chapter  6
20 Pages

A WOMAN’S PLACE: Femininity in narrative art

A statement often made regarding images of women in the ancient Near East is that female imagery does not appear on public art. According to this thinking, it follows that if art is a public enterprise, and thus a masculine domain, female imagery was logically relegated to the private sphere. Naturally, beginning with such a premise will structure interpretations of works of art and their function in specific directions, so that often if an object bears an image of a woman the archaeological interpretation becomes ‘private object’. However, like so many definitions of art genres derived from other times and places, the neat division of public/private upon which we rely cannot be upheld in relation to the Mesopotamian material. At the simplest level, for example, one might define cylinder seals, a distinctive Mesopotamian artistic genre, as the most public form of art, certainly more public than the reliefs from the Neo-Assyrian palace walls, although art history generally categorises Assyrian reliefs as public art (e.g. I.J. Winter 1981; Pittman 1996) and cylinder seals as private art simply on the basis of the scale of the carvings involved. If public and private spheres can be subdivided according to greater or fewer possibilities of viewing access then these categorisations need to be rethought. Cylinder seals and the multiple sealings they produced were no doubt seen by far more people than palace art, and can thus be described as being truly in the public realm, since few restrictions on ownership existed beyond the ability to pay for a seal as a personal object. And access to viewing seal impressions was even more widespread across levels of society, since sealing practices were a common aspect of daily business transactions and legal contracts. Conversely, sculpture in the round, generally assumed to be a universal form of public art, is likewise a genre that is not always public in Mesopotamia. The female votive images discussed in Chapter 5 are a case in point. While some would wish to see in these images an exceptional form of public art devoted to representing known historical women (Schlossman 1976), such votive images served a more restricted religious function, although one might hesitate to refer to it as private.