Tag Archives: sculpture

28: Avatars of Vishnu

Hey folks. Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast, your nifty guidebook to the art and culture of the ancient world. I’m you friendly traveling companion, Lucas Livingston.

With all the current hype about Mr. Cameron’s latest titanic piece of cinematography, the CGI-wonder Avatar, I thought it might be enjoyable for us to explore the true meaning, history, and imagery of the traditional usage of the word “avatar.” The term has met widespread usage in recent years, especially in the realm of computer gaming and virtual reality, from World of Warcraft and The Sims to Second Life. But unless you were especially literate, eastwardly spiritual, or big into Dungeon & Dragons, you might not have had the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the true meaning of “avatar.” It comes from the Sanskrit avatara, basically meaning a being, who has crossed over or come down. In essence, an avatar is a physical manifestation or incarnation of a god on Earth, which we commonly encounter in Hindu narratives.

The Hindu deity most frequently associated with avatars is the god Vishnu. Vishnu is one of the most prominent and widely revered deities in the Hindu faith.

Vishnu is one of the Trimurti, the Hindu triad, or the “three forms,” where the concepts of cosmic creation, preservation, and destruction are personified by the three deities Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, respectively. As the divine preserver of the cosmos, it’s Vishnu’s job to manifest and restore dharma, or social justice and cosmic world order, whenever it’s threatened by some malevolence. The number of avatars of Vishnu ranges among texts, but the most commonly recognized number of his incarnations is 10, known as the Dasavatara, meaning the “ten avatars.” [1]

One of the most recognized avatars of Vishnu is the hero Krishna, a popular deity in his own right and the star of the Mahabharata, a great Hindu epic narrative. In Bhagavad Gita, the “Song of the Lord,” part of the Mahabharata, Krishna relates to his friend Arjuna:

“For whenever Right declines and Wrong prevails, then O Bharata, I come to birth.
To save the righteous, to destroy the wicked, and to re-establish Right I am born from age to age.” [2]

That quote is from chapter 4 of the Bhagavad Gita as told by the great 20th century spiritual leader and civil rights activist Mahatma Gandhi. We encounter another avatar of Vishnu in the supposed last words of Gandhi, featured as an epitaph on his tombstone, “He Ram.” Meaning “Oh God,” “He Ram” refers to Rama, the avatar, king of Ayodhya, and the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana. The Ramayana tells the tale of Rama as he battles the ten-headed Rakshasa demon Ravana, who has kidnapped Rama’s wife Sita. Ravana had become too powerful, ruling over the heavens, the earth, and the netherworld, invulnerable to all living and celestial beings, except man and animals. He was an arrogant and destructive ruler harboring evildoers. As the divine preserver of dharma, Vishnu promised to defeat Ravana on Earth manifesting as the human prince Rama, while his divine consort, Lakshmi, took birth as his future spouse Sita. Throughout his life as a man on Earth, his true identity and destiny were known by none, but himself and a few great sages.

Chronologically, Rama and Krishna are the 7th and 8th avatars of Vishnu, according to the list of ten avatars. [3] The 9th and most recent avatar is sometimes considered to be Buddha, also known as Gautama or Shakyamuni. That’s especially interesting, because, we usually encounter Buddha in, um, Buddhism, not Hinduism, but this is wonderfully exemplary of Hinduism’s traditional acceptance and incorporation of world religions. As opposed to “There’s only one god and I’m right and you’re wrong.” You could look at this as an expression of the core belief held by some that all of the many divinities of the world are extensions of a singular supreme divine force. Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, who primarily promoted non-violence, or ahimsa, is still a popular belief among a number of modern Vaishnava Hindu organizations, including the West’s particularly recognizable, although modestly sized Hare Krishna movement. [4] Alternatively, some scholars have put forth the interpretation that Buddha as an avatar was an attempt to absorb this offshoot Buddhist heresy back into Hinduism. [5] There are always two sides to the coin.

