More sculpture from the Istanbul Archeology Museums

This is a statue of Bes from Amanthus (Cyprus).

Bes (also spelled as Bisu) was an Egyptian deity worshipped in the later periods of dynastic history as a protector of households and in particular mothers and children. In time he would be regarded as the defender of everything good and the enemy of all that is bad. While past studies identified Bes as a Middle Kingdom import from Nubia, some more recent research believes him to be an Egyptian native. Mentions of Bes can be traced to the southern lands of the Old Kingdom; however his cult did not become widespread until well into the New Kingdom.

Modern scholars such as James Romano demonstrated that in its earliest inceptions, Bes was a representation of a lion rearing up on its hind legs.

After the Third Intermediate Period, Bes is often seen as just the head or the face, often worn as amulets. It is theorized that the god Bes came from the Great Lakes Region of Africa, coming from the Twa people (a pygmy group) in Congo or Rwanda. The ancient Twa were about the same height as the depictions of Bes.

Dawn Prince-Hughes lists Bes as fitting with other archetypal long-haired Bigfoot-like ape-man figures from ancient Northern Africa, “a squat, bandy-legged figure depicted with fur about his body, a prominent brow, and short, pug nose.”

Another theory, connected to Bes’s role in both the protection of children and women in labour, is that Bes is the figure of a miscarried fetus. Bes is also known to be wearing a lion skin on his back.

Bes is supposed to be a dwarf — most of statues of Bes are tiny, childsized at most.  This one is gigantic — good 6 meters tall.

My other favorites here are the Kalos — with very Khmer-looking chests; and, of course, the Bull.  Do you have any guesses as to the meaning of this iconography, though (from a 2 c. AD tomb in Sidon):

Two more Hellenic sarcophagi from Sidon (Istanbul Archeology Museums)

Diggins from the Necropolis of Sidon fill five gigantic halls at the Istanbul Archeology Museums. A number of styles are represented, including recycled Egyptian sarcophagi, and the quality of carving is extraordinarily high throughout. Here are two more sarcophagi from the same room where the Alexander Sarcophagus stands.

So-called Alexander’s Sarcophagus at the Istanbul Archeology Museums

The Alexander Sarcophagus is one of four massive carved sarcophagi, forming two pairs, that were discovered during the excavations conducted by Osman Hamdi Bey at the necropolis near Sidon, Lebanon in 1887. Originally thought to have been the sarcophagus of Abdalonymus (died 311 BC), the king of Sidon appointed by Alexander immediately following the Battle of Issus (333), it was demonstrated convincingly by Karl Schefold to have been made before Abdalonymus’s death, its still-classical manner uninfluenced by the style of Lysippos. Some scholars now believe the sarcophagus was made for Mazaeus, a Persian noble and governor of Babylon. Six Ionian sculptors’ hands have been distinguished, working in an Attic idiom, most probably in Sidon.  It now rests behind glass at the Istanbul Archeology Museums.  The quality, accuracy and detail of the carving is absolutely incredible and unmatched by any antique tomb I have seen anywhere.  The sarcophagus was once painted — traces of paint can be clearly seen in several paces — and must have looked a lot like the decor of a South Indian temple.

Fountains of Rome: Delle Tartarughe

Among all the fountains of Rome, this one may be the most charming.

Some old photos of the Bayon base-reliefs

The Bayon is an extraordinary structure, and as such justly famous, but the its real claim to glory ought to be its undeservedly unfamous base-reliefs, executed to commemorate Jayavarman VII’s wars — as well as the lives of his ordinary subjects.

Square headed Khmers duke it out with funny-hatted Chams in a great naval battle on Lake Tonle Sap; while fish, turtles and crocodiles frolic among the lotus; J VII rides in triumph on a great elephant; Brahmins perform gruesome rites; the people eat, drink, dance, and stage cock-fights; and rats pick at oil palm fruit. Old J VII — also known as Ye Ole Square Head — any visitor to Siem Reap is struck by the general ubiquity of this anatomic feature, Old J having been a bit of a lady’s man, too — well, Old J VII really was a bit of a bore — had he lived in the the 20th century, the Anglo-Saxons might have referred to him tenderly as Uncle Jay — so workmen put down the tools the moment they heard of his death: much of the base-relief remains unfinished.

For all that, they’re  a delight.

Some Khajuraho photos (2)

And here is more.

Some Khajuraho photos (1)

Briefly reunited with my old photos, I am amazed at how bad point-and-shoots used to be as recently as five years ago.

