Cycladic marble idol

Simplicity and Form: Cycladic Idols

Simplicity and Form

Cycladic Idols

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“Both simple and attractive in the design, this Cycladic marble statuette conveys a seductive power to the modern artistic taste…”

According to the chronological and typological systematization of Cycladic canonical figures (reclining female figures with folded arms), this marble statuette belongs to the earliest stage and is assigned to the Kapsala variety (designated after the cemetery on the island of Amorgos where the first examples of the type have been uncovered).

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Based on the execution of details and rendered proportions, the present figure was attributed to an anonymous sculptor named the Kontoleon Master, who was probably a native of the island of Naxos (the artist’s name is derived from the archaeologist Nikolaos Kontoleon, who excavated in the Cyclades). The characteristic features of the Kontoleon sculptor’s style are fully recognizable in this work. The long oval face has broad cheeks and a plastically rendered nose (some examples demonstrate painted facial details and hair). The neck is rather long; the softly round shoulders and the folded arms frame the pointed breasts set just above the tapered forearms. The long thighs are contrasted with short calves which are modeled naturalistically. The knees are also indicated plastically; the feet, with lightly arched soles, are small and only partially separated. On the back, the spine was prominently incised. The profile of the figure, which is not thin, presents a group of forms differentiated by a special arrangement. This distinctive style developed by the sculptor is based on the combination of rounded forms and shapes modeled by planes and lines. The exact meaning and function of these Cycladic idols are not known, supposedly, they were votive offerings or ritual objects.

Figurine carved from a very thin and narrow piece of white fine-grained marble. Typologically, this is a beautiful example, albeit small in size, of a canonical “FAF (Folded-Arms Figure)” statuette, among the most famous artistic manifestations of Cycladic art in the Early Bronze Age.

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The female figure is characterized by an elegant and slender silhouette; the outlines are stylized, and the body is composed of simple geometrical shapes. The head, supported by the cylindrical neck, is triangular and tilted backwards at the top, with a long straight and prominent nose, below which a horizontal line represents the mouth. The torso is rectangular, but the shoulders are sloping; the widely spread breasts are barely visible and the abdomen shows no trace of pregnancy. The exceedingly long legs terminate in two small feet with rounded tips, without any visible indication of the toes. Apart from the knees, indicated by slight curves, and the buttocks, indicated by a horizontal projection on the lower back, the other anatomical details are expressed only by incisions: the rectangular arms, the triangular pubis, the legs separated by a simple vertical notch.

FAF statuettes are classified, according to stylistic criteria, into five groups that differ mainly in their proportions and sizes. Our example belongs to the so-called Dokathismata type. Compared to the statuettes of the Spedos type, the most common and renowned version (characterized by finely modeled and somewhat rounded shapes), the statuettes of the Dokathismata type have a definitely slenderer silhouette, sometimes angular, but whose general appearance conveys an impression of formal elegance. As demonstrated by our example, even the elements related to sexuality and fertility – whose great importance in the iconography of women in the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods is attested by the voluptuous and generous shapes – are represented in a stylized and simple manner.

The more linear silhouettes and the absence of any modeling compared to the Spedos type are probably indications in favor of a later dating; figurines of the Dokathismata type are generally dated to the second half of the 3rd millennium B.C., approximately between 2400 and 2100 B.C.

Despite the strong beauty and seductive power that they convey to the modern artistic taste, prehistoric Cycladic crafts, and marble statuettes in particular, still remain enigmatic as regards their use(s). These “idols” (which come almost exclusively from necropolises, when the location of their discovery is known) have been successively seen as concubines for the deceased, mourners, substitutes for human sacrifices, nurses for the deceased, representations of revered ancestors, toys to be taken to the afterlife, figures enabling or helping the transition to the afterlife, etc.; other scholars connect them with the Great Mother, a goddess of procreation and fertility, worshipped from the Neolithic in the Near East, in Anatolia and in Central Europe.

