6. Idols with Feet of Clay: Ceramics and World Religions

From: Global Clay

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202 6 | idols with feet of clay Ceramics and World Religions O Lord . . . we are the clay, and thou our potter, and we all are the work of thy hand. Isaiah 64:8 [Authorized Version] Agift of Mother Earth, clay is the humblest of artistic media, but in the hands of a skilled artisan it can be transformed into an object fit to honor the gods.1 In contrast to painting, and to sculpture in stone, metal, and wood, religious expression in ceramics has received little attention. The link between clay and religion should come as no surprise; in the sacred narratives of many world cultures, a deity creates humankind from clay. (The Judeo-Christian story in the Torah and Old Testament is ambiguous: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground.”) A Native American account from California is typical: “Earth-Maker took soft clay and formed the figure of a man and of a woman, then many men and women, which he dried in the sun and into which he breathed life: they were the First People.”2 The ancient Egyptian version of the theme has an interesting twist: the ram-headed god Khnum, the “Divine Potter,” creates human figures from Nile clay on his potter’s wheel, then places the figures in women’s wombs to grow after Heqet, frog-headed goddess of childbirth, gives them life (fig. 6.1).3 Deities We begin with idols, material representations of divinities used to connect with them where they dwell. Some of the earliest fired-clay objects are not pots, but stylized figurines of women, often with exaggerated breasts and in some cases evidently pregnant. The general consensus is that these are images of fertility or Mother Goddesses, or if not deities, representations of fecundity that may have been intended to ensure human pregnancy (on the homeopathic-magic principle of “like produces like”).4 The so-called Venus of Dolní Věstonice, from the Figure 6.1. Stone carving of ram-headed god Khnum creating a human from Nile clay on his potter’s wheel, Philae Temple complex, Aswan, Egypt, 4th century BCE. Photograph: Karen Green, via www.flickr.com and Wikimedia Commons. Figure 6.2. Terracotta “Venus of Dolní Věstonici” from the Paleolithic Gravettian culture of the present-day Czech Republic, 29,000–25,000 BCE. Archaeological excavations revealed remains of a hut with a clay-built oven in which this figure and others may have been fired. Collection of Moravské Zemské Muzeum, Brno, Czech Republic, www.mzm.cz/en. Photograph: Petr Novák, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons. Figure 6.3. Terracotta female figure (head and one feline armrest restored), Çatalhöyük, Turkey, ca. 6000 BCE. Excavated in 1961 from the remains of a granary at the Neolithic site, the figure has prompted these questions: Is she really a goddess? If so, is she related to the later Anatolian Mother Goddess, Cybele?; Is she giving birth on her throne? Collection of Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey, http://www.anadolumedeniyetlerimuzesi.gov.tr/. Photograph: Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Figure 6.4. Terracotta “Burney Relief”/“Queen of the Night” plaque thought to depict the goddess Ishtar/Inanna, Babylon, Iraq, ca. 1800 BCE. Collection of British Museum, London, www.britishmuseum.org. Photograph: Aiwok, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Figure 6.5. Minoan “faience” serpent-handling figure from Knossos temple complex, Heraklion, Crete, Greece, ca. 1600 BCE. Is that a cat perched on her headdress? Collection of Heraklion Archaeological Museum, www.heraklion.gr. Photograph: George Groutas, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Figure 6.6, facing. “Faience” figure of Mother Goddess Isis suckling her infant son Horus, Egypt, 332–330 BCE (the adult Horus is depicted as falcon-headed). Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.metmuseum.org. Figure 6.7, below. Terracotta pair thought to be Greek fertility goddesses Demeter and her daughter Persephone, Myrina, Asia Minor, ca. 100 BCE. Collection of British Museum, London, www.britishmuseum.org. Photograph: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons. Figure 6.8, below. Recent terracotta group depicting the Hindu goddess Durga and her retinue, as set up for the October Durga Puja (devotional festival) at Barisha Netaji Sangha social club in Kolkata (Calcutta), West Bengal, India, 2010. Photograph: Jonoikobangali, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Figure 6.9, facing. Terracotta cup in black-figure (reduction-fired slip) technique...


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