The Lady of Auxerre: What is the Story Behind Her Archaic Smile?
Elegant and alluring, the Lady of Auxerre has drawn in archaeologists and art enthusiasts alike. Her origins, probably on ancient Crete, provide an added element of interest. Was the female form depicted in this figure divine or terrestrial? Much mystery still surrounds this fascinating artifact.
While it is believed the Lady of Auxerre may have had her origins on Crete, Auxerre is a city in France. Currently there is neither any information of the statuette’s provenance, nor its journey to the city’s museum from Greece. In fact, the Lady of Auxerre would have even remained unknown if it had not been discovered by a curator of the Louvre Museum during the early 20th century. It has since been determined that the Lady of Auxerre is quite a significant piece of art, as it is one of the finest examples of the ‘Daedelic’ style of Greek sculpture.
So-called Lady of Auxerre, a female statuette in the Daedalic style. Limestone with incised decoration, formerly painted, ca. 640–630 BC, made in Crete? (Jastrow/CC BY 2.5)
Unconventional Use for Ancient Artwork
In 1907, a curator of the Louvre Museum by the name of Maxime Collignon was sorting through the objects in the storage vault of the Auxerre Museum when he came across the Lady of Auxerre. It was decided that the statuette be named after the city, as records concerning its provenance, or the circumstances under which it arrived in the city were non-existent. Apparently, the Lady Auxerre was part of a collection belonging to a French sculptor during the 19th century.
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After that, it was sold to a porter of an Auxerre theater for a franc. According to local tradition, the statuette was utilized as a stage prop for an operetta, as well as a hat stand for theater-goers. At some point of time, the statuette was acquired by the city’s museum and was kept in its storage vault.
Emanating Daedelic Style
The Lady of Auxerre is made of limestone, and measures about 65 cm (25.59 inches) in height (making it a one-third life-size statuette). This statuette is believed to have been created during the 7th century BC, and due to its excellent preservation (excluding the left side of its face, the majority of which is missing), the Lady of Auxerre has been hailed as one of the best examples of the Daedelic style. This style is named after Daedalus, the legendary Greek craftsman reputed to have been the first sculptor.
The Daedalic style flourished during the 7th century BC, during which Greek art was influenced by that of its Eastern Mediterranean neighbors. Hence, this phase of ancient Greek history is also known as the ‘Orientalizing period’.
A modern, painted plaster cast of the Lady of Auxerre at the Classics dept. at the University of Cambridge. (Neddyseagoon/CC BY SA 3.0)
Outside and Local Influence on the Appearance of the Lady of Auxerre
The influence of Near Eastern art can be amply seen in the Lady of Auxerre. For instance, although the back of the statue is carved as well, the primary focus is on its front, as it was meant to be viewed from this angle. The statuette’s face, which is an inverted triangle, with the chin rounded off in a U-shape, as well as its hair / wig (which resembles that of ancient Egyptian art) have also been pointed out as reminiscent of Near Eastern art.
Nevertheless, local elements can be detected in this sculpture too. The Lady of Auxerre’s dress is that of the ancient Cretan type, and its similarity with that of another Cretan sculpture, the Eleutherna Kore, has been noted. This has also led to the suggestion that the Lady of Auxerre may have originated in Eleutherna.
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Daedalic statue of a Kore, fragment, poros stone. Eleftherna, 7th century BC. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. (Zde/CC BY SA 4.0)
What Was the Function of this Statuette?
Another mystery surrounding the Lady of Auxerre is its identity and function. Some have speculated that this statuette may have been meant to represent a goddess. This speculation is made based on comparisons with terracotta figurines of goddesses from the Near East, where a heavy emphasis is placed on their sexual attributes.
Others, however, have argued that the Lady of Auxerre was meant to represent a mortal woman, perhaps a devotee of a fertility cult, or if it were a votive offering, of the dedicator herself. The latter interpretation is supported by the statuette’s right hand, which, viewed from the front, is supposed to indicate a gesture of supplication.
Due to its importance, the Lady of Auxerre was moved from the Auxerre Museum to the Louvre in Paris, where it remains on display till today.
The Lady of Auxerre on display. (Harrison Hoffman/CC BY SA 2.0)
Top Image: Detail of the statuette of the Lady of Auxerre. Source: Steven Zucker/CC BY NC SA 2.0
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Available at: http://digital.lib.usf.edu/SFS0032705/00001
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