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Work Lid of a pyxis with mistress of the animals

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Levant

Lid of a pyxis with mistress of the animals

© 1998 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Near Eastern Antiquities
Levant

Author(s):
Caubet Annie

This lid is that of a pyxis which would have originally held face powder. It is decorated with a relief of the Mistress of the Animals feeding wild goats. Her layered garb and curled hair, as well as the rocky landscape, show that the Levantine artist was inspired by Mycenean art.

The Mistress of the Animals

This lid forms a circular scene. In the center, a female figure is holding out ears of corn to two wild goats standing on their hind legs. Many works of art from Greece and the Levant depict female figures dominating wild or tame animals. Such scenes, which might at first glance appear to be straightforward depictions of female goatherds, are in fact generally understood as expressions of a belief in the symbolic powers of nature. A smiling young woman, her arms bent symetrically on either side of her chest, is holding out ears of corn that the two goats are nuzzling. Her profile, with the nose a continuation of the line of the forehead and her hair arranged in curls, is reminiscent of works from Crete and Santorini, as is the band with a spiral at the center of her forehead and the long wavy lock of hair at the top of her head. The costume is also pre-Hellenistic in inspiration. Her breasts are bare and she is wearing a necklace and a loose skirt made of decorated panels. She is shown sitting on a small stepped stool. Her legs are in profile, but her torso is shown face-on. The step on the right is hidden by a notched cone, on which the goat is resting its right foreleg. There is a similar object beside the goat on the left side. It is not clear what these objects represent. They may be stylized rocks like the one the young woman is sitting on, which is likewise full of holes. The entire scene was originally ringed with a decorative trim of overlapping scales. The two goats are mirror images of each other, standing on their hind legs as if in the act of stepping forward. They each have one front hoof on a cone of rock, the other close to the woman's elbow. Their bodies are powerful and slender, and the hooves are carefully detailed. Their beards are pointing forward, and their mouths are open, ready to eat the ears of corn.

The influence of Cretan art

The theme of the Mistress of the Animals is common throughout the eastern Mediterranean region, while this particular symmetrical yet dynamic presentation is typical of the Mesopotamian tradition and was also adopted in Syria. The details of the woman's costume and curled hair, as well as the straight line of the nose and forehead in profile, were borrowed from motifs found in pre-Hellenistic art from Crete. These motifs spread thanks to the expansion of Mycenean culture from mainland Greece to the Greek islands and the coast of western Turkey and the Levant. Ugarit artists were familiar with this international civilization. This small piece, doubtless the treasured possession of some Ugarit beauty, reflects the cosmopolitan character of this Syrian kingdom at the end of the second millennium BC.

Ivory in art

This disk was originally the lid of a cylindrical box made from an elephant tusk. The lid was cut out of a slice sawn vertically from the pointed end of the tusk. The box was cut from the thicker end of the tusk where there is a natural cavity containing the dental pulp tissue. The artists of Ugarit were experts in carving ivory from both elephants and hippopotamuses to produce all sorts of precious objects, such as powder boxes (round like this one or in the shape of a duck), combs, spindles, musical instruments, and parts of pieces of furniture. Elephant tusks and hippopotamus teeth were shipped in from Africa and Egypt across the Mediterranean, as proved by the cargo found in a ship wrecked off the coast of Turkey some time during the thirteenth century BC.

Bibliography

Schaeffer Claude, Ugaritica I, Paris, Librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1939, frontispice, pl. I et XI, p. 3.
Poursat J.C., Les Ivoires mycéniens. Essai sur la formation d'un art mycénien, De Boccard, Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome Première série, Paris 1977, p. 144.

Technical description

  • Lid of a pyxis with mistress of the animals

    Thirteenth century BC

    Minet el Beida, port of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra), Syria

    The Levant

  • Elephant ivory

    D. 13.7 cm; Th. 12 cm

  • Allocated to the Louvre after the Schaeffer excavation, 1929

    AO 11601

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Levant: coastal Syria, Ugarit, and Byblos
    Room B

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