In the light of the recent specific studies on their polychrome decoration, some scholars are formulating new ideas on the meaning of these statuettes. It seems that, behind their remarkable unity of style, these figurines probably conceal various purposes that cannot be clearly understood today. According to P. Getz-Gentle, the discoveries on the use of color allow us to attribute to them a more active role than previously thought. Such “idols” – scientific research proves that their polychromy was regularly completed or restored – seem to have been linked to fundamental stages of the life of their owner, as if they had accompanied him throughout his life. They would have embodied a protective being, definitely feminine and maternal (related to a sort of a patron saint, according to P. Getz-Gentle), commanding natural phenomena and events that were most often inexplicable to the ancients: the cycle of life, the astronomical phenomena, the seasonal cycle and the fertility of the land, the sea, etc.

Other scholars think, on comparing the role played by some divine representations in other civilizations, that these Cycladic statuettes would have played an intermediary role between the believer/owner of the “idol” and the deity, like a kind of medium allowing, at certain stages of life, humans to enter into contact with a superior being.

“The more linear silhouettes are the indications in favor of the Dokathismata type...”

“Scholars connect them with the Great Mother, a goddess of procreation and fertility, worshipped from the Neolithic period...”

Cycladic Torso of an "Idol"

The statuette, with slightly protruding breasts and lines of the pubic triangle emphasizing her femininity, belongs to the group of Cycladic “idols” usually represented nude and standing upright, legs slightly bent, arms clasped on the belly, the head tilted backwards, and the face (on which the nose only is sculpted) featuring a regular, oval shape. This piece, although fragmented, is especially attractive thanks to its artistic qualities. It demonstrates a very delicate manner of carving and a fine sense of stone itself: one cannot miss how beautifully the natural veins of marble suit the shape of the human body.

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The elegant and smooth proportions are also emphasized by thin linear incisions or by slightly rounded volumes, which express other anatomical details: base of the neck, spine, lower buttocks, and fingers. The deep notch between the legs shows a thin, elongated opening between the thighs. Typologically, this is a beautiful example of a canonical FAF (Folded-Arms Figure) statuette. It belongs to the so-called Early “Spedos” variety, which represents the highest level of prehistoric Cycladic sculpture, towards the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C.

Nowadays, prehistoric Cycladic art is famous mostly for these statuettes, whose design is both simple and attractive. Despite the strong beauty and seductive power, they convey to the modern artistic taste, these figurines still keep many secrets, since their real purpose remains unknown. These “idols” (which come almost exclusively from necropolises, when the location of their discovery is known) have been successively seen as concubines for the deceased, mourners, substitutes for human sacrifices, nurses for the deceased, representations of revered ancestors, toys to be taken to the afterlife, or figures enabling or helping the transition to the afterlife, etc.; other scholars connect them with the Great Mother, a goddess of procreation and fertility, worshipped from the Neolithic in the Near East, in Anatolia and in Central Europe.

Behind their remarkable unity of style, these statuettes probably hide various purposes that cannot be clearly understood today. According to P. Getz-Gentle, recent studies on their polychrome decoration allow us to attribute to them a more active role than previously thought: these figures would probably have embodied a protective being, definitely feminine and maternal (related to a sort of a patron saint), who commanded natural phenomena and events that were most often inexplicable to the ancients: the cycle of life, the astronomical phenomena, the seasonal cycle and the fertility of the land, the sea, etc. Other scholars think, on comparing the role played by some divine representations in other civilizations that these Cycladic statuettes would have played an intermediary role between the believer/owner of the “idol” and the deity, like a kind of medium allowing, at certain stages of life, humans to enter into contact with a superior being.

This statuette is carved from a beautiful gray marble. Contrary to other stone Neolithic figurines, this example is well balanced and can even stand on its own: suggesting that this “idol” was probably sculpted for the express purpose of being positioned and seen vertically. It is an excellent and carefully executed example of a rare but recurring type in Aegean Neolithic marble art; the standing female with arms symmetrically opposed.

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The structure of the figurine is a surprising study in contrasts: the generous contours and the relatively large dimensions of the legs are balanced by the upper part of the body, which, despite a certain amount of stylization, is modeled more naturally and in a less exaggerated manner. The impression of abundance given off by this sculpture is expressed not only by its volumes but also by the groupings of rounded lines that characterize the silhouette and the anatomical details (oval face, shape of the biceps, stomach, line above the thighs, buttocks, etc.).

