Images and Gender: Contributions to the Hermeneutics of Reading Ancient Art

By Albenda, Pauline | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, July-September 2007 | Go to article overview

Images and Gender: Contributions to the Hermeneutics of Reading Ancient Art


Albenda, Pauline, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Images and Gender: Contributions to the Hermeneutics of Reading Ancient Art. Edited by SILVIA SCHROER. Orbis Bibilicus et Orientalis, vol. 220. Freiburg: ACADEMIC PRRSS, 2006. Pp. 383, plates. FS 98.

In 2004 an international symposium was held in Bern, which focused on the value of pictures for the reconstruction of women's history in antiquity (Near East, Israel/Palestine, Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire). An outcome to the interdisciplinary conference is the book under review. The volume consists of sixteen papers, ten in German and six in English. The book's editor, Silvia Schroer, who emphasizes the point that pictures have a right to be seen as a language in which cultural codes are conveyed, presents the introductory contribution. She gives an overview of the other papers published in the present volume, all of which use a subject-concrete approach that singles out the specific visual imagery of women of a particular culture or epoch. The papers are grouped under four headings. They are: "Setting the Field" (Lewis, Asher-Greve, Bickel, Schroer); "Gender, Nakedness, Nudity" (Asher-Greve and Sweeney, Assante, Stahl, Kreilinger, Dasen and Ducale-Paarmann); "Status and Power: Royal Women" (Weiershauser, Lohwasser, Scheer); "Status and Power: Mothers and Priestesses" (Schwyn, Lindner, Sanchez). Within each category the papers are presented in an approximately chronological order.

Since the papers are grouped to accord with a thematic heading, the reader is allowed to focus on related image-types of women that were created in the course of centuries and even millennia. This arrangement also allows us to compare and contrast female images that fit into a single category, but which may have different intended meanings within the context of their cultural setting. The authors' careful descriptions and study of the relevant material, as well as their stated conclusions, demonstrate that female imagery is an important resource for the understanding of gender roles in ancient societies. Several papers give interpretations of the female image that may be open to further discussion or debate. Brief outlines of the individual papers are given below. They are listed in geographical/cultural order, as an aid for those readers who may have an interest in a specific historical period.

Five papers treat aspects of gender study in Mesopotamian art. Asher-Greve studies the visual records (seal designs, reliefs, and sculpture) of the third millennium b.c.e. as a reflection of the social hierarchy of women in society. Nine categories of rank are distinguished in the performative images of women. In their co-authored paper. Asher-Greve and Sweeny take a cross-cultural approach to the study of the unclothed body and its representations in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian art. Based on the contexts in which they appear, "nakedness" reflects actual practice, while "nudity" refers to depiction of a symbolic intent. In her paper, Assante argues against modern views of "The Nude" (particularly female) and also notes the double standards of interpretation between male and female representations. She discusses the frontally posed Nude Female ("Nackte Frau") type of the Old Babylonian period and supports an identification associated with an abstract principle of dignity. The study of the royal women of the Ur III period is the focus of Weiershausers contribution. The author discusses the different contexts in which these women appear in the visual arts, primarily on seals, as well as their mention in textual sources. The theme of children accompanied by adults is a noticeable occurrence on the wall reliefs of the Neo-Assyrian period. Schwyn surveys the visual material and observes that children with women, occasionally children with men, are depicted in scenes of deportation. Age differentiation among the children and their modes of transportation are also considered. …

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