CYCLADIC ART – marble mysteries

"The ecstasy of unheard melodies"

“The ecstasy of unheard melodies”

He plays the lyre.  He has been doing that for almost five thousand years.  He played so well then that he inspired someone to hew marble from stone and make a figure of him.  I saw pictures of him before I walked up to the glass case in the Archaeology Museum in Athens where he was. But he was not the only one from that time and that place.   I soon discovered that the lyre-player himself was atypical, but his head, ecstatically back as he plays, was what impressed me.  Other figurines gazed at me across the millennia.

The silent gaze

The silent gaze

The Cycladic Islands are east of the Mycenean peninsula in Greece.  This Aegean culture is said to have flourished from 3,300 to 1,100 years B.C. and art-wise, they stand entirely apart from Crete, Egypt, the Middle East and Greece.  For this reason they have wielded fascination since archaeologists began finding them.  Made from marble, the figurines range in size from 10 cms in length to almost human size.  In style, they are always distinctively Cycladian.

Faceless mystery

Faceless mystery

The speculations around what role they played in the culture are many.  Some maintain that the figurines were images of goddesses and were used in rituals.  Some believe they were toys.  Others think that, as votive figurines, they had fertility or funerary functions.

What strikes me about them is how contemporary they feel.  The stark simplicity and geometric formality could very well have been done by modernist artists early in the 20th-century.  In fact, Constantin Brancusi, considered as the father of modern sculpture by some, produced work akin to the Cycladic spirit.  An aspect of modernism (roughly 1890 – 1930) was to abandon traditional form and seek out the primitive.

Two thousand years B.C.

Two thousand years B.C.

Brancusi, 1920

Brancusi, 1920

Another thought is the total contrast between the feminine figures of the Cycladics to the prehistoric feminine figures who are broad, heavy and thundering.  The Venus of Willendorf is one example.  It is almost as if the Cycladics were heralding a changing world.

"Earth-bound goddess", 28,000 years ago

“Earth-bound goddess”,                     28,000 years ago

They haunt me, these figurines.  They are enigmatic in their facelessness.  The majority are feminine, elegant and pure in form.  It is hard to think that they came from gross stone.  The speculations about them heighten the mystery.  They are poised, indifferent to our attempts to understand them; their power is ethereal.  If they had to be represented by music it would be with a single, soft, unbroken note.  They are other-worldly.

From another world

From another world


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

December, 2016





Ecstatic player of lyre –

Cycladic collection – source lost

Cycladic figurine – source lost

Head of Idol –

Brancusi form – getty images

Venus of Willendorf –

Cycladic woman – source lost








2 Responses to CYCLADIC ART – marble mysteries

  1. David Sayer says:

    Thank you for this beautifully formatted and fascinating essay. Cycladic sculpture doesn’t fit into any theory of art history; it seems to exist in a time warp.

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