Beyond Rama, Krishna, and Buddha, two avatars of Vishnu that we frequently encounter in art are Vishnu’s incarnation as a boar or boar-headed man, Varaha, and the man-lion Narasimha. Varaha is skillfully represented on this 11th century sandstone sculpture from Rajasthan, India at the Art Institute of Chicago. When the Earth began to sink into the ocean under the burden of all the world’s evil and corruption, Vishnu manifested as the avatar Varaha and lifted the Earth personified here as the goddess Bhudevi. This work captures the moment when Varaha and Bhudevi fall in love. Varaha gazes fondly at Bhudevi as she gently lays her hand upon his snout. Down below, his left knee bent, he rests his foot upon a lotus. Beneath the lotus are two nagas, serpent deities, who symbolize the oceans from which Varaha has lifted the Earth. And Varaha and Bhudevi live happily ever after, so the story goes. In other representations of the story, we encounter the evil demon Hiranyaksha, who kidnapped the Earth and pulled her beneath the cosmic oceans. Varaha descended into the oceans to battle Hiranyaksha for 1000 years. Once victorious, we see Varaha raising the Earth from the water.

Hiranyaksha had an older brother named Hiranyakashipu and he’s downright angry. Hiranyakashipu wanted to avenge his brother’s murder at the hands of Vishnu, so he offers many years of penance to Brahma and gains special powers in return: that he may not die indoors or outdoors, during the day or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. He can’t be killed by human, divinity, or animal. Oh, and he also become supreme ruler of everything. So, he had a son named Prahlada, who, much to his father’s disappointment, was a devout follower of Vishnu. One day as the sun was setting and nighttime was encroaching, Prahlada, as any angst-ridden child would do, challenged the notion that his father was the supreme lord of the universe, saying that Vishnu’s the all-pervasive, omnipresent lord of everything. Hiranyakashipu points at a column in the courtyard and smugly says, “So, your omnipresent god is even in that column, there?” Prahlada says he is, at which point Hiranyakashipu smashes the column in a fit of rage. Vishnu bursts forth from the fractured column as the avatar Narasimha, not human nor beast nor divinity, but the part-man, part-beast incarnation. He grabs Hiranyakashipu at that moment of twilight, neither day nor night, lifts him onto his lap, neither ground nor air, and tears into him right there in the courtyard, a liminal space neither indoors nor outside. Crafty fellow, that Vishnu.

In this amazing 11th century black basalt sculpture from the Art Institute, we see a fierce six-armed Narasimha digging into Hiranyakashipu, stretched across his lap. The column is shown on the lower left next to his right leg. He’s also standing on another demon, who’s trying to stab him with a knife. Below the lotus flower base, we see the prostrate donor couple who commissioned the work of art, which was originally set up in a temple.

The last avatar of Vishnu to get an honorable mention here is the dwarf Vamana. As we might come to expect, a demon king had taken over the cosmos. This time his name was Bali, but he wasn’t so bad. He was the grandson of the pious Prahlada, the Vaishnava son of Hiranyakashipu. But still, that was just too much authority for one person to have. So, the diminutive Vamana requested that he could have as much land as his his little legs could cover in just three steps. Bali consented and Vamana suddenly grew to an immense size becoming the mighty Trivikrama, which means “Three Steps.” With his first step, he covered the world, with his second step he covered the heavens and netherworld, and with nowhere else to step, Bali offered his own head for the third and final step. The god was so impressed by this pious gesture that he renamed him Mahabali, meaning “The Great Bali,” and granted him immortality up in heavens.

So, one thing you could say that James Cameron got right in the movie Avatar is that the avatar in the film, Jake Sully, came to the Na’vi people in a time of great trouble. It wasn’t the character’s original intention to be their savior, but perhaps it was his destiny. Likewise, Cameron probably wasn’t even thinking of the original sacred context of the avatar when he scripted the film, but it makes for an interesting connection. And hopefully you’ve found our journey here not only enjoyable and educational, but maybe you can even impress your friends with some enlightening conversational insights as Avatar goes up for its 9 Oscar nominations at the 82nd Academy Awards on March 7th.

Be sure to check out the website at ancientartpodcast.org for the image gallery with image credits, the transcript with references, and lots of other fun stuff. I welcome your feedback and suggestions at info@ancientartpodcast.org or with the online feedback form. I’d also love to get your comments on YouTube, in iTunes, or on the website, itself. You can follow me on Twitter at lucaslivingston and on Facebook at facebook.ancientartpodcast.org. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2010 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

———————————————————
Footnotes:

[1] The Dasavatara of the Garuda Purana is a series instructions that Vishnu gave to his animal companion Garuda, whom we met back in episode 17 of the Ancient Art Podcast. For multiple lists of the avatars of Vishnu according to different scriptural traditions, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar.

