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Lady of Auxerre

Statue of a woman, known as the "Lady of Auxerre," Eleutherna, Crete(?), Greece, c. 650-625 B.C.E., Daedalic style, limestone, 75 cm high (Musée du Louvre)

Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[music] [Dr. Zucker] We're in the Louvre, in Paris, and we're looking at a small, freestanding sculpture. A figure that's often known as the Lady of Auxerre. [Dr. Harris] This is a Greek figure, likely from the island of Crete, but she was found, hence her title, in the French city of Auxerre in the basement of a municipal museum. So we really don't know about her findspot. [Dr. Zucker] There's some conjecture that she may have come originally from a cemetery in Crete, which would mean that she was a funerary sculpture, but we're not sure. It's possible that she was a votive figure, that is, a figure that was meant to honor the gods. And some scholars have even suggested that she might be a goddess herself. [Dr. Harris] This period, in the 7th century, is referred to as the Daedalic. And that name comes from the legendary sculptor Daedalus, who was said to be from the island of Crete. [Dr. Zucker] This is a stylistic period that comes before the Archaic and parallels the Orientalizing style in ceramic decoration. [Dr. Harris] And in so many ways, she really does seem to prefigure the Archaic figures that recall core freestanding female figures that were sometimes representations of goddesses, sometimes votive figures, offerings to the gods... This columnar female figure who is very frontally oriented. [Dr. Zucker] And abstracted. Her head is flattened, the face is relatively flat, the eyes are almond shaped. [Dr. Harris] "Flattened" is a good word here, because the front of her body appears flattened-- although we do her breasts-- and even her hair has a flattened effect on either side of her face, and the top of her head also seems flattened. [Dr. Zucker] But these are not unique characteristics to this sculpture. This is consistent with other sculptures of this period and of this area. [Dr. Harris] This is carved out of limestone. We're used to seeing Greek sculptures as white marble, but we now know that these sculptures were generally brightly painted. [Dr. Zucker] One of the most delicate aspects is the incising. And we can see it most obviously in the square patterns in the front of her dress, but you can also make it out in the wrap that she wears around her shoulders and that move down one side of her arm. [Dr. Harris] And you can also make it out in the very wide belt that she wears and even in that collar underneath the shawl. What strikes me is that this is a very idealized figure; this is not meant to be a portrait of the deceased person whose grave this may have marked. This is a figure shown, very much like later Greek figures in the Archaic and Classical period, at the prime of life. She is beautiful, she's young, she looks strong and healthy. Her waist is very narrow... She's very feminine. [Dr. Zucker] And the corners of her mouth are upturned in an expression that is sometimes referred to as the "Archaic smile," even though this is before the Archaic period. Some art historians have conjectured that this may be an expression of well-being, of happiness, or perhaps a kind of transcendence. She feels so formal. Her feet are together-- [Dr. Harris] That hand, in front. The other hand, that seems almost glued to the side of her body. But, unlike, earlier Egyptian figures, she's freed from the stone. We have space between her body and her arms, which is an important part of this very early Greek tradition, which we'll see in Archaic Greek art. And despite all the abstraction in her body that we just talked about, there's something very lifelike about her, especially in her face. And I think that would have been even more true when she was painted; if we imagine the pink of her lips, or painted pupils in her eyes, or her hair painted brown... [Dr. Zucker] One of the reasons that a figure like this fascinates art historians is because we know what happens next. She stands at the beginning of this long history of Greek sculpture, which reaches levels of brilliance that we've admired for thousands of years after. We're seeing an early figure here, but one that, with all of the hindsight that we have, offers extraordinary promise. [music]