Mesopotamian votive figure
What is it that makes these votive works so gripping? Their symmetry, their stare, what they are doing or not doing?
From the available evidence it seems that these small statues were body-surrogates to be presented in the place of the worshipper in the shrine of a god (whether this was Anu, God of the firmament; Enlil, God of the air; or Enki, God of the waters). They carry the sense of rapt absorption that envelops one when in the presence of numinous power: a materialisation of the feeling of being in the presence of the unexplainable, the ineffable, the unknowable.
You might say this is the wide-eyed look of someone dumbfounded; someone made mute and tremulous in the face of power. This is what art can do with us, but in a postmodern age we are not supposed to fall prey to awe. A contemporary reading might be that this is the viewer struck dumb by spectacle. This is an idol that conveys the power of idolatry redolent of what can happen when Moses’ third commandment, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image’, is disobeyed.
I love its fearful but rough-hewn symmetry. More of these votives were made than any other form of Mesopotamian sculpture. There is a crudeness that comes from repetition, but also a clarity that comes from a form that has been essentialised. Its eyes were originally inlaid with lapis lazuli, but without it they still stare. The fingers may be ciphers, but they still hold. And what do they hold? An empty vessel or the offering of blood, sweat and tears?
There is a vulnerability as well as strength in the work. There is power but also supplication, but perhaps even more, of the very nature of sculpture. The stillness of someone who waits is also the stillness of a sculpture that waits for you, to project your feelings, thoughts and empathy on to its silence. This was made as a surrogate for the presence of the man who could not, like it, wait forever.
Henry Moore made an early work, Girl with Clasped Hands (1930), that was inspired by this example. It speaks of the power of objects, of the power of he who can wield objects. Alberto Giacometti made a sculpture of a being holding something: Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) (1934). Gabriel Orozco made a photo of himself holding a small, red, fired terracotta lump moulded in the space between his hands: My Hands Are My Heart (1991). All these pieces hark back to the mystery of what this worshipper is holding and what he is seeing that cannot be pictured: it is his life that he holds in his hands and that he offers to the unseeable.
Facts & figures
Votive figure. Mesopotamia. Western Asia, Early Dynastic II (c. 2700 BC). Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 330.
Marble, shell or bone, lapis lazuli. h 31.1 cm. Acquired 1953.
Other collection highlights
Head of a Woman (Anna Zborowska), Amedeo Modigliani
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Dream Amphora, Jean Arp
A sculpture of detached beauty, created shortly before Nazi invasion forced Arp’s flight from France to Switzerland
Khmer female torso
This magnificent limestone torso from a temple in Cambodia is a superb stone rendering of female beauty