[2] The Gita According to Gandhi (4.7-8).

[3] “Daśāvatāra,” Wikipedia.

[4] “Gautama Buddha in Hinduism,” Wikipedia.
See also:
“Krsna Will Accept You Anyway You Like.” Lecture given on March 31, 1974 by founder of ISKCON – A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
“Sri Dasavatara-stotra and Upaaya” (from Gita-govinda) by Jayadeva Gosvami.

[5] (Wendy Donniger) Wendy O’Flaherty, Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, University of California Press, 1976, page 203.

Metropolitan Kouros

16: Metropolitan Kouros

Metropolitan Kouros

Hey people. Welcome back. I’m excited to announce that we’re undergoing a little re-branding here. We’re dropping the SCARABsolutions and now it’s the Ancient Art Podcast. The website scarabsolutions.com will continue to work, but now you can also visit us at ancientartpodcast.org and you can reach me with your comments, questions, and suggestions at info@ancientartpodcast.org.

Last time in episode 15 we set the stage for the origin of free-standing, monumental sculpture in Ancient Greece. We revisited the Greek Orientalizing Period with its Near Eastern influences in vase painting technique and subject matter, and we discussed the strong Greek presence in Egypt during the Egyptian Saite Dynasty of 664 to 525 BC. In this new cultural melting pot of Egypt, archaeological evidence points to an Egyptian influence on the sacred art and ritual practice of Ancient Greece. Greeks are visiting Egyptian temples, gazing in awe at the centuries-old monumental sacred structures while giving gifts to Egyptian gods of bronze Egyptian votive statuary with inscribed with Greek prayers. And Greek votive statuary starts to bear a resemblance to common Egyptian types like this figurine of a seated woman nursing a child, which may have been influenced by the popular figure type of Isis nursing the child Horus.

Diminutive votive figurines are one thing, but the big development that we’re interested in here is the advent of monumental, free-standing Greek sculpture some time in the 7th century BC. That’s right … “some time.” We don’t know exactly when the Greeks began creating sculpture, but we do know that, after the collapse of the Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, there was a long period of time when the most elaborate figural works produced by the Greeks were small figurines and relief carvings of stone, terracotta, and bronze. The advent of monumental sculpture in the 7th century was a huge development, and by “monumental” I mean big and made of something durable, like stone or metal. And what’s really remarkable is the style of the earliest known Greek sculptures. Here we have one of the earliest and most intact Greek statues of the kouros type. “Kouros” is simply the Greek word for “boy.” This kouros, carved from a single block of marble, is dated to about 590-580 BC. It’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and it’s unofficial name in the scholarly arena is … wait for it … the Metropolitan Kouros. Sheer genius. He’s large as life, about 6′ 4″ or 1.946 m tall—I guess larger than life for most Ancient Greeks—but look at the pose. All early kouroi appear in a nearly identical pose. Broad straight shoulders, arms straight down at his sides, strong frontal stare, tall vertical posture, and his left leg stepping forward a bit. Remind you of anything? How about the figure of Ra-Horakhty that we looked at last time in episode 14? The Greek kouros is borrowed directly and heavily from the popular Egyptian standing male, the statue type that has a widespread prominent presence throughout Egypt, from miniature religious votives to colossal tomb and temple sentinels. The Greek mercenaries, merchants, artisans, and travelers to Egypt, which we talked about last time, had regular opportunity to be in contact with the long tradition of Egyptian statuary, which no doubt encouraged similar artistic development back home.

As I said earlier, he’s carved out of a single block of stone, and he retains a sort of blocky shape. Following the Egyptian technique for executing a stone carving, the sculptor took a large rectangular block of stone, drew the figure’s front, back, left, and right sides onto their respective sides of the block, and went to work, gradually removing stone from all four sides, working his way inward until the sides met, producing a free-standing figure in the round. It’s an efficient technique, but typical of early Greek kouroi, each side retains a sort of flattened planar effect. He’s somewhat in between being completely rounded and being a four-sided figure.

