Ah, Vienna

In May I fulfilled a long-held ambition to see the ancient Cypriot collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, as the highlight of a whirlwind visit to the city. The building in which the Museum is housed is truly spectacular, and merits a visit on its own account.


Interior of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

An outer room featuring large-scale limestone statuary leads into a gallery filled with ceramics and smaller terracottas; what first caught my eye were these wonderful Late Cypriot Base Ring figurines.

Base Ring figurines s

Base Ring figurines © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I particularly liked these askoi in the shape of a stag and a non-specific animal – the tail should give a clue, but I can’t quite place it.

Stag askos s

Askos in the shape of a stag © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Animal askos s

Animal-shaped askos © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

There were also fantastic White Painted vessels such as this one, in amazingly good condition, with multiple tiny loop-holes, for string? It’s difficult to picture how it might have been used.

String loop vessel s

White Painted string loop vessel © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I was also very taken by this bird-shaped askos – it does have the appearance of a sitting bird protecting its nest (though there is definitely something pie-shaped about it as well – reminscent of RAMM’s ‘Devon pasty chicken’).

Bird form askos s

Bird-shaped askos © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

There were plenty more birds on view – from a rather rotund example on a Bichrome pyxis to an elegantly striped long-legged waterfowl on a White Painted jug which itself resembles a bird.

Painted bird s

Bichrome painted bird © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


Bird on White Painted jug © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This Proto-White Painted Ware askos is more conventionally duck-shaped, and is quacking with its body angled forward on webbed feet.

Bird askos

Bird-shaped askos © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Some of the terracotta groups were also enchanting, such as this Cypro-Archaic scene showing a baker’s dog taking a close interest in the baked goods.

Baker s

Terracotta group of baker and dog © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This Cypro-Archaic figurine is very helpful in interpreting a fragmentary figurine from the Leeds City Museum collection. The object held by the LCM figurine is broken, but we can be fairly confident that it is a small animal like the one below, and not a hide, as has been suggested.

Cypro-Archaic figure s

Cypro-Archaic figurine holding a small animal

LCM figurine s

Cypro-Archaic figurines from Leeds City Museum. © Leeds Museums and Galleries

I’ve been giving some thought lately to ancient Cypriot figurines and the most effective ways of displaying them. It was interesting to see this fragmentary figurine displayed with a modern reconstruction of the lower part of the body; I’m not sure how recent this reconstruction is. It does help to give a clearer idea of how the figurine would have appeared, but could it be perceived as misleading? There are several different approaches to displaying fragmentary figurines in this case – some unmounted, some on small wooden plinths, and the central figurine, with its large kalathos, having some of its original stature restored by a perspex mount.

Figurines s

Display of terracotta figurines © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Overall, the gallery was very impressive; as befits a museum of art history, the objects are all beautiful as well as fascinating. The background lighting in the gallery is low, with individual objects brightly lit, and the colour scheme is red – the overall effect is quite dramatic, with the objects casting strong shadows, as can be seen above. I’m reminded of L.P. di Cesnola’s 1872 display of his collection at G.L. Feuardent’s on Great Russell Street in London: he wrote

‘The walls at my request have been painted dark red with pedestals and shelves of the same color and the statues make a grand and striking aspect indeed’.¹

The Kunsthistorisches Museum has a fantastic website with much better photos than these, and all kinds of additional information, which is well worth a virtual visit – see Room 1 of the Antikensammlung for the ancient Cypriot collection. Next on my list is the Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm, though it might take me a while to get there!

¹ Quoted by O. Masson (1992) ‘Diplomates et Amateurs d’Antiquités à Chypre vers 1866-1878’, Journal des savants pp.123-154 (p.147).




A Bronze Age figurine in the Leeds City Museum collection

I recently visited the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh for the first time. It’s an amazing building with an incredible variety of collections; I could happily have spent days there. The World Cultures galleries don’t have a major focus on ancient Cyprus, but I did track down a few Cypriot items in the context of ancient Egypt.

National Museum of Scotland World Cultures gallery © National Museum of Scotland

National Museum of Scotland World Cultures gallery
© National Museum of Scotland

As well as a very nice Mycenaean stirrup jar, similar to the one in the Leeds collection, and another Base Ring juglet, I was delighted to see this female figurine (on the left of the photo above). There is a similar figurine in the Leeds City Museum collection (below), sadly lacking her head and her legs below the knee.

Bronze Age female figurine © Leeds City Museums

Bronze Age female figurine
© Leeds City Museums

We don’t know when or where this figurine was found, but on stylistic grounds it can be dated to the 15th – 14th century BC. It may have looked something like this example from the Met Museum, New York.

Bronze Age female figurine © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Bronze Age female figurine
© Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The head would have been ‘bird-like’ in appearance with a sharply beaked nose, round eyes, and large ears pierced with several rings. I still have hopes of coming across it in the stores one day! The navel doubles as a firing hole, to allow the release of hot gases during the firing process – a practical and creative solution.

Figurines such as these were generally found in tombs. The emphasis on their female characteristics has led to much speculation about their significance and functions; the pose of the arms and hands draws attention to the breasts, and the incised decoration emphasises the pubic area rather than suggesting any form of clothing. An earlier view was that they were intended as concubine companions for the (male) deceased on their journey to the afterlife:

‘If the blatant display of pubic triangle seems more lusty than bereaved, perhaps they were anticipating a long trip. The deceased might appreciate a few diversions.’

(Desmond Morris, The Art of Ancient Cyprus, 1985).

It’s tempting to speculate that this tells us more about C20th attitudes and assumptions than about the figurines themselves. Today they are viewed less as ‘diversions’ than as significant in their own right, associated with fertility, regeneration and rebirth. They may represent a primal Cypriot fertility goddess, who over time, and under influence from East and West, became assimilated with Astarte, Ashtoreth, and Aphrodite. This type of figurine may originally have been based on Syrian models; the Levantine influence is apparent from these Syrian Bronze Age figurines in the Ashmolean Museum’s collection.

Syrian Bronze Age female figurines © Ashmolean Museum

Syrian Bronze Age female figurines
© Ashmolean Museum

Even without her head, this is one of the most speaking pieces in the Leeds Museum collection. I hope in the future to uncover some information about her journey to Leeds, and the people involved.