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Work Part of a lintel: head of a god

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Arabia

Elément de linteau : tête de dieu

© 1997 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Near Eastern Antiquities
Arabia

Author(s):
Franceschi Isabelle

This head of a man crowned with rays and entwined with vines comes from the sanctuary of Si'a on the Hauran Plateau south of Damascus. It adorned the center of the lintel over the main door of the temple of Baal Shamin, whom it probably represents. This basalt sculpture is a regional expression of an indigenous art influenced by the Nabataeans, whose civilization flourished from the 1st century BC, from northern Arabia to southern Syria.

A fragment of architectural decoration

This fragment of sculpture in high relief formed part of an architectural element of the temple in the sanctuary of Si'a dedicated to the Aramaean god Baal Shamin. Lord of the heavens, protector of nature, and guarantor of fertility, he became the principal deity of the Syrian pantheon. Placed at the center of the lintel over the main door of the temple, this head of a beardless young man crowned with rays has been interpreted as a representation of the sun god or of Baal Shamin himself. The shoots entwined over the forehead are the ends of the vine branches that curl over the whole door-case. The work exhibits the characteristics of the regional style that developed on the Hauran Plateau between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD in the use of basalt, the simplification of the volumes of the face, the ears placed high on the head, the wide, pupil-less eyes, emphasized by a raised edge above and below, and finally the fixed expression of the mouth.

The Hauran and the Nabataeans

In the 1st century BC, the Hauran formed part of the kingdom of the Nabataeans, nomadic pastoralists of Arabian origin who became prosperous as a result of the caravan trade between the Mediterranean and the seas about Arabia. Their wealth led them to change their mode of life, becoming sedentary. They extended their sphere of influence over almost the whole of the Levant south of Damascus. Present in the Hauran since the 3rd century BC, they made this volcanic region of fertile plateaus - a rich agricultural province growing wheat and vines - the second economic and cultural pole of their kingdom, later to become an essential part of the Roman province of Arabia.

A highly specific regional style

The prosperity of the region allowed vast programs of large-scale construction, encompassing public buildings and religious sanctuaries that testify to the existence of a distinctive indigenous culture. With the use of basalt - the local stone and only available material - there developed local schools of sculpture. Favoring relief over sculpture in the round, these artists looked to Hellenistic models, which they translated in a severe and powerful style born not only of the resistant nature of the stone but also of a distinctive expressive intention. They produced a rich sculptural decoration, more exuberant than that of Greco-Roman architecture. Entablatures, pediments, and lintels were thus emphasized with a decoration of scrolling vines, an iconographic theme dominant in southern Syria, a land of vineyards since Antiquity. On these were superimposed heads, such as this of a god crowned with rays, and busts of other figures. The style of these reliefs is characterized by the simplification of the highly geometrical volumes, frontality, and the graphical treatment of detail.

Bibliography

Caubet Annie, Aux Sources du monde arabe : l'Arabie avant l'Islam. Collections du musée du Louvre, Paris, Institut du monde arabe, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1990.
Le Levant. Histoire et archéologie du Proche-Orient, Cologne, Könemann, 2000.
Un Royaume aux confins du désert, Pétra et la Nabatène, Exposition, Muséum de Lyon, 18 novembre 1978-28 février 1979, Lyon, Muséum d'histoire naturelle, 1978.

Technical description

  • Elément de linteau : tête de dieu

    Dernier tiers du Ier siècle avant J.-C.

    Hauran, Si'a, temple de Baal Shamin (Syrie du Sud)

  • Basalte

    H. : 16,70 cm. ; L. : 20,40 cm. ; Pr. : 13 cm.

  • Don Waddington et Marquis M. de Vogüé, vers 1880

    AO 4997

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Arabia: Arabia Felix, Arabia Deserta, 7th century BC–3rd century AD
    Room 19, temporarily closed to the public

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