Another thing that the kouros and Egyptian statuary had in common, but it’s often overlooked on both accounts, is color. That’s right, as with so many examples of ancient art, which now appear in the crisp, pristine, unadulterated purity of a more noble and stoic age, the kouros was originally highly painted in a variety of colors meant to mimic real life—flesh tones, dark hair, brown eyes, full dark eyebrows, a cute little red necktie like the good boy scout he is. A lot of work has been done to reconstruct the original color on ancient statuary and architecture, but that’s a topic for a later episode. If you want to get a head start, though, check out a couple websites: The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present, an exhibition that was at the Getty Villa in California from March to June of 2008, and also Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity that was at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum a little earlier in the year. Just Google them or click on the links in the Additional Resources section at ancientartpodcast.org.

Putting aside the broad similarities between Egyptian statuary and Archaic Greek kouroi, one subtle similarity I like to note is the quirky Mona Lisa smile, also called the “Archaic smile.” Because why would you want to spend all this time and money on a frowning statue? But you’ll notice a few differences between the Egyptian statue type and the Greek kouros. For starters, there are some formal differences. In addition to replacing the Egyptian wig with those lovely, cascading, curly Greek locks, the kouros figure is clearly in the nude. For the most part, Egyptian statuary of this standing type were somewhat clothed. At least a kilt, please! Sure, there are some nude examples from Egypt, but those are rare and generally not plastered all over the place. So, why is the kouros represented in the nude? Here’s another prime example of the Greeks adopting a foreign concept and immediately adapting it to suit their own needs. The nudity of the kouros is directly related to its function. The Greeks didn’t have the ancient tradition of mighty Pharaoh to venerate in all of his three-story glory, but two other functions of statuary from Egypt could easily be adapted to Greece—that is, as monumental temple dedications and as grave markers … tombstones. Greece already had a long tradition of honoring the dead with elaborate ceramic memorials. Many of the colossal vessels of the Geometric Period were crafted to be set up as grave markers in the Dipylon Cemetery of the Athenian ceramics district, the Kerameikos. These monumental vessels weren’t functional on a practical level. They even had holes drilled into the bottom to prevent collecting water. Wealthy Athenian families during the 7th century BC erected lavish displays of conspicuous wealth in honor of their deceased family members, so much so that the famous Athenian statesman Solon actually passed legislation restricting the expense on private funerals. So, but with the advent of sculpture in Greece, it’s not unreasonable to understand a fashionable movement towards decorating graves with this trendy new art form.

As grave markers, the kouros type generally decorated the graves of fallen youths. Young men lost before their prime. Maybe heroic youths fallen on the battlefield, or so the symbolism suggests. The nude form of the kouros casts the fallen youth in the light of the heroic warrior. Heroic warriors like Achilles, Odysseus, and Hercules are generally depicted fighting in the nude. Yes, of course, Greek warriors of history fought heavily armored, complete with breastplate, greaves, helmet, and shield, but in myth the hero would fight in the nude. So here the individual commemorated by the kouros is elevated to heroic status. But there’s a second idea at work here. The nude form of the kouros might also remind us of a youth participating in athletics, which the Greeks did indeed do in the nude. So, here we have a fallen youth commemorated as the proud athlete participating in perhaps what his family believes he ought to have been doing back home in the safety of the Athenian gymnasium, rather than marching to far off lands only to die on the battlefield. It’s an interesting tug in two directions, a dual interpretation, which … hey, maybe I’m just making this up, but the hero and the athlete are two of the most popular subjects for the human male form throughout the history of Greek sculpture.

If you want to read a meticulous examination of the Metropolitan Kouros, check out the authoritative article by Gisela M. A. Richter and Irma A. Richter “The Archaic ‘Apollo’ in the Metropolitan Museum” published in the Metropolitan Museum Studies, volume 5, number 1 from August 1934. Like fine scotch, some articles keep well with age. Notice “Apollo” in that article title. That’s because back in the early part of the 20th century, kouroi were generally referred to as “Apollo figures,” a term which has since been dismissed.

So, with the kouros, Ancient Greece begins its spectacular journey exploring the possibilities of sculpture, opening the floodgates for a revolution that would define the artistic heritage of Western Civilization. And that, friends, is a story for another day.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

15: Origin of Greek Sculpture

Hey folks. Lucas Livingston here at the SCARABsoltuions Ancient Art Podcast. Great to have you back. In this episode, we’ll take a brief look at the historical climate that gave rise to Greek sculpture. Yeah, tall order.

