The Fertile Goddess
Who is she? A goddess, a ritual object, a votive offering, a vehicle for working magic or fulfilling wishes, a talisman for protection, a teaching or initiation device, or simply the embodiment of a cultural ideal of the female form? The Fertile Goddess includes nine ancient female figurines from the Museum’s collections, one of which, made by people living in northern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Syria in the late fifth millennium b.c.e., is the oldest sculpture in the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition explores the role of such figurines as a source of inspiration for Judy Chicago’s depiction of the Fertile Goddess, the second place setting in The Dinner Party. The tenth figurine, made by Chicago in 1977, is a contemporary evocation of the very oldest female forms from the Paleolithic Period, such as the iconic Venus of Willendorf.
In creating the imagery for the Fertile Goddess place setting, Chicago was galvanized by the feminist reexamination of ancient female figurines in the 1970s and scholarship that understood them as symbols of women’s prestige and power in the ancient world. Feminist and gender theory have influenced archaeology considerably since Chicago created The Dinner Party. A new wave of archaeologists who apply innovative methods to the study and excavation of these figurines often challenges previous interpretations and nomenclature. Nonetheless, thirty years later, for many feminist artists and scholars, as well as practicing Wiccans and Neo-Pagans, the significance of goddess images has acquired a life and mythos of its own apart from the archaeological record.
The identity of these ancient nude female figurines is an ongoing question. Their breasts, bellies, buttocks, and thighs are always emphasized or portrayed schematically and, except for seated figurines, none of these figurine types were made to stand, suggesting that they were originally in prone positions when used, or were carried or required supports. Despite stylistic variations in different cultures over time, similar conventions for such figurines persisted for millennia throughout the ancient world. The same figurine types are often found in tombs and in domestic and sacred contexts, suggesting they functioned on multiple levels for the living and the dead. The current use of the term “female figurine,” as opposed to “idol” or “goddess,” acknowledges the many functions and meanings that have been ascribed to ancient female figurines.
—Madeleine E. Cody, Research Associate in Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art, and Maura Reilly, founding curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum
Ancient Female Figurines and Provenance
Provenance is the history of ownership of a work of art. For an ancient object, documentation of its site of origin and context of discovery becomes of paramount importance. Antiquities enter museum collections through archaeological excavations, as gifts or loans, or by purchase. Early in the twentieth century, it was customary to divide finds between excavators and host countries; this practice often brought objects with archaeological provenance into museum collections. Today, all finds are retained in their country of origin, and the goal of excavation is to acquire knowledge, not objects to exhibit. Brooklyn Museum curators now check an object’s history to determine if its acquisition follows international, U.S., and country-of-origin laws and professional ethics codes before a purchase or the acceptance of a gift.
Ancient female figurines have always fascinated and appealed to viewers; many entered museum or private collections soon after they were discovered. Of the nine figurines on view here, only two were scientifically excavated. Apart from one long-term loan, the rest were either acquired when unprovenanced material was less of a concern to museums, or were gifts—interestingly, all from female donors.
For many ancient female figurines, the archaeological provenance and context is not known and can only be guessed at by comparison with excavated examples. Modern excavations carefully record exactly where an object was found along with associated objects and features, even microscopic plant and animal remains. Such an archaeological context can provide essential evidence for authenticity, function, and dating that cannot be determined from the object alone. Historically, analysis of these figurines as objects without context has led to a multiplicity of theoretical interpretations about their significance, role, and agency in the ancient cultures that created them. Recent scholarship has begun to consider provenance and archaeological context a vital issue for understanding ancient female figurines.