Take Me to Art 3/23/19: The Divine Feminine in Antiquities at the Morgan Library

 

cylinders
Top: Worshipper Led by a Goddess to an Enthroned God; bottom: Male Figure Before a Goddess Drawing Aside Her Mantle; both from the Ancient Near Eastern Seals and Tablets Collection at the Morgan.

I’ve been to the Morgan Library maybe half a dozen times now; it’s one of my favorite New York museums because of its small scale (see also: the Frick Collection and the Tenement Museum) juxtaposed with its vast collection of books and antiquities held in a space that was once the home of J.P. Morgan.  You can tour his private study and wonder what it must have been like to own everything he did, to consider your immense holdings from a room wallpapered in red damask and hung with a giant portrait of yourself wearing a red cape.  (All real details from the Morgan.)  We had gone to see the Tolkien exhibit, which consists of many of his personal photographs, letters, notes, and artwork from The Lord of the Rings and beyond, but I wanted to write a bit about the motif of the divine feminine in the Ancient Near Eastern Seals and Tablets collection.

I’ve seen these cylindrical seals a few times before, and usually I’m just impressed (no pun intended) by the level of detail the artists carved into them to make each one so distinctive and nuanced.  If you’ve never seen them, they’re about the size of a wine bottle cork or even a little smaller, and they were rolled on to clay or wax to create seals conveying particular narratives or concepts.  I like to imagine these nameless artisans, over four thousand years ago, working patiently with their chisels and stone to tell the most sacred stories of their peoples—stories in which the divine feminine played a major role.

In the two seals in the image of the above, the divine feminine acts as a navigator and intercessor (top) and as one who reveals crucial truths (bottom).  These are feminine aspects of God that I don’t think contemporary Christianity, at least outside the Catholic tradition, has taken terribly seriously.  But there is precedent throughout Christianity for understanding and honoring these aspects of God; for, as Mary Daly noted over forty years ago, “If God is male, then the male is God.”  Spirit, truth, the body of the church: these were once understood by Christians also to be feminine.

My sense is that the symbolism of these seals was lost on Mr. Morgan, not a man noted for progressive views on much of anything.  Thinking back to the craftspersons who gave us these objects, though, brings me back to wondering what we’ve lost—as a tradition, as a people, as the body of all of humanity—by forgetting what they once knew: that divinity is not a male characteristic, that the masculine and feminine aspects of human beings are what make us whole beings with the integrity and the courage to go looking for God.

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