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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Body Art: Female Figure

» Unknown artist (probably Syrian), Nimrud, Iraq

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

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.

Expert Perspective:
Zainab Bahrani, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

“When representations of nude females first began to emerge in archaeological excavations in places like Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, the ancient Near East, the earliest archaeologists who found these figurines, at the end of nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, began to describe them in their publications of these excavations as mother goddesses. This was just the standard interpretation for all of these figures. But, in fact, it’s actually much more complicated than that. They’re clearly not all goddesses. They’re not even all images that represent fertility or motherhood. We have a large number of images in which the female body does not seem to be that of fertility or even motherhood, but what we seem to have represented is a kind of sexualization in a very erotic way of the female form. There are no taboos on depicting that aspect of the female body at all in the way that there are in the classical tradition. With female nudity we very often get a sense that this is a nudity for the pleasure of the viewer—the viewer being understood as presumably male. The female nude was not only not taboo, but it was considered in some sense propitious, in some sense good and beautiful and perhaps even good luck.

The ideal changes a little bit over time. If you look at the early second millennium BCE you see a slim, but sort of rounded body, with emphasis on breasts and hips. In the later periods, for example, in the Neo-Assyrian era, you see more heavyset figures of women. And then later on during the Hellenistic era, when Mesopotamia becomes conquered by Alexander the Great and his armies and becomes part of this larger Hellenistic realm, you see this really interesting mixture of femininity that is a kind of a hybrid mix between the Greek classical form of the representation of the female nude merging with the more traditional ancient Near Eastern images.”

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.

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