Venus of Central Asia: Time Travel

Issue #1 • 1559

Woman’s image is the classics in the world of art; all cultures and civilizations turned to this theme, as exemplified by famous masterpieces now belonging to the treasury of artistic heritage. Historically, in Central Asia, this image has been treated in a special way that reflects specificities in the region’s cultural development.

The earliest figurines known as Palaeolithic Venuses were shaped as a nude female body with emphasized reproductive organs. The figurines occurred on the large part of Eurasia, and a significant number of them were found in southern Turkmenistan. The earliest figurines from Jeitun (Neolithic, 5000 BC) are moulded less skilfully: they are as schematic and plain as can be. Eneolithic brings greater variety of character types: on the one hand, the specimens are more realistic and lifelike, indicating good knowledge of anatomy and care in representing nude body; on the other hand, the shapes are schematic and conventional. Over time, recognizable feminine features give way to generalized formulas. Search for a universal character-symbol results in even more conventional images; finds dating to the third millennium BC often depict women without characteristic features, with no hands, in a sitting position.

In the Bronze Age, in place of voluminous feminine figurines again come the flat ones, with a focus on the silhouette. Aspiration to develop the most capacious canon leads to the appearance of originally reduced heart-shaped figurines, where the shoulder line identified by an ornamental necklace also represents hips, while breasts and legs are absent.

The diversity of nude female figurines poses a natural question of their purpose. The first finds discovered back in the late 19th century were believed to have an aesthetic function. Over time, opinions divided. While some, with renewed zeal, argue for the entertaining purpose of the Palaeolithic Venuses as the first toys in the history of man (1), others are convinced they had religious and magical function (2). Most art historians consider the figurines to be the attributes of ritual practices related to fertility (childbearing). Figurines personified a certain universal image of mother-goddess, progenitor and protector of all living things, the keeper of the hearth. This interpretation is suggested by “facelessness” (Palaeolithic) or, conversely, exaggerated and accentuated eyes “symbolizing spiritual power and divine nature” (3, p. 147) of the figurines (Bronze Age), as well as by their “attributes”. The latter include circular pattern on some body parts – numerous concentric circles with a dot in the middle, or stylized herring-bone design representing the Tree of Life motif running along the torso. The explicit comparison of the female body with a fruit-bearing tree or vessel containing a developing fruit allows seeing it as a guarantor of procreation and the giver of life. Not profanity but sanctity, not personality but the notions of fertility and continuity of life – this, in our view, is the right approach to the interpretation of the ancient figurines.

The first millennium BC (Early Iron Age) is considered a terracotta-free period, as no sculptured figures dating to that time have been found. However, in Antiquity, we again come across nude female images; this time researchers link them to the influence of Hellenistic culture rather than to the continuation of the Bronze Age traditions.

It is well known that Ancient Greece maintained the cult of a perfect body – its beauty identified with the beauty of spirit and man’s inner world. Nudity of antique statues demonstrated person’s greatness and had nothing to do with immorality. Still, the female images, with the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite (Venus is her Roman equivalent) as a benchmark, can be seen as more worldly than sacred; they tend to be more lifelike and credible, showing sensuality – this powerful cosmogonical force that helped the orderly world to develop from chaos. Along with the Hellenistic traditions and customs, the “female” theme comes to Central Asia where it is most vividly expressed in figurines showing female figures, mostly of the goddesses of Greek or local pantheon. Unlike bronze and marble Greek beauties, the local goddesses are made of terracotta and much smaller. These figurines picture females with little clothing (earlier and rare specimens dating to the 3rd c. BC – 1st c. AD from Merv, Barrattepa, Kampyrtepa, Khalchayan, Samarqand, etc.), or in Hellenized vestments, such as folding tunic or himation cloak (3rd c. AD, Barrattepa, Dalverzintepa, etc.).

One of the most remarkable iconographic techniques is shown in a figurine with the gesture of Venus de Medici, as aptly defined by S. Tolstov (Janbas-kala, Khorezm), holding a pomegranate, a symbol of fertility, in her other hand. Another wonderful specimen is a gold figurine of half-nude Bactrian Aphrodite from the Tillyatepa burial mounds near Shibirghan (1st c. BC – 1st c. AD, Northern Afghanistan). These burial mounds belonged to the Yuezhi nobility, members of the dynasty that founded the great Kushan Empire. These finds prompt a conclusion that local masters were familiar with the work of Greek sculptors and still introduced their own vision of ideal beauty. For instance, the Bactrian “Aphrodite” is stouter and more heavyset; she has round face and slanting eyes, and her forehead is adorned with Indian tika. Here, the single work of art comprised three canons: the local Bactrian, Hellenic, and Indian, thus reflecting the developments in political history and artistic culture in ancient times. Greek vestments were also “worn” by local female deities, which were many in the polytheistic Central Asia.