“Gave rise to Greek sculpture” you say? There actually was a time before sculpture in Ancient Greece. Well, between sculpture, actually—the Greek Dark Age—between the relatively advanced Bronze Age and the much later Orientalizing and Archaic Periods. Remember back in episode 5 on the Art Institute’s Corinthian pyxis, we talked about the Orientalizing Period of approximately the 7th century BC—to quote myself, “The Orientalizing Period is a time when the Greeks renew contact and trade with the different civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East after a long period of isolation during the Greek Dark Age and Geometric Period. This is a fascinating time of rediscovery, invention, and assimilation.”

In that episode we looked at a few of the interesting Near Eastern influences in the developing arts of Greece. On Greek vase painting, we start to see fantastical creatures of the Near East, like sphinxes, griffins, and chimeras, and the adoption of long-standing, stock, Near Eastern decorative motifs like rosettes and palmettes. The Orientalizing Period was a time when the Greeks were suddenly thrust onto the world stage through mercantile exchange with Phoenicia, Syria, and other Near Eastern nations. The Greeks became familiar with Near Eastern artistic traditions through all the patterned textiles, decorated vessels, and other ornamentation that these foreign merchants brought with them to Corinth and other ports of trade. But just as the Greeks enjoyed and adopted these Near Eastern designs, they also immediately assimilated and adapted them to suit their own needs. And we discussed one example of this assimilation at length in the decoration of the Art Institute’s Corinthian pyxis.

There are a number of other profound developments in the Greek arts at this time, like the general manner in which the human form is represented on a two-dimensional painted surface. In episode 5 we explored how some areas of the Greek mainland, like Athens, continue in the traditional vase painting design of the previous century, with a stark contrast of the darkly silhouetted geometric figures against a background of meandering patterns. Corinth, however, pushes this aside for a more natural style of gentle curves and elaborate outlines of the figure’s contour with a smoother, flowing brush. We see the detail of human anatomy, facial features, and pleats and folds in the drapery. Coloration also makes its way onto the scene with the use of added red and white. The human form also becomes more dynamic, breaking away from the static paratactic pose of the Geometric Period. Shoulders and the chest might be seen in profile as opposed to the odd rendering of two shoulders and a frontal chest with a face turned in profile. So we start to see an increased attention to the naturalism, the manner in which the reality of the three-dimensional world works and how it can be expressed on a two-dimensional surface, a feat which the Greeks are only now beginning to undertake. But I don’t mean to give all the credit to Corinth. During the Archaic Period of the late 7th and 6th century BC, Athens was breaking new ground too, as we’ll soon see with the advent of sculpture.

The introduction of free standing monumental sculpture stems from another fascinating influence on the developing Greek arts, which deserves a lot of attention—but for this influence we need to look a little south to Egypt. Contemporary to the second half of the Greek Orientalizing Period and first half of the Archaic Period was the Egyptian 26th Dynasty, the Saite Dynasty of the Late Period. We call it the Saite Dynasty on account of the capital of Egypt at this time, the city of Sais in the delta region. And what time is this? We’re talking 664-525 BC. During the prior few centuries of the Third Intermediate Period, Egypt really blew it and lost all the power and influence that it acquired during the New Kingdom. Now during the Late Period, many of the nations surrounding Egypt had become major political and military powers that Egypt had to contend with. Since the Egyptian army wasn’t a whole heck of a lot to boast about, Pharaoh Psammetichus I (or in the Egyptian Psamtik) took the bold leap of hiring foreign mercenaries to fill the void. Psammetichus not only wanted to establish a strong military presence in Egypt, but he also wanted to forge military, political, and economic alliances with sympathetic foreign powers, namely the Greeks.

The Saite Dynasty is one of the coolest time periods in the history of the Mediterranean, because this is when we see for first time a strong Greek presence is Egypt. Psammetichus and other Saite rulers used Greek mercenaries to fight their battles and Greek merchants and craftsmen to support a strong economy of foreign trade in the Mediterranean. We even see the establishment in Egypt of Greek military barracks and the thriving development of a Greek civilian settlement. The port city of Naukratis exploded onto the scene as the short-lived, but preeminent port of trade in the Mediterranean. Sadly, today there’s not much more remaining than a few foundations. Naukratis was a fascinating melting pot of Egyptian and Greek culture. Greek and Egyptian temples were erected side-by-side. Greek merchants and craftsmen set up shop and traveled the Nile, seeing firsthand the splendors of the two-and-a-half thousand year-old Egyptian civilization. And just as the Greeks were inclined to adopt Near Eastern ideas to enhance their artistic repertoire, there are also some very distinct Egyptian influences on the cultural development of Greece in the aspects of domestic and religious art, temple architecture, and even religious belief and ritual. Greeks begin to visit Egyptian temples, dedicating bronze Egyptian votive statuary with Greek prayers inscribed on them. Greek votive statuary begins to take on an Egyptian form like this figurine of a seated woman nursing a child, which closely resembles the very popular figure type of Isis nursing the child Horus.