The cylindrical neck supports an oval face with a soft, but still pointed, chin. The rectilinear nose is plastically indicated, while the mouth (a slight groove under the nose) and the horizontal eyes are incised. The ears are simply indicated by a line that follows the curve of the jaw. Above the face, a rectangular protection might be interpreted as a headdress, a small polos of sorts. The shoulders and the folded arms form a large, slightly raised rectangle with rounded edges, precursors to the design of the crossed arms on the Cycladic figurines of the Bronze Age. At the ends of the arms, a flat area marks the placement of the hands, which are clearly separated from one another; two very schematic horizontal incisions mark the presence of fingers. The chest is covered by the bulging arm muscles – especially the biceps; the back of the torso is flat, but an incised line outlines the precise contours of the arms. Below the waist, the female silhouette abruptly thickens to form many folds of fat around the abdomen, the buttocks and the tops of the knees. The pubic area is delicately outlined by two triangular incisions and bordered by the prominent, rounded stomach; the navel is not shown. The structure of the legs differentiates between the buttocks and the thighs with a horizontal incision that also indicates the placement of the knees. The line separating the left and right legs starts at the top of the public area and continues to the buttocks; at the tops of the knees, this line transforms into a deep groove that separated the figure’s calves and ankles. The feet are simply two flat stumps, without any indication of toes.

Although stylistically completely Neolithic in its design, this figurine exhibits a certain formal evolution compared to other statuettes from the same period: the many details of the face, the small polos and the well-modeled torso – even though it still retains the basic shape of an elongated rectangle- are elements that allow us to base the dating of this example to the final phase of the Neolithic Period, probably around the 5th Millennium. Seen straight on or from the back, the silhouette already seems to resemble the so-called Plastiras statuettes, a precursor to the famous Cycladic figurines with crossed arms from the 3rd Millennium.

These types of statuettes, in both terracotta and stone, have been found in all the principal regions of the Greek world, both continental Greece and the islands (Macedonia, Thessaly, the Peloponnese, Attica, the Cyclades, and Crete). Stylistically, the more elaborate treatment of the head (anatomical details, polos) may hint at a more specific place of origin for this “idol”: it is particularly in Thessaly in central Greece, that such details are a typical feature of Neolithic sculpture.

Anthropomorphic figurines are among the best known and most appreciated creations of Neolithic Greece: they were most often made in terracotta, while the stone (marble) or shell examples were much rarer and probably came a bit later. Their size ranges between 10 and 15 cm, although they can sometimes reach very large dimensions. Although statuettes of men and animals exist, the female figurines are clearly the most well-known. They can have widely varied poses (standing, seated on the ground, on a chair, holding an infant in their arms), but they are largely dominated by two positions: standing or seated with the arms crossed. The representations reflect two artistic tendencies that coexisted throughout the Neolithic: a more naturalistic style (cf. this statuette) and a more schematic one with cursory limbs and without anatomical details (cf. for example the figurines shaped like violins).

Their significance is a subject that is still debated today; archaeologically, the Neolithic figurines come almost exclusively from inhabited sites and not from cemeteries: therefore, one can exclude a funerary use. The places where they have been found are most often related to the production of different types of objects (“workshops” of jewelers, potters, toolmakers, weavers) or to the preservation and preparation of foodstuffs (storage lofts, ovens). Based on these clues, the tendency today is to place these figurines in relation to ritual and magic (e.g. protection for the food) or to the transmission of scientific knowledge and skill from one workshop to another. It is also possible that theses statuettes and models were meant as toys for infants, serving an educational purpose but possibly also one of initiation.

One of the most popular theories suggests a religious significance: they are thought to represent the Great Mother Goddess, who, during the Prehistoric Period, was a pivotal mythological figure. She was the protector of human fertility and the fecundity of the herds and fields; this figure was worshipped over a vast and wildly varied geographic area, from the Near East to Central and Western Europe. The exaggeration of the figurine’s sexual characteristics and their voluptuousness of form are the best argument in favor of this hypothesis.

“These types of “idols” with over-exaggerated female forms are usually referred to as steatopygous (which is Greek for "large buttocks").”

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