3 minute read

Gender in Art

From Antique Through Classical Art

Intellectual perceptions of masculinity and femininity have Terracotta relief of "The Queen of the Night," southern Iraq, c. 1800–1750 B.C.E. In many male-dominated cultures, such as that of ancient Mesopotamia, strong female figures were often associated with seductiveness and the destructive sexual sway they held over men. BRITISH MUSEUM (NO. ANE 2003-7-18, 1), © JAMES DARLING /REUTERS /CORBIS been transformed into visual arts since antiquity. Female fertility and motherhood, as well as gender relationships, are prevalent themes in ancient depictions. One of the earliest pictorial examples of gender presentation is the faceless Paleolithic statuette Venus of Willendorf (c. 28,000–25,000 B.C.E.). This is a depiction of a female figure in a symbolic and conceptual context, representing feminine fertility. In a sculpture from Pakistan the figure of Hariti, the ancient Buddhist Indian goddess of childbirth and women healers, is presented surrounded by children. The exposed breast of Venus and Hariti's emphasized breast emerge as pictorial symbols of fertility and motherhood.

Gender representations in male-dominated cultures are often determined by notions of power and weakness, superiority and inferiority, benevolence and malevolence. This is exemplified in the figure of the Mesopotamian deity Queen of the Night, in an old Babylonian relief from around 1800 B.C.E. She might be as well the deity Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of sexual love and war, or Ishtar's sister and rival, the goddess Ereshkigal, who ruled over the underworld. Other scholars believe the female figure represents the demoness Lilitu, known in Jewish tradition as Lilith. The nude female figure embodies a monolithic notion associated with women for ages and in diverse cultures, that of female sexual power and its asserted destructiveness.

Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds (gospel book; 1262) by T'oros Roslin. Tempera on parchment. During the Middle Ages depictions of the Virgin Mary symbolized contemporary notions of the feminine ideal—a mother devoted to the spiritual concepts of chastity, humility, piety, repentance, and salvation. THE WALTERS ART MUSEUM, BALTIMORE

Gender relations address both the intimate interactions and the social roles of men and women. An Egyptian relief of Tel el Amarna from around 1335 B.C.E. depicts the Egyptian royal couple Smenkhkare and his wife, Meritaten. His wife is depicted giving him flowers and expressing her affection yet at the same time illustrating her submissive marital position. While both figures have similar proportion and pictorial emphasis, the emperor's status is clearly designated.

In classical art, gender qualities associated with women are beauty, domesticity, and passivity and for males the contrary principles such as power, dominance, and social status. Antique art presentations of male nudity, such as in Greek sculpture, underline the physical perfection of the male body, representing superiority and civic authority. Yet domestic and everyday scenes depicting roles of men and women had less importance than symbolic representations of gender. In the antique world gender attributes served to emphasize and elevate the human and superhuman characteristics of gods, goddesses, and mythological figures. This becomes especially prominent in classical art. In ancient Greek depictions of Centauromachy (the mythological battle of the Centaurs with the Lapiths), notions of masculinity are transformed into battling figures that are half-man, half-animal. Goddesses such as Pallas Athena, Aphrodite, and Nike combine both male and female attributes to signify their dominance. Roman Sixteenth-century portrait Simonetta Vespucci by Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521). Italian Renaissance portraiture typically served to idealize the subject rather than serve as a realistic representation. The snake around the subject's neck symbolizes the dangers of temptation and lust. © BETTMANN/CORBIS reliefs, sculptures, and coins, depicting emperors and empresses, often relate the figures to gods and goddesses, or they personify gender-specific virtues. Female figures in Roman art frequently represent virtues such as justice or piety or symbolize wisdom and victory.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGender in Art - From Antique Through Classical Art, Middle Ages, The Renaissance And The Baroque, Eighteenth And Nineteenth Centuries