So, at the beginning of this episode I said we’ll take brief a look at the historical climate that gave rise to Greek sculpture. We did that, the stage is set, and before I start to lose you, we’re going to wrap things up here. We’ll pick up next time with a close look at one of the earliest known and most intact Greek sculptures of a particular statue type called a “kouros”—the so-called “Metropolitan Kouros” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Be sure to check out the bibliography at scarabsolutions.com for a number of references on the Greek contact with Egypt during the Saite Dynasty. On a technical note, if you were having trouble viewing some of the photo albums on the website using version 3 of Firefox, that’s because of a javascript incompatibility between iWeb and Firefox 3. After much searching of the online Apple support forum, one crash, and some colorful language, I think I’ve managed to implement a fix, so you should be able to browse the photo albums again. Thanks for listening and tune in soon for the next episode of the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

14: Ra-Horakhty

Thanks for coming back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. As always, I’m your host, Lucas Livingston. In this episode, I want to discuss some of the basic formal concepts of Egyptian statuary. To do so, we’ll look at this standing figure of the Egyptian god Ra-Horakhty from the Art Institute of Chicago, whom we briefly met in episode 1, if you may recall, on the scarab in Ancient Egypt. Ra-Horakhty was a particularly prominent Egyptian deity, attested to certainly as far back as the Old Kingdom. He’s what’s referred to as a composite deity, which is a union of two or more gods into a single cult, like Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, whom we met in episode 4 on the Statue of Osiris. Incidentally, I encourage you to check out the Art Institute of Chicago Musecast for June of 2008. Here you’ll find a short discussion of the science behind the coloration of the Statue of Osiris and a bit on its history and conservation. You can get to the Art Institute Musecast by clicking on its logo in the Additional Resources section at scarabsolutions.com. Back to the concept of the composite deity, we also call this union or merging of religious and cultural systems “syncretization.” Now, there’s a good $5 word to stick in your pocket. Ra-Horakhty is the synchretization of two well known Egyptian gods, Ra, the falcon-headed god of the sun, and Horus, the falcon-headed god of kingship, son of Osiris and the god manifest on Earth as Pharaoh. Fortunately, in the case of Ra-Horakhty, the Egyptians didn’t have to debated long over which head to use. The “akhty” part of Ra-Horakhty means “horizons,” so his name is literally “Ra, Horus of the Two Horizons,” the two horizons, of course, East and West, being central to Egyptian spiritualism as symbols of birth and death. The cult of Ra exerted such a strong influence over other Egyptian religions that many different deities found themselves getting syncretized with him. For example, maybe the most well know Egyptian composite deity is Amun-Ra, the massively influential cult of Karnak and Luxor during the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period.

This figure is made of bronze and is what’s known as a votive figurine. He’s about 25 cm or 10 inches tall and is dated to the Third Intermediate Period, some time from 1069 to 656 BC. Originally he almost certainly stood on a squat rectangular pedestal, like many of the other bronze votives on display next to him, and he also had an elaborate crown. You can tell because of the little hole on the top of his head where the crown, crafted as a separate piece, would have been inserted, but that crown is now lost. A votive figurine is a fairly common type of statuette found, well, now in a museum … but before that often buried somewhere within the precincts of a sacred structure, whether buried by time, accident, or intention. “Votive” isn’t entirely unfamiliar to us now-a-days. That little tea light — the small candle lit to keep your tea pot warm — is often called a votive candle. A votive is any sort of devotional object given as an offering to a divinity, whether a candle or a gilded bronze figurine. A votive offering is a sort of contract with the god. You give your god a gift and offer up a prayer and in return, hopefully, that prayer will be recognized with a blessing of some sort, whether it’s the cure of an ailment, a healthy birth, a fertile crop, or whatever. And a votive also has the real-life practical function of providing the temple or church with a small bit of additional revenue. I think a prayer is up to a buck these days.