All the same, here are some of the Khajuraho temple carvings.  As Indian sculpture goes, with very few exceptions, they aren’t especially great; and many figures repeat — repeat identically — they were mass produced.

Still, a few are good; and at dusk, in the failing light, when you are left alone wondering among them, they do make an impression.

Victoria and Albert: Raffaelle Monti, 1861

There is a Raffaelle Monti at my favorite Lisbon museum — The Medeiros Almedia, here. From which one can see that Raffaelle was a simple man: in business he liked the veil trick: it was relatively easy and — it sold; once he learned it he milked it for all it’s got; workwise, and probably otherwise, he liked the look and feel of plump hands and feet. He probably thought happiness was an uncomplicated thing: nice weather, good food, a balmy afternoon in the company of an agreeable pretty girl — but a flower or a jewel might do in a pinch.  Raffaelle was my kind of guy.

Too bad he felt obliged to add meaning to his work — this one is called — get this — “The Sleep of Sorrow and The Dream of Joy” — and has a subtitle, too:  “An Allegory of the Resorgimento”.  Wow.  I suppose his titles and iconography are somewhat like my commentary here — a bit contrived, surprisingly unoriginal, and — completely irrelevant next to the pictorial element.  Come to think of it, very typical of gourmand middle-aged fellows slight with weight-control problems.

Really.  I should just shut up.

The British Museum: Mausoleum, or, what’s left of it

It was once one of the seven wonders of the world: a monument built by Artemisia, sister-widow of king Maussollos, in his honor. (On account of which filial act, she was reborn in the Renaissance as one of several great queens of antiquity). It survived well into the middle ages, we are told, until an earthquake toppled it, making it free game for anyone in need of building stone. Bits were incorporated into the castle of St Peter, built by Knights of St. John (later, “of Malta”), in what is today Bodrum, Turkey. In the nineteenth century, they were dug up by the British consul and brought here. Sic transit, etc.

The topic of the freeze is feminist — er… malist? —  Greeks fighting Amazons.  The Greeks appear to be winning (in one of the more damaged panels below, Heracles is shown clubbing to death the kneeling Hyppolite, queen of Amazons; very unchivalrous of him, if you ask me) — but, for the moment, the ladies appear to be dealing back as well as they receive. With reason: Hyppolite was said to be an ancestress of Maussollos; and Labraunda, just a little in-land from Helikarnassos, was considered a sacred site by both Lycians and Karians: the sacred labrys — the two-headed axe of Hyppolite, featured on many Karian coins — was housed and venerated there.

As for the horse – it’s from another part of the Mausoleum, though, really, does anyone know which?

Some netsuke from the V&A collection

Like the title say.  Turn it around and look inside and you can just make out the octopus doing the dreaming within:

Clickable gallery of 21 others below. My favorites are the starving dog, the yawning man, and Kenshin thwacking Shingen on the head with what looks like, er…   a flaccid retractable baton?

Victoria and Albert: the Pilon babes

One of the weird (and wonderful) things about the V&A is its plaster-cast collection. This has to do with the origin of the museum as a school of design — a place for poor English artists who could not afford to travel to the continent  to study, observe and sketch great sculpture of the required orthodox canon in 3-D, 1:1. Things like David, of course, but also — these Three Graces by Germain Pilon (French, 1526?-1590), originally carved for the monument containing the heart of Henry II. (Now at the Louvre, see here).  Now, I don’t have to go to the Louvre, then?

Thank God for Tamils


I happened to be looking at a book on Chola bronzes, while listening to K. J. Yesudas, the leading male exponent of Carnatic vocal tradition — weird on wheels if you are new to it — and occasionally referring to wikipedia to look up things like Devaneya Pavanar (who honestly held that all of the world’s languages are but a corruption of Tamil) and Kumari Kandam (the great sunken continent in the Indian Ocean where, you know, the Homo Dravida evolved), when the immensity of this zany delightful weirdness of it all — I have now spent three very long weeks in as boringly colorless, mainstream city as it ever gets, you know — hit me in the face.  And I thought that perhaps you may not have seen enough Chola bronzes in your life.  Which would be a pity.  So here they are.  Thank God for Tamils.  God, do I miss the place.

The images in the gallery above are clickable.

All of them are of Parvati, the female manifestation of Shiva (god is neither male nor female), sometimes represented side-by-side with him (god is neither one nor two).  She’s sometimes worshipped in her terrifying aspect as the demon-slaying, ten-thousand-armed Durga; or, as Durga’s even more terrifying aspect, the graveyard-dancing witch, Kali.  Here’s she is as she appears on her days: just another cute South Indian girl.

