Marble figurines are undoubtedly the Early Cycladic culture’s most characteristic and unusual creations. The first figurines to become known in the late eighteenth century were considered “ugly”, “primitive”, “barbaric”, and “of poor taste”.
However, under the influence of modern early twentieth-century art, Cycladic figurines became popular among art lovers, who recognized their artistic value. Figurines are grouped into types and varieties based on their formal characteristics and conventionally named either for their shape or for the site where they were first found.
Experiments showed that the making of figurines comprised four stages: tracing the figurine’s shape on the marble block, “roughing it out”, finishing the figurine, and, finally, engraving the details, polishing, and, occasionally, adding painted decoration. Although most Cycladic figurines are made of marble, figurines also exist in limestone, black stone and metal.
Cycladic figurines are divided into two main groups: schematic and naturalistic. Most represent women, but male figurines also exist. Βoth categories coexist throughout this period as two different manners of expression.
Starting from the abstract rendering of the human outline followed by a period of intense experimentation, Cycladic sculptors created the most characteristic figurines of Cycladic civilization at its peak, the so-called “Canonical Folded Arms Figurines”. These primarily naked female figurines have standardized features: the head is tilted back, the arms are folded under the chest in the “canonical” order (left over right), and the feet are pointed downward. Basic facial features and anatomical details of the sex organs are denoted. Certain features, such as the eyes, eyebrows, and hair, are occasionally painted. This standardization lasts for approximately five centuries and ends at the end of the period, when these “canons” are no longer observed and the figurines’ features are rendered in a careless manner. At the end of the Early Cycladic period, sculptors display a preference for schematic figurines characterized by solid volumes for the body and a complete lack of anatomical features.
We know that Cycladic sculpture used colour extensively, and that Cycladic figurines were originally painted. Deep blue or black pigment was used for the hair, eyebrows, eyes, and pubic triangle, whereas red was used for the jewellery and decorative motifs on the face and body.
The absence of written sources, combined with the fact that most Cycladic figurines were not found during systematic excavations, hinders their interpretation. A number of hypotheses concerning their function have been put forward. Some scholars interpret Cycladic figurines as representations of deities associated with fertility, or the Mother Goddess, who rules over the cycle of life and death, or even chthonic deities, psychopomps, or apotropaic mythological beings. Others liken the figurines to images of humans, possibly concubines in the service of the deceased, children’s dolls, images of ancestors, or symbols of prestige. Their discovery in settlements and tombs alike suggests that they served both as ritual objects in daily life and as grave gifts.
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