So, let’s examine the formal characteristics of the Ra-Horakhty. He’s exhibiting the classic, canonic Egyptian pose for the standing male. This essential form is exhibited throughout the history of Egyptian sculpture, from its inception well into the Greco-Roman era. Notice the broad straight shoulders, arms straight down to his sides, with clenched fists, as though he were originally holding something. Perhaps a rod of some sort or a small sash—two common attributes of office or station. Trace amounts of gilding survive on his kilt, wig, and necklace. Gilding is the fancy word for a thin gold leaf coating. Notice also that despite having the head of a falcon, he definitely has human ears, albeit humorously big ones pushed outward by the wig. Also, if you look really closely, you’ll see his magnificent vanity belt buckle. The gilding here is surprisingly intact. The hieroglyphs read Ra-Horakhty pet netjeru, which mean “Ra-Horakhty, chief of the gods.”

He’s pretty fit too. We may not see the most well-defined musculature, but he definitely has a slender, athletic, idealized, youthful form akin to representations of nearly all the gods and kings. But it’s not entirely realistic and that’s something important to consider. Look at his legs. The left leg is forward. That’s an incredibly recognizable feature of this archetypical pose. But he’s not exactly stepping forward, is he? Otherwise his arms would be swinging to maintain balance and his upper body would be leaning forward too. It’s a little hard to see here, since he’s stuck behind glass and we can’t get a good profile view, but if he were stepping forward in a true stride, his back leg would also be at an angle slightly behind his center of gravity, but that’s not the case here. His right leg is perfectly vertical along his central axis. Both feet are firmly planted on the ground too, so he’s clearly not in mid stride. But realistically what he’s doing is physically impossible without bending his knees and swiveling his hips. The left leg of the figure is actually a little bit longer than the right one, just long enough so that it can reach the ground.

But what’s all this mean? A lot of ink has been spilled on speculations about why the left leg of Egyptian statuary is forward … and it’s invariably the left leg. Is there some secret meaning behind the left leg? Is this an attempt at rendering dominance, a sort of political propaganda or is something else at work? Well, unfortunately we don’t benefit from the Ancient Egyptians drafting treatises on their art, as we do with later civilizations, but one widely accepted theory has to do with Egyptian hieroglyphs. You see, hieroglyphs can be written in nearly any direction, but they’re most commonly found written right to left. Here’s a neat trick if you ever want to know which direction the hieroglyphs are written. Look at the animals or people. They’re always facing the beginning of the sentence. So, commonly the figures are facing to the right, since it’s commonly written right to left. If we recall from episode 9 “Walk Like an Egyptian,” the salient characteristics of the human form are always visible in writing and in relief, so you always see the hidden back leg peaking out from behind the front leg. In a right-facing figure, the left leg then becomes slightly extended forward to be visible out from behind the right leg in the forefront. What’s this got to do with sculpture? Well, as we saw all over the mummy case of Paankhenamun in episode 2, hieroglyphic characters and principles are regularly adapted to reliefwork and three-dimensional sculpture. When seen in profile facing to the right, the Ra-Horakhty and countless other Egyptian statues in this divine canonic pose participate in the uniquely Egyptian experience of the written word being adapted to sculptural form.

I hope that made sense. Keep this pose in mind for next time as we turn our eyes to Greece and the origin of Greek statuary. Thanks for listening to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

13: Ellsworth Kelly’s “Chicago Panels”

Hello again and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. Please bear with me for a minute as I make a brief technical note. If Episode 11: The Parthenon Frieze, Part 2 was the last episode that automatically downloaded to your computer if you’re subscribing to the podcast, then that’s probably because I recently updated my podcast publishing software. Apple kindly decided to rename my podcast’s RSS feed, the link that you use to subscribe, and there’s not much I could do about it. But I did tell iTunes to redirect to the new feed, so for many listeners this may not be a problem any more. If you’re still having trouble with the subscription, though, just try unsubscribing and visit scarabsolutions.com, where you can resubscribe with the correct new link. And if all else fails, you can email me at scarabsolutions@mac.com and I’ll see what help I can offer. If none of this is making any sense, then it may not apply, so don’t worry and just keep listening as always.

