? According to the British Museum’s current exhibition, Babylon, the Bible has got it wrong. It blames Nebuchadnezzar rightly for the sack of Jerusalem and the consequent Jewish exile to Babylon in 587 BC, but thereafter muddles him up with his cruel successor.

If true, this biblical mistake has penetrated the work of artists like William Blake, who drew Nebuchadnezzar on all fours, condemned by the prophet Daniel to live ‘as a beast in the field’. But, the Museum claims, Nebuchadnezzar was not such a bad guy, who merely behaved as all emperors did towards the Jews. It was standard imperial policy to expose exiles to Mesopotamian culture and some, like Daniel, were upgraded into an elite class of dream interpreters, scribes and cuneiform handwriting experts.

The story of Babylon comes to life through artefacts and oil paintings loaned from Paris and Berlin and from the Museum’s own collection. They include glazed brick panels embossed with lions, never previously shown in Britain, and cuneiform tablets discussing subsistence rations for Jehoiachin, exiled king of Judah.

Works by Rembrandt, Dürer and John Martin portray Daniel in the lions’ den or Belshazzar’s Feast. There are many versions of the doomed Tower of Babel, including Lucas van Valckenborch’s menacing edifice and an etching of the crumbling tower by Cornelis Anthonisz. A large painting by the pre-Raphaelite artist Evelyn de Morgan shows the exiles - mainly women - hanging up their harps on willow trees.

But, despite their portrayal by many sixteenth-century Flemish and Dutch artists, the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon probably never existed: they are merely tiered roof gardens with eucalyptus and pine trees. However, Babylonian thought has bequeathed us maths and astrology - the division of the day and the signs of the zodiac. We also learn that Saddam Hussein built his modern palace on the ruins of the ancient city, but US military bases there in 2003 created more permanent damage.

Byzantium is the ultimate symbol of religious, cultural and artistic diversity, for which it became the envy of the world. Gilded churches containing icons of the most stunning beauty led visitors to believe they had entered heaven on earth. Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy traces the history of this artistic superpower, built by Constantine the Great in 330 from the ashes of Old Rome. The famous icons were banned during the time of Iconoclasm in the eighth century but returned with the rise of Christian Orthodoxy, and artistic links between Byzantium and the early Italian Renaissance in the Middle Ages spread throughout the Middle East and Europe.
The exhibition is worth seeing for the beauty, colour and detail of so many religious symbols, including devotional icons from the Monastery of St Catherine, built on the spot where Moses took off his sandals before the Burning Bush.



Gloria Tessler

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