Head of a child

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Head from a complete free-standing statue of a little girl. The face is clearly of an infant with chubby cheeks. The head is simply decorated with a ribbon which is circling curly locks. Of note is the suggestion of a cheerful smile.

This head was probably part of a complete statue that served as an ex-voto. The most direct parallels, both in size and for the style, are the sculptures of girls found in the Temple of Artemis of Brauron, now conserved in its Archaeological Museum.

Brauron was one of the twelve cities that the mythical king Cecrops set up in Attica and later were unified by Theseus into Athens. According to the legend, Iphigenia left a wooden statue of Artemis, which she had brought from Taurica, in the sanctuary of Brauron, where she was a priestess. Furthermore, according to a local tradition, it was at Brauron that Iphigenia was to be sacrificed, but was replaced in the sacrifice, thanks to Artemis, by a bull or a bear.

It was a city famous for its sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Artemis, founded in in the 9th to 8th century BC. The excavations revealed places of worship such as a cavern; the tomb of Iphigenia, which resembles a grotto; next to this a small sanctuary, a heroon where Iphigenia was worshipped and where she was offered the clothing of women who died during childbirth. Other buildings in the sanctuary included a temple, a parthenon, a gymnasium, an amphipoleion (residence of priests), a palaestra, stables and an important sacred spring. Later, in the 3rd century BC, the River Erasinos entirely covered the site, thus conserving the site, situated as it was at the mouth of the river.

One of the most interesting discoveries about the cult of Artemis Brauronia is that it was dedicated to women. The maiden goddess Artemis protected the newly born and young women during childbirth, the most important moment in their lives, given that the death rate for women giving birth was rather high, just as was that for the babies.

The largest building in the sanctuary was the “Stoa of the Arktoi” or the “Hall of the Bears”. It had 12 rooms and each one held eleven wooden beds and seven tables. It has been suggested that it served as a dormitory for young women or perhaps it was a refectory where collective banquets were held. In front of these rooms many statues of children were found, dating from the 4th century BC. This indicates that at that time Artemis was principally the goddess of work and protector of children.

The parents probably dedicated these statuettes of small children as offerings in gratitude for a safe birth or in the hope that a child would recover from some illness. The idea was to put the child under the protection and supervision of the goddess. The children in the statues can be seen wearing everyday clothing: a chiton or a himation; holding an animal - a rabbit or a bird – in their arms or some other object, possibly one of their favourite toys.

Some of the details of the rites and festivities that were celebrated at the sanctuary are known through literary sources, also through representations found on ceramic vases and reliefs on marble friezes still extant. Girls between eight and ten spent some time in the Brauron sanctuary where they danced, raced and learnt to weave, to be prepared as well as possible for their adult lives. It was, therefore, not just a religious centre, but also a centre of learning.

They attended the festivities of the “Brauronias”, these being just for women and held every four or five years. These began with a great procession departing from the sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia situated on the Acropolis of Athens. The girls had to undergo a rite in honour of Artemis called the “arkteia”, which served as a transition between infancy and adulthood: to expiate the death of a tamed beard dedicated to the divinity, the girls were dressed out in saffron coloured gowns; they were given the name bears (arktos) and had to imitate the gestures of the animal. Virgins could not be married off unless they had previously served as bears to the goddess.

Given the iconographic evidence available where girls are represented running, it is believed that one of the rituals practised in the sanctuary was a race where either being clothed with a chiton or running naked marked the different stages of initiation of the virgins; or that at a certain moment of the rite the girls let their robes fall to the ground; or perhaps they were playing a chasing game in which one took the role of the bear and the other its prey.

PARALLELS:

- Sculptures of children. Museum of Archaeology of Brauron, Greece.
- Christie’s. Antiquities. New York. Sale 1314. 11 December 2003. Lot 159. See link.

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