So, with that, in the past three episodes we studied the Parthenon Frieze on the Athenian Acropolis in comparison to the Apadana reliefs at the Persian capital Persepolis. While we probably exhausted our interest in that topic for a while, I do want to take just another few minutes to look at the Parthenon Frieze in comparison to another great work of art far removed from Ancient Greece, “The Chicago Panels” by contemporary American artist Ellsworth Kelly. But before we jump in, I need to correct a little mistake I made in Episode 12. When I was talking about the replica of the Parthenon Frieze on the north side of the Art Institute, I mentioned that it’s a replica of sections from the east frieze of the Parthenon. Slip of the tongue, there. I meant to say that these figures come from the west frieze of the Parthenon, the formal beginning to the frieze. The east frieze of the Parthenon, in contrast, shows the conclusion, with the Olympian gods and presentation of the new peplos (that is, if you buy that interpretation).

Described as a master of color and form, Ellsworth Kelly is well known for his quintessential style of large, carefully controlled areas of color exuding a sense of purity in their simplicity. The Art Institute has a rich collection of works by Kelly, including paintings, collages, drawings, prints, and sculpture from throughout his prolific career. “The Chicago Panels” from 1989 to 1999 consist of six painted, monochromatic, curved aluminum panels hung on the walls around the upper level above the sculpture court of the American Art galleries at the Art Institute. Emphasizing pure color and shape, Ellsworth Kelly’s works associate with the architectural setting around them. In the American Art sculpture court, the Chicago Panels interact not only with the walls, on which the panels hang, but also the magnificent floor-to-ceiling Classical Greek style Doric columns along the balcony railing.

The Chicago Panels were commissioned specifically for this interior space. There’s no clear indication why they’re called the Chicago Panels, but the shape and color of Kelly’s artwork are often inspired by familiar objects and phenomena. When you stare at the panels long enough, you might just start to see the familiar shapes of Chicago’s skyline. At least, that’s some people’s take on it. Or maybe the many colors reflect a panel of Chicago’s ethnic diversity. By nature of its formless quality, Kelly’s artwork is very personal, engaging with the viewer and inviting you to participate in interpretation, and that’s what this episode is all about — a personal experience. We recently explored the similarities between the Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana in terms of the way one might have experienced the two works and their sites. Now I’d like to draw a comparison of personal experience between the Parthenon Frieze and the Chicago Panels. When I walk upstairs and around the gallery looking at the panels, glimpsing their partial forms sliced by the intermittent columns, I feel I come close to the same experience a late 5th century BC Athenian may have had when processing alongside the Parthenon glancing up at the frieze. I mentioned last time that the Parthenon Frieze is a sort of Athenian self-portrait mirroring the contemporary act of sacred procession at its feet. Sure, there’s no sacred procession going on in the Art Institute galleries, not regularly, at least, but if you see yourself or your city in the Chicago Panels, you might encounter a similar sense of personal patriotism.

Also, as you walk through the gallery, the Classically-inspired Doric columns break up your experience, providing only obstructed glances of the panels as you look out across the open-air space of the sculpture court below. This almost strobe-like effect of brief, fractured glimpses provides a sense of animation to the panels. Interestingly, there’s no one point in the gallery where you can stand and see all six panels in their entirety. Give it a shot. I’ve tried. There’s always at least just a little sliver of a panel hiding behind one of the columns. Just the same way on the Parthenon, the Doric colonnade breaks up your experience of the frieze, offering you only glimpses of the entire scene. As you process alongside the frieze looking up at the interrupted cavalcade of horses and parade of tribute, the fractured glimpses produce a similar sense of animation, spurring the galloping horses to life. And imagine how much more lively and life-like the frieze must have appeared in its original, vibrant, realistic coloration. Yes, as with most Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, the Parthenon Frieze and the rest of the Parthenon were highly painted.

Ellsworth Kelly may in no way have been inspired by the Parthenon Frieze when creating the Chicago Panels, and I’m not making any claim to that effect. This is just an opportunity for me to explore my own personal resonance with two moving works of art — conscious and subconscious experiences paralleled by ancient and contemporary human achievement.

I hope you didn’t mind our short departure from ancient art. Maybe you even enjoyed it. If you’d like to do more digging, I’ve added a few references on Ellsworth Kelly to the bibliography in the Additional Resources section of SCARABsolutions.com. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org