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13 / The Body

Female Figure
Female Figure
Artist / Origin Unknown artist (probably Syrian), Nimrud, Iraq
Region: West Asia
Date Neo-Assyrian, ca. 8th century BCE
Period: 500 BCE - 1 CE
Material Ivory
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 11 ¾ in. (30 cm); W: 2 7/8 in. (7.4 cm); D: 5 ¾ in. (14.5 cm.)
Credit Courtesy of Il Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi per il Medio Oriente e l’Asia, Turin, Italy

expert perspective

Zainab BahraniProfessor of Ancient Near Eastern Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

Additional Resources

Bahrani, Zainab. ''Women of Babylon: Gender and Representation in Mesopotamia''. London; New York: Routledge, 2001.

Curatola, Giovanni, et al. ''The Art and Architecture of Mesopotamia.'' New York: Abbeville Press, 2007.

Goodison, Lucy, and Christine Morris, eds. ''Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence.'' London: British Museum Press, 1998.

Kampen, Natalie Boymel. ''Sexuality in Ancient Art.'' Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Van de Mieroop, Marc. ''A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000–323 BC'', 2nd ed''. ''Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Female Figure

» Unknown artist (probably Syrian), Nimrud, Iraq

This ivory carving of a female figure portrays a woman who is completely nude but for her bracelets and headpiece.

Standing tall, with eyes wide open and looking straight ahead, she cups her full breasts in her hands as if in offering. In Western scholarship, images like this one, as well as older, more stylized precedents, have traditionally been interpreted as fertility goddesses. In some instances, the presence of certain symbols or accessories corroborates these interpretations. Representations of Ishtar, goddess of fertility, love, and war, for example, might show her wearing a crossed halter or carrying weapons. Often, however, no such clues are present.

An emphasis on the breasts and vulva (often depicted as a large inverted triangle), is characteristic of ancient Near Eastern representations of the naked female body, as is the absence of any signs of unease or anxiety associated with nudity. In fact, these figures seem to celebrate the sexuality of the women depicted, who appear fully exposed, lifting their breasts or pointing to their genitals. Although fertility might be associated with these figures indirectly, the primary focus appears to be sexuality with the goal of seduction and pleasure. Literature, sculptural inscriptions, and other works of art offer evidence that erotic allure, attractiveness, and charm were valued more highly than fertility or nurturance when it came to ideals of femininity in the ancient Near East.

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