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Women in Ancient Art

Author(s): Betty L. Schlossman and Hildreth J. York

The feminist movement has awakened our critical interest in woman's role and status in society. The culture-bound nature of our attitudes is cast in high relief not only by the investigation of contemporary mores, but also through the exploration of some of the cultures which are the cornerstones of Western civilization. Many of our attitudes in regard to women arise from the ancient Near Eastern origins of our Judeo- Christian traditions. It is interesting that so many of the roles of women today are close reflections of their Biblical prototypes. [1] The tenacity of these stereotypes is all the more surprising in view of the radical shifts elsewhere in society.

While it is difficult to resurrect the emotional and intellectual climate of the distant past, the art of the ancient Near East which has survived has an immediacy which surpasses the boundaries of time and space. It certainly can reveal to us some of the roles of women in antiquity, as well as the pervasive ideals of beauty in the various lands of origin.

The primal nature of the female element in the ancient Near East is demonstrated by the scope and variety of female images thought to be associated with cult practices at least as early as the Neolithic Period (c. 9000-3500 B.C.). In Egypt, for example, female deities continue to be represented and worshiped until the end of the Late Period (c. 700 B.C.-A.D. 100),[2] often incorporating important roles of women in human society (Fig. 1).[3] This is merely one example of a multitude of female divinities in Egypt who fulfill roles as diverse as personifying truth and justice (Maat), protecting women in childbirth (Thueris), guarding coffins and canopic jars (Neith), and representing the sky (Nut).

One of the best known female divinities of Mesopotamia is Inanna-lshtar, goddess of love and war. A manifestation of this goddess, represented as a nude woman lying on a couch, [4] obviously suggests ritualized aspects of sexuality and fertility (Fig. 2). The cult of this goddess in Phoenicia is thought to have involved ritual prostitution. A Phoenician ivory showing a frontal female head, usually seen within a window frame (Fig. 3), may represent the goddess or one of her votaresses. [5] The significance of the window motif and the woman looking out of it is nicely illustrated by the Biblical story of Jezebel (II Kings 9:30): "When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it; and she painted her eyes, and adorned her head, and looked out of the window."

There are numerous other examples of female cult images from Mesopotamia, some of which can be identified as specific members of the pantheon, while others, of commanding appearance (Fig. 4), cannot be associated with a specific divinity. Imagery of cult is expanded by a number of terracotta plaques which show abbreviated scenes from ritual practice or perhaps religious myths (Figs. 2, 5-8). Some are quite general and could refer to activities in other spheres of life, while the explicit erotic nature of Fig. 8 undoubtedly has ritual connotations. [6] The potency of the female principle in Iranian religion and imagery is well-attested throughout its early history (Figs. 9-12). The numinous powers of these forms are inherent in their fantastic or demonic features.

Not only can we glean information about the roles and status of women from these ancient artifacts, but as works of art, they more than likely incorporate the ideals of beauty or femininity of a given time and place. This approach to the works of art must be tempered, however, by a careful consideration of the qualities of artistic style, the conventions which define it, and the purpose for which the object was made. Artistic style can oscillate between naturalism and abstraction, and one must be careful not to confuse the artistic or aesthetic ideal with the physical ideal of the woman being represented. The more naturalistic the representation, the more tangible is the information given; the less naturalistic the forms, the less concrete can our statements be about ideals of beauty. One should not make the mistake of attempting a literal interpretation of an abstract or highly schematized image. Conversely, one must recognize that naturalistic imagery in antiquity inevitably incorporates a body of conventions and stylizations.

It is interesting in considering four regions of the ancient Near East, that the distinctions in modes of representation do not rest solely on the distinguishable ethnic differences, although these undoubtedly form some part of the beauty ideal cultivated in each region. However, the pervasiveness of canonic forms of representation in a given region demonstrates a cultural ideal which clearly supersedes mere ethnic traits and individualized representation.

The ideal which suffuses all female Egyptian sculpture is one of slender, smooth-flowing curves. In Egyptian images women appear to be small-boned, long-limbed, and graceful (Fig. 13). All the fleshy parts of the body, such as breasts, thighs, hips, are always firm and rounded and have a subtle sensuality. They are never enlarged or exaggerated. In fact, the Egyptian is so conscious of his ideal, that one of the rare times one sees fat women is in Egyptian representations of foreigners. [7] By contrast, Egyptian men could be represented with carefully stylized rolls of fat to indicate age, rank, or status. [8] The seated pose, the cubic nature of the volumes, and the immobility of the forms (Figs. 1, 13, 14), are symptomatic of Egyptian art in general rather than any specific ideal of female beauty.