The vast majority of Central Asian monuments depicting male and female characters was associated with Dionysian theme. The Dionysiacs, festivities in honour of the eponymous god of viticulture and winemaking, and, more generally, in honour of ever-renewing nature, were held during winter solstice, when, after the longest night, days began to grow, and also on the vernal equinox heralding the victory of day over night. It was believed that from the day of the winter solstice nature’s “male power” started to rise and a new life cycle began, while the spring equinox was associated with the complete “dying” of winter and the awakening of all living things.

Dionysiac festivals smoothly entered local calendar, as Central Asian people had long been celebrating winter solstice and vernal equinox that had given rise to local cults and rituals, especially Navruz, the New Year of the East (March 21). Instead of statuary figures, local Dionysian characters were primarily wrought as small sculpture. For instance, rhytons with carved friezes on Dionysian themes are typical for the culture of ancient Parthia. In Bactria, it was mostly primitively sculptured figures no higher than 10-12 cm, representing satyrs, sileni and Pan, with accentuated masculine features and indispensable beard as symbols of rampant natural force. A separate terracotta group includes male and female characters playing music on Pan’s flute, a harp or a lute (Kampyrtepa, Dalverzintepa, 1st c. BC – 2nd c. AD). It was believed that musical instruments, primarily wind instruments, were “the integral part of human breath, and thus of sensuality” (6).

Perhaps, the most remarkable specimen of the Dionysian theme in local sculpture is a fragment of a female torso nude to the waist, from Dalverzin (2nd-3rd cc. AD), invoking a direct association with the statue of a maenad by Skopas (first half of the 4th c. BC). Local sculptor sought to represent with maximum accuracy the plasticity of a female body partly covered with draperies, which accentuate, rather than conceal, the lines of the figure. The lightness and weightlessness of the fabric, as well as the character’s dynamic and unconstrained posture are very convincingly portrayed in clay.

For Central Asia, another source that inspired sensual female images was India; in the early centuries of Anno Domini, its north-western regions were part of the Kushan Empire. In Kampyrtepa they discovered a statuette of a couple in a pose known as mithuna (Sanskrit for “couple”, “twins”) – the subject common in India and the Middle East. However, while the Indian version is naturalistic, with attention to the sculptural modelling of the bodies, the Bactrian artefact is more static, gravitating to conventionality. This distinction shows the specificity of artistic canons of Bactria and India. Although both places experienced Hellenistic influence, sensuality is more expressed in Indian images, while the Bactrian ones show aspiration for the symbolism of forms ever-present in Oriental culture.

Over time, images of nudity get displaced from Central Asian monuments, and the Hellenistic and Indo-Hellenic sculpture gives way to purely oriental pictorial canons. Figurines become stylized and completely hidden under the drapes, which gradually turn into a rigid frame concealing the figure. As a result, already in the early centuries of Anno Domini, female figurines once again can be seen as representing more cosmological notions related to the ideas of fertility and continuity of life. This interpretation applies to a very specific group of terracotta depicting women with coiling snakes (Marghiana). They “wear” some kind of Greek chitons, but their facial types – sometimes with a tika on the forehead, and their stocky proportions gravitate to local iconography. Researchers consider the story behind to be the synthesis of a female fertility deity cult and the cult of the snake, which, being itself a classic symbol of fertility, functions as guardian for the main character. According to V. Meshkeris, “the iconography of the Margiana goddess represents a symbolic notion about the sacred marriage of the serpent-god with a female creature” (4, p. 41).

To understand the semantics of this group of figurines it would be interesting to draw a parallel with earlier Bactrian and Marghiana amulets and ritual vessels of the Bronze Age, where snakes, on the contrary, act as abductors of the life-giving substrate of animals (camel, ox). The myth of its abduction by snakes was connected with the idea of universal fertility and the continuation of life on earth (5, p. 116).

Thus, the Greco-Roman and Indian influence was subjected to continuous exposure to local ideals and perceptions, which regarded nudity as a mythological notion, rather than something grounded and mundane.

In early Medieval period, the notions of sensuality in Central Asian art were still sourced from the Greco-Roman and Indian cultures. For instance, the famous silver bowl from Chilek with curvaceous dancers on it (5th-6th cc.) is performed in the Guptian tradition (Gupta dynasty of India: y.320 – IV c.). The theme of dancers at the king’s feast was very common in the art of many countries – from the Byzantine Empire to India, which inherited the tradition of Dionysian festivals. In the Zartepa (Tokharistan) settlement they also found a 5th-6th century stamp, probably showing a maenad lifting the hem of her dress. This find confirms that medieval Central Asia preserved Dionysian traditions, which were probably transformed into some form of symbiosis with the local fire-worshiping cult. It should also be noted that local dancers were famous for their skill all over the East. As regards the indigenous themes, they concern images more acceptable and important for local mentality: primarily the themes of “divine” power of the king and of the great multi-handed goddesses – protectors of every living thing.