Chola bronzes (10-12th century) are rare in the West.  They are usually drowned out by a much more readily available but far rougher and less graceful Vijayanagar pieces (15h century).  The two great collections — the Chennai National Museum and the museum in Tanjavur — are not online and there are no plans to put them there so, for the foreseeable future, this gallery will have to do for you.

Tara, embodied compassion

Nepalese, 16th century. Painted and guilt copper, with semi-precious stones. Note the short legs and the round belly.

The right hand is in the gesture of varadamudra — the gesture of granting wishes.

BBC here has a program on a different Tara — from Ceylon.

Some Sri Lankan and South Indian ivories in British Collections

Prolegomena to a great monograph

A great field of scholarship lies untouched: the subject of the delicate, quirky, understated, and very, very weird Chinese sense of humor. When that definitive ground-breaking monograph is finally written, it may well use as its starting point these Ming Dynasty (17th century) Chinese ivories (about 12 inches tall) in the British Museum.

For instance, look at this guy: he’s thinking to himself something that’s simply cracking him up but — he won’t share it.  (Because the best jokes are private).

Or check out this girl: there is a something faintly ridiculous about her self-assurance.  (A well-poked joke is faintly funny, so faintly, in fact, that it is entirely — deniable.  Those who get it, get it, those who don’t — the custodian doesn’t, he thinks she’s a Guan-In — well, they only make it funnier).

Or check out these two guys — I swear I have seen them somewhere in one of the coffee-houses of Penang — look at the dainty way in which they are holding their little thingies.  And what is that ridiculous head-gear? How could anyone take them seriously?

Actually, half the guys in China look like that:  you just can’t take them seriously.  And you’re not meant to: looking ridiculous is their… camouflage.  Such guys get away with a lot of what they want precisely because no one takes them seriously!

Iranian Mouflonery


I pointed today my Shoes of Serendipity towards a shopfront in Principe Real — one belonging to an art gallery which sports mainly gar… er… contemporary art — which is why I routinely pass it with a hurried step while averting my gaze — only to see through the window (the gallery was of course closed) this: an Iron Age Persian mouflon, bronze with silver (?) inlay, dated to ca. 900 B.C. (!) TWO FEET (60 cm) high!


Holy… goat!

How they came by it I have yet to discover (I will try on Monday, if the gallery should deign to open their doors on such a… mundane day). Why they display it — too. The piece is absolutely unique in the world, they say, and, goodness gracious, yes, are they right about that!

The Portuguese and their ivories

Ivory, like opium, is a kind of disease of the mind and it falls upon unsuspecting nations at unexpected times. It fell once upon the Byzantines (there is a fantastic plaque at the Musee de Moyen Age — not featured on their website, of course, why would anyone do such a thing, eh? — probably sponsored by its hero, of a Byzantine consul opening the games in Constantinople circa 420 A.D.); later, the spore was inhaled by the Arabs, who passed the disease unto the French; then, the disease went into hibernation until the unsuspecting Portuguese inhaled it and — it possessed their brain in turn.

Portuguese ivories are usually referred to as Indo-Portuguese, though individual pieces may be credited to Goa (India, like the one above), Macao (China), Sri Lanka, the Philippines, or West Africa.  Perhaps the best of these is a crucifix at the Casa-Museu Dr. Anastácio Gonçalves, in Lisbon, which, on its strength, should well be termed Museum of One Item (the rest of the collection being perfectly forgettable); the museum of course does not reproduce it anywhere — why would they? — but they hold the work to be Sri Lankan.  A very good also-ran in this category is the crucifix in the outdoor chapel of the Palacio de Marqueses de Fronteira just outside of Lisbon, also not reproduced anywhere, and credited by them to Senegal.  (How?  Who knows?) Now, these are not the sweet, lifelike Italian Jesuses (“feel my pain”), but strange creatures with elongated, unnatural features — weird and otherwordly — as should be expected of a divine being.  (The 16th century Portuguese were not just crypto-Jews…  they were also Monophisites!)

OK, I just lied.  The two Portuguese crucifici are absolutely superb, but they are bested — double-Nelsoned in fact — by two other Indo-Portuguese works, both at the Museu Nacional d’Arte Antingua (MNAA) in Lisbon:  the Macao Virgin (I can’t find her anywhere either, but I am going to photograph her in violation of the museum rules for your pleasure next time I go there to visit) — and

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