Typical of Egyptian art, women's garments, seemingly transparent, cling to the body, revealing all its parts, while transforming them into subtly geometricized forms. Jewelry obviously played an important role in Egyptian society for men and women, and therefore it is carefully translated on most human images in Egyptian art. Not only did it beautify the individual and lend vibrancy to the image, but it clearly reflected wealth and status, and often served an amuletic purpose. Its representation in art is in many ways a metaphor for the function it served in real life, setting off the smooth planes of the face with colorful forms and patterns.
Interestingly enough, painted representations of Egyptian men and women typically show the women lighter-skinned than the men, a convention which suggests that women ideally spent more time indoors. Characteristic of Egyptian fashion-consciousness are the elaborate hairdos and wigs that enlarge and focus attention upon the head. These vary considerably from period to period. Here, however, the goddess Neith (Fig. 13) wears the pharaonic Red Crown of Lower Egypt, and her hair is not revealed. The quality of aesthetic contrast, as well as the demonstration of personal status and rank, are inherent in all accessories, such as hairdress and costume.

Mesopotamian images in general are squatter and stockier than their Egyptian counterparts. This does not necessarily reflect reality, but rather an ideal, since in both regions the tendencies persist in art from earliest times on. The Mesopotamian female image is almost always heavier and more full- bodied than its Egyptian counterpart. Face, limbs, and torso are often thick and well-rounded. Faces of Mesopotamian images are often broad and massive, articulated by thick eyebrows meeting over a prominent nose, wide, heavy- rimmed eyes, full lips, and rounded chin. This contrasts with the more refined Egyptian faces with small noses and almond-shaped eyes delicately extended by cosmetic lines. The Mesopotamian ideal can produce an attractive, if somewhat hefty, representation (Figs. 6-7).

In contrast to the diaphanous quality of Egyptian garments, the weighty, tiered garments of Mesopotamian goddesses are de rigeur for divinities, while everyday garments are simpler in their rendering. While hair on female images in Mesopotamia may be dressed elaborately, i.e., in buns or plaits, it does not show the extravagance of Egyptian wigs. Headgear may vary depending on the role and status of the wearer (e.g., the horned headdresses of goddesses). Necklaces and pendants are often seen on women of high status and on goddesses (Figs. 2, 4, 5, 7), and seem to serve similar functions as in Egypt.

A glass head from Syria (Fig. 15) reflects the non-naturalistic style more typical of that region. The remnants of a knobbed headgear and large hoop earrings can be compared with renderings of Syrian deities. [9] The head retains strong stylistic coherence, treating the facial features in much the same way as the decorative details of the headgear. On the other hand, the art of the Phoenicians, inhabitants of the Levantine coast, is traditionally more naturalistic than that of the inland towns, and often absorbs features of neighboring cultures. Most striking is the Egyptianizing tendency which dominates in the first millennium B.C., and is here exemplified by an ivory head said to be from Arslan Tash (Fig. 3), which probably decorated a piece of furniture. The ideal of feminine beauty here is a composite of more traditional Egyptian elements such as wig and ear placement, combined with the fleshier facial type of the Levant. This is an example of how foreign fashions and ideals can be assimilated to create a native style with its own functioning criteria.

Within the art of Iran, the pervasive mode is imaginative abstraction. Naturalistic styles do appear, but they tend to aggregate in specific geographic regions (e.g., Elam). The pieces illustrated here (Figs. 9-12) exemplify a tendency, typical of northwestern Iran, toward striking distortion of anatomy with an imaginative reorganization of the parts. Although not demonstrated by our pieces, often elements of different beings are combined to create fantastic and composite figures to represent superhuman forces. These fanciful and sophisticated forms have a special appeal to contemporary taste, and numerous examples of this art have found their way into private and public collections.

While the gender of the figure on the bronze standards is not always clear, our example (Fig. 12) specifically depicts small knobby breasts supported by atrophied hands and arms, a gesture of female fertility that goes back to the Old Stone Age. A related gesture can be seen on the three ceramic figurines (Figs. 9-11), two of which may also be cult vessels (Figs. 9-10). The demonic qualities of these creatures, emphasized by their mask-like faces, suggests that they may also have served apotropaic functions. The concept of the female as a vessel, which has Neolithic prototypes, is the perfect assimilation of the biological function of the female to the ritual purpose of the ceramic form.

