Idols: The Power of the Image

Some four to six thousand years ago, well-settled humans in various parts of Asia and Europe devoted considerable amount of time and effort to figurative art that has strong cultic or religious associations. This post highlights a few examples of these early masterworks. Their geographies span a very wide area, from India/Pakistan to the Near East (Mesopotamia and the Levant) and Europe. Collectively, the artworks date to between 6,000 BC and 2,000 BC, and despite being widely separated in time and space, many of the figures show striking similarities in the way their models are depicted. Some of the figures also look surprising “modern” , and indeed, have been a source of aesthetic inspiration for modern-day artists like Picasso, Brancusi, and Giacometti.

Aesthetics aside, these ancient images provide us with a fascinating window to a fascinating past, one marked by epochal changes in the way ancient people organize their lives not only physically, but socially, politically, and spiritually.


Female idol of the Kilias type, western Anatolia. 4500 – 3500 BC. Marble. 15 cm. Giancarlo Ligabue Foundation, Venice, Italy.

During the 3rd millenium BC, artisans in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) sculpted shapely marble figures of females such as this one. These Bronze Age figures were distributed over a large part of western Anatolia, and probably served as cult figures used in fertility rituals. The present figure has the typical Kilia features: a bulbous head, slim body and wide hips. The head is slightly tilted backwards in what has been described as a “star gazer” pose. An incised triangle emphasizing the pubic area confirms the statuette’s identity as female. Although Kilia figures are less well known than the Cycladic figures off mainland Greece, the predate the latter by at least a thousand years.


Cycladic figure of a female, Cyclades Islands, Greece, marble, 3rd millennium BC. Collection of the Ligabue Foundation, Venice, Italy.

This figure of a female comes from the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea off Greece. It is made of fine white marble and dates to the Bronze Age, circa 2800-2200 BC. The Cyclades developed a complex culture characterized by an extraordinary tradition of figure sculptors like this one, characterized by a distinctly minimalist aesthetic.

The present figure depicts a pregnant woman with arms resting just above her belly. It is generally assumed that the feminine image was that of a Mother Goddess who had the power to control mysterious phenomena such as birth, death, sickness, the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and so on. The figures may also have been used in shamanic rituals during events related to puberty, marriage, conception, pregnancy, childbirth, sickness and death.


Cruciform figure, Cyprus, picrolite stone, 4th millenniumBC. Collection of the Ligabue Foundation, Venice, Italy.

Cruciform figures like this are characteristic of Cypriot sculptural images from the 4th millennium BC. More than 100 examples of this form are known. Most are made from picrolite, a green-blue soft stone. This figure is carefully balanced, with the composition centered on the breasts, from where the long neck and head soar. The arms are unique in their pointed shapes and grooved decoration.


Bearded figure carved from hippopotamus ivory, Egypt, V–IV millennium BC, Museo Egizio, Turin

Egypt had its own original approach to the Neolithic revolution. A small number of graceful figures in painted clay survive; both male and female, were represented with explicit sex organs during the Badari (4400–3700 BC) and Naqada (3700–3000 BC) periods. They never were quite as ubiquitous or integral in ritual practices as those made in the cultures of the Mediterranean and Western Asia. Variously interpreted as dancers, triumphant or bird figures, these uniquely expressive images elude us as to their significance, social function and usage. Their production appear to have stopped at the end of the predynastic period, and then from around 3000–2900 BC, when the state-controlled organization that was to become the Pharaonic civilization was in construction, similar figures reemerged, bearing the artistic influence of the Levant and Mesopotamia, and reflecting the broadening of social and trade ties between Egypt and its neighbors near and far. A nude statuette (below), carved in lapis lazuli, a stone imported from Afghanistan, illustrates the extent of the far-reaching network of exchange and contacts between Egypt and Asia.

Standing female figure with crossed arms, Egypt, Hierakonpolis, “Main Deposit”, Temple enclosure. Naqada II – Early Dynastic period (ca. 3300–3000/2900 BC). Lapis lazuli and wood, H. 8.9 cm. The visitors of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology – Oxford University, UK.


Plaque idol, Iberian peninsula, Granja de Cespedes, Badajoz. Chalcolithic period (IV millennium BC). Slate, H. 20.4 cm, W. 12.9 cm. Museo Arqueologico Nacional, Madrid.

This small sculpted and engraved cylinder is an “eye idol” from the Iberian peninsula, present-day Spain and Portugal, at the western end of the Mediterranean, and is dated between the fourth and the third millennia BC. These idols are shaped like elongated stone or marble cylinders with engravings. Most of the “eyes” have small eyebrows over them, and sometimes curved vertical lines on each side that frame the hypnotic gaze.


Standing female statute, Indus, Balochistan. Mehrgarh VII style (ca. 2700–2500 BC). Terracotta, H. 15 cm, W. 6 cm. Ligabue Collection, Venice.

The first cities of the Indus valley civilization were discovered in the first half of the 20th century by the excavations of John Marshall, Ernest Mackay and M.S. Vats on the two major sites of Mohenjo-daro in Sindh and Harappa in Punjab, cities that date to between 2500 and 1900 BC. With other contemporary sites like Chanhu-daro and Amri in Sindh or Lothal and Kalibangan in India, these sites yielded an impressive number of figurines, mostly in terracotta.

This terracotta female figurine with a bald head and broad shoulders is a rare example of its type. Heads of this type have been found in numerous sites of Balochistan. The occurrence of the bald head calls to mind a funerary purpose for such figures. The figure also share striking similarities with stone sculptures from Mesopotamia (Iraq) of the third millennium BC.


Standing nude “king-priest”, Southern Mesopotamia. Uruk period (ca. 3300–3200 BC). Musei Civici agli Eremitani – Museo Archeologico, Padua.

The city of Uruk (Warka) in Southern Iraq is the most impressive example of an early urban centre. By the end of the fourth millennium BC, it reached a size of over 200 hectares, and accomodated well-equipped ceremonial quarter of monumental proportions. Uruk, was also the center of some of the earliest written texts known so far.

At its height, Uruk’s influence spread over vast sectors of the Near East, from Southeastern Turkey to Northern Syria, Northern Iraq and Western Iran. These influences included both changes in social and political organisation as well as in art and spiritual life as seen from this male figure conventionally known as “king-priest”, a ruler who is believed to have direct access to the gods in his role as a mediator between the sacred and the secular. As such, such figures are typically depicted in larger size compared with other characters in the composition. They also wear special attires, headdress and belted skirts that immediately identify them as king-priests.


Female figure, southwest Arabia, basalt, 4th millenium BC. Collection of the Ligabue Foundation, Venice, Italy.

This figure comes from south-western Arabia and represents a Mother Goddess. Nude and sumptuously voluptuous, she dates to the end of the 4th millennium BC, making her one of the earliest idols of the ancient world. Made from basalt, the figure is obviously carved to evoke a sense of the monumental. The rendering of the eyebrows and the position of the arms crossed under the breasts are unique to prehistoric Arabia. 

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