482. THE BABYLONIAN MARRIAGE MARKET. (E. Long.1)
The Royal Academy Exhibition, 1875.
A painting of great merit, and well deserving purchase by the Anthropological Society. For the varieties of character in the heads are rendered with extreme subtlety; while, as a mere piece of painting, the work is remarkable, in the modern school, for its absence of affectation: there is no insolently indulged indolence nor vulgarly asserted dexterity,―the painting is good throughout, and unobtrusively powerful.
It becomes a question of extreme interest with me, as I examine this remarkable picture, how far the intensely subtle observation of physical character and expression which rendered the painting of it possible, necessitates the isolation of the artist's thoughts from subjects of intellectual interest or moral beauty. Certainly the best expressional works of the higher schools present nothing analogous to the anatomical precision with which the painter has here gradated the feature and expression of the twelve waiting girls, from great physical beauty to absolute ugliness, and from the serene insolence and power of accomplished fleshly womanhood to the restless audacity and crushed resignation of its despised states of personal inferiority, unconsoled by moral strength or family affection. As a piece of anthropology, it is the natural and very wonderful product of a century occupied in carnal and mechanical science. In the total paralysis of conception without―attempt to disguise the palsy―as to the existence of any higher element in a woman's mind than vanity and spite, or in a man's than avarice and animal passion, it is also a specific piece of the natural history of our own century; but only a partial one, either of it, or of the Assyrian, who was once as " the cedars in the garden of God."2
1. [Edwin Longsden Long (1829-1891) was elected A.R.A. in the year following the exhibition of this picture (now in the collection at Holloway College). He was elected R.A. in 1881. In addition to his pictures of biblical and archaeological interest he painted some portraits; one of Sir Stafford Northcote is in the National Portrait Gallery.]
2.[Ezek. xxxi. 3, 8: "Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon. . . . The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him."]
The painter has in the first instance misread his story or been misled by his translation.1 This custom, called wise by Herodotus, is so called only as practised in country districts with respect to the fortuneless girls of the lower labouring population; daughters of an Assyrian noble, however plain-featured, would certainly not be exposed in the market to receive dowry from the dispute for their fairer sisters.* But there is matter of deeper interest in the custom, as it is compared to our modern life. However little the English educated classes now read their Bibles, they cannot but, in the present state of literary science, be aware that there is a book, once asserted to have been written by St. John, in which a spiritual Babylon is described as the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth, and her ruin represented as lamentable, especially to the merchants who trafficked with her in many beautiful and desirable articles, but above all in " souls of men."2
* The passage in Strabo3 which gives some countenance to the idea of universality in the practice, gives a somewhat different colour to it by the statement that over each of the three great Assyrian provinces a "temperately wise" person was set to conduct the ordinances of marriage.
1.["Herodotus records one of their customs, which, whether in jest or earnest, he declares to be the wisest he ever heard of. This was their wife-auction, by which they managed to find husbands for all their young women. The greatest beauty was put up first, and knocked down to the highest bidder; then the next in the order of comeliness―and so on to the damsel who was equidistant between beauty and plainness, who was given away gratis. Then the least plain was put up, and knocked down to the gallant who would marry her for the smallest consideration and so on till the plainest was got rid of to some cynical worthy, who placidly preferred lucre to looks. By transferring to the scale of the ill-favoured the prices paid for the fair, beauty was made to endow ugliness, and the rich man's taste was the poor man's gain."―Swayne's Herodotus. The reference is to Herodotus, book i. 196. For another reference to it, see Stones of Venice, vol. iii. (Vol. XI. p. 263).]
2.[Revelation xvii. 5, xviii. 11-13. "Once asserted," etc., but much doubted, even in very early times, and the book is now generally admitted to be a compilation of a Jewish apocalypse (written about 68 A.D.) with later Christian interpolations and additions (about 140 A.D.).]
3.[Book xvi. ch. i. § 20: "Three discreet persons, chiefs of each tribe, are appointed, who present publicly young women who are marriageable, and give notice by the crier, beginning with those most in estimation, of a sale of them to men intending to become husbands. In this manner marriages are contracted."]
Also, the educated reader cannot but be aware that the animosity of Christian sects―which we have seen the subject of another important national-historical picture in this―Academy1 has for the last three hundred years wasted much of their energy in endeavours to find Scriptural reason for calling each other Babylonians, and whatever else that term may be understood to imply.
There is, however, no authority to be found in honestly read Scripture for these well-meaning, but ignorant, incivilities. Read in their entirety, the books of the Bible represent to us a literal and material deliverance of a visibly separated people from a literal bondage; their establishment in a literally fruitful and peaceful land; and their being led away out of that land, in consequence of their refusal to obey the laws of its Lord, into a literal captivity in a small material Babylon. The same Scriptures represent to us a spiritual deliverance of an invisibly separated people from spiritual bondage; their establishment in the spiritual land of Christian joy and peace; and their being led away out of this land into a spiritual captivity in a great spiritual Babylon, the mother of abominations, and in all active transactions especially delightful to "merchants" persons engaged, that is to say, in obtaining profits by exchange instead of labour.
And whatever was literally done, whether apparently wise or not, in the minor fleshly Babylon, will therefore be found spiritually fulfilled in the major ghostly one; and, for instance, as the most beautiful and marvellous maidens were announced for literal sale by auction in Assyria, are not also the souls of our most beautiful and marvellous maidens announced annually for sale by auction in Paris and London, in a spiritual manner, for the spiritual advantages of position in society?
1.[See above, pp. 267, 269.]