Islam introduces adjustments to the ancient culture, and new ethical standards and strict moral commandments result in significant transformations in this domain. The display of physical appeal becomes an intimate act practiced only in private chambers guarded day and night. Still, artists find another way to visualize the experience: they use… ornament.

The identity of the divine and the feminine beauty manifested itself not only in pictorial art, but also in poetry. О. A. Sukhareva noted: “The specificity of Sufism as reflected in Sufistic poetry is the glorification of the divine represented through the image of a woman. Sufi poets portrayed the mystic union with the divine as a love union with a woman, the “divine beauty” was glorified as physical feminine beauty, and the abstract notion of faith was symbolically described in the poems as love for a beautiful woman” (8, p. 48). A developed abstract thinking could transform arabesque patterns into a rather adequate analogue of our heroine, Venus of Central Asia. Eventually, both the refined islimi ligature, and the image of a beautiful goddess equally originated from the common notions of the beauty of the world – earthly and heavenly, the forces of fertility and the perpetual renewal of life.

The information content of Islamic ornament was not just about notions of sensuality; its uniqueness was precisely in its comprehensiveness and infinite content related to the propagation of the paramount postulates of the religion. Thus, the most important image in Islamic ornament was the classic Koranic symbol – the beautiful Garden of Paradise, where the greatest of pleasures – forever young black-eyed houris – await the righteous. Chastity and sensuality, the love of God and love for a woman – all come together, creating the spiritual and aesthetic domain of Islam. In the Sufi tradition, the earthly love and love divine blended into an integral whole, ultimately representing the relation of human soul to God.

With the development of refined court culture in the time of the Temurids with its ​​indulgence towards idleness, luxury and secular entertainment, mundane subjects began to appear on the pages of manuscripts, in miniature painting and murals, yet still preserving their latent sacral interpretation (9).

As for the folk art, it retained its extremely capacious symbolic interpretations of the feminine element as a symbol of fertility and childbearing: autochthonous tradition originating from the dawn of civilization lived almost to the present day, despite all influences. Arts and crafts dating to the late medieval period strongly support this conclusion. Thus, among the jewellery of the Turkmens and the Uzbeks of Khorezm and Bukhara we find asyk – women’s silver pendant, usually the size of a palm, worn on the back of the head, between braids. According to popular notions, asyk functioned as a charm protecting young woman bearing a child. It was given to the bride as a wedding gift and was meant to strengthen and protect her reproductive function. The shape of asyk resembled a heart, so the jewellery was believed to be the symbol of true love. However, the piece has another, very ancient prototype: asyk is nothing but the already familiar terracotta figurine with narrow torso and wide hips from the Bronze Age. It is amazing that the image has never disappeared from the art of the region for more than four thousand years! In the centre of the anthropomorphic shape of asyk there is a cornelian stone incrustation symbolizing the foetus; it can be seen as analogue of a circular design from the Bronze Age. Overall, the semantics of the jewellery is linked to the notion of fertility. Urban-style asyk were no longer massive pieces worn on the back of the head; instead, they were wrought as delicate pendants decorated with vegetable islimi motifs and worn on the chest.

The image of our heroine, the Palaeolithic Venus of Central Asia, is also coded in the shape of traditional Uzbek earrings and abr textiles; it can be found in the Karakalpak embroidery and Uzbek carpets dating to the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This far from exhaustive overview prompts an observation that sensuality still was not an “ancestral” autochthonous feature of the traditional art of Central Asia; in the interpretation of female characters, generic prevailed over individual, sacral – over secular. The reason, as one may see it, is that in the context of local cultures the notion of “collective” always prevailed over the notion of “selective”. For centuries, the nation’s mentality developed as part of collective consciousness, with canonical art as a model; as a result, nude female image was seen more as cosmogonical symbol, as original mother of the humankind and a metaphor for fertility, rather than real character. This was true in early antiquity, in the period preceding the Arab conquest, and, finally, during advanced Middle Ages. However paradoxical, it was in the era of Islam – first, during the “Muslim” Renaissance (10th-12th cc.) and later on under the Temurids (15th c.) – when the theme of sensuality and hedonism became the most vocal in the court art, which, however, remains accessible only to a narrow circle of those in the know.



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