Sumerian Alabaster Statuette of a Worshipper
Culture: Near-Eastern, Sumerian
Period: Early Dynastic II, ca. 2700 - 2500 B.C.
Dimensions: H: 30.4 cm
Ex-American private collection, pre-1970 ; Ex-English private collection ; Dorotheum Wien, Auktion, 6. Dezember 1997, n. 137.
In classic Mesopotamian style, this personage is dressed in a kaunakes (an article of clothing made from the fleece of a sheep or goat or from tufts of wool, which takes the form of a tunic or skirt), which descends to just above the ankles ; the left shoulder is covered by the tunic while the right is bare. The kaunakes has a vertical slit to allow for greater ease of movement and to allow freedom of the left arm ; the border of the garment is smooth.
The sculptor favored a strictly frontal view : the profile of the piece shows a singular lack of thickness. The equilibrium and stability of this piece is achieved by the counterbalancing effect of the gap between the feet and the calves at the base. This is a very beautiful example of a Near Eastern statuette, characterized by the finesse of the carving but also by the large rounded leaf-shaped contours that make up the kaunakes : this piece feels less rigid and schematic in its dress than many comparable figures.
The face is that of a bald, beardless man with young, idealized features : the smile on his face is almost cheerful with a remarkable serenity of expression. The eyes were inlaid in shell (?) while the irises may have been in lapis lazuli. The arched brows, which are connected, are indicated by a deep channel, originally filled with black bitumen. Therefore, the face was polychromatic.
The dress of this fi gure is the most diffi cult element to decipher since generally, Sumerian men wore the kaunakes in the shape of a skirt and left their torsos bare, while the one shouldered tunic was reserved for women or, in rare instances, for worshippers/bearers of gifts and some figures of royal rank (cf. for example the fi gurine of King Lamgi-Mari in the Aleppo Museum). The arms are folded and positioned across the chest, which is lightly modeled, forming a trapezoid with the lines of the shoulders. The folded hands and the crossed thumbs are a typical Sumerian gesture. The general posture of this personage corresponds with that of the worshipper (orant(e)s in French, Beter in German) one of the most ancient and most famous motifs in all Mesopotamian sculpture. Many Mesopotamian temples were filled with numerous figurines of men and women that the faithful commissioned and dedicated to the different divinities as symbols of their devotion and to assure a constant reverential presence before the god. These ex-votos were left at the foot of the altar or on an offering table ; often they were found in favissae (repositories), where they were deposited so as not to crowd the temple or sanctuary and to create space for new dedications. These statuettes were offered by important court offi cials or administrators, by cult members, by the well off (for example merchants or high ranking dignitaries), even by members of the royal family. Sometimes they bear inscriptions on the back that give the name and rank of the owner.
Figures of worshippers were present throughout Mesopotamia: stylistically, this statuette can be placed in context with a small group of female figures that come from the temple of Sin (the god of the Moon) at Khafaje, a city situated at the entrance to the Diyala Valley, a tributary of the Tigris.
AMIET P., Art of the Ancient Near East, New York, 1980, pp. 359-365, n. 248-297.
BRAUN-HOLZINGER E.A., Frühdynastische Beterstatuetten, Berlin, 1977, p. 40, nn. 106-108 (Stilstufe Ib).
FRANKFORT H., Sculpture of the Third Millennium from Tell Asmar and Khafajah (OIP 44), Chicago,1939, p. 68, nn. 106-108, pl. 76-77.
Highlights of Historic Objects offered by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Sotheby’s New York, 2007, pp.158-163.
For the Mari statuette and for the gift bearers, see :
AMIET P., Elam, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1966, pp. 181-182, n. 132 (man with an over the shoulder tunic) ; pp. 190-192, n. 141-142 (kid bearers, Louvre).
Syrie, Mémoire et civilisation, Paris, 1993, p. 124, n. 107 (King Lamgi-Mari).