These figures illustrate only a small selection of the varied roles exemplified by female imagery in ancient Near Eastern art. Portraits exist of important women who were queens, royal mothers, and spouses. In one case at least, a woman usurped the royal prerogatives of a male ruler, showing herself with the attributes of kingship usually reserved for males. This was Hatshepsut, a ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. [10] This assumption of the throne by a female was quite unique in ancient history, although many women clearly exercised enormous power in ancient politics.
Aside from royal marriages which are documented historically, many images of couples exist which illustrate the conjugal state, from modest displays of affection (Fig. 5) to representations of sexual intercourse, probably ritual in nature (Fig. 8). [11] Renderings of motherhood exist which may also have cultic significance, in addition to the more secular depictions of serving maids, craftswomen, and entertainers. A vast repertoire of objects associated with the world of women, many of which can find contemporary parallels, reflects woman's continuing interest in self-adornment. These include toilet articles, perfume bottles, cosmetic palettes, mirrors, and jewelry. The changing styles and regional variations show that fashions in the past were at least as elaborate and meaningful as any of our own time, and that then, as now, fashion was a reflection of the social structure.

Biblical literature supplies us with numerous examples of women as matriarchs, helpmeets, heroines, lovers, seductresses, prostitutes, virgins, and concubines, all of which still function as the basic stereotypes of today, and most of which are grounded in sexual role-playing. The concepts, then as now, illustrate the basically subservient position of women, who have thus unwittingly sustained through the millennia a world dominated by men.

This article is a preliminary investigation of material which the authors are studying in depth for future publication.
[1] See Ilse Seibert, Women in the Ancient Near East, New York, 1974, p. 11 and passim, and bibliography, p. 63 ff.
[2] Bernard V. Bothmer, Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period, 700 B.C.-A.D. 100, New York, The Brooklyn Museum, 1960, pp. xxx-xxxi.

[3] The objects which were used to illustrate this paper have been made available through the kindness of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Ternbach, Forest Hills, New York. Our thanks also to Ms. Nancy Williams for information derived from her work cataloging the Ternbach collection.

[4] For comparative examples see also E. Douglas Van Buren, Clay Figurines of Babylonia and Assyria, Yale Oriental Series. Researches, Vol. XVI; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930, pp. 222-23, nos. 1083-1088; pi. LVII, figs. 275-76 (nude woman on couch); pp. 223-24, nos. 1089-1095 (embracing couple on couch); Donald E. McCown and Richard C. Haines, assisted by Donald P. Hansen, Nippur I: Temple of Enlil, Scribal Quarter and Soundings Oriental Institute Publications, Vol. LXXVIII; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967, p. 94; pi. 144, nos. 2-4 (model beds, one with female pudenda), pi. 144, nos. 5-6 (nude woman on couch).

[5] R. D. Barnett, A Catalogue of the Nimrud Ivories, London, The British Museum, 1957, pp. 145-51. On this example the earlobes are enlarged as though for earrings. According to Barnett, pp. 147-48, both the earrings and the frontlet worn over the forehead can be associated with Ishtar.

[6] See comments concerning "scenes of copulation" in ancient art by Otto J. Brendel, "The Scope and Temperament of Erotic Art in the Greco-Roman World," in Studies in Erotic Art, ed. Theodore Bowie and Cornelia V. Christenson, New York, 1970, pp. 7-8 and n. 5. See also Edith Porada, "Iconography and Style of a Cylinder Seal from Kantara in Cyprus," Vorderasiatische Archaologie: Festschrift A. Moortgat, Berlin, 1964, pp. 234-39, especially n. 3 and pi. 33:4. Also Henri Seyrig, "Antiquites syriennes, 60. 'Quelques cylindres orientaux. 4: Scene de hierogamie' ", Syria, 32 (1955), 38-41; Henri Frankfort, Cylinder Seals, London, 1939, pp. 75-76, 77. A related example may be seen in McCown, Haines and Hansen, pl. 137:4.

[7] For an easily available illustration see W. Stevenson Smith, The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt, Harmondsworth, 1958, pl. 92 B; also Edward L. B. Terrace and Henry G. Fischer, Treasures of Egyptian Art from the Cairo Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970, pp. 101-102.

[8] Smith, pl. 31 B; for other easily available examples see Kazimir Michalowski, Art of Ancient Egypt, New York, 1968, p. 364, no. 211; Terrace and Fischer, pp. 113-14 (no. 24).

[9] A bronze female figurine from Beirut in the Louvre in Paris has one of its gold earrings preserved and wears a high polos headdress decorated with knobs. An easily accessible illustration of this can be seen in Henri Frankfort, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, 1st paperback ed., Harmonds- worth, 1970, p. 259, figs. 299-300. The headdress on the glass head may have been somewhat different in configuration since its upper edge appears to be finished and not broken off and the embossed band above the knobs is vertically hatched.

[10] Smith, pls. 94 A, 95 A, and p. 135.

[11] See n. 4 above.

Betty L. Schlossman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Fine Arts at Montclair State College, Upper Montclair, New Jersey.
Hildreth J. York is an Associate Professor in the Art Department of Rutgers University, Newark College of Arts and Sciences, New Jersey.

Source: Art Journal
Published by: College Art Association
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