The Sun-goddess in the Temple of Muses: Claims to Ownership and Assertions of Identity from Hittite Anatolia to Contemporary New York
Funded by the Kansas City Art Institute’s Warwick Society, The Warwick Scholars Program “recognizes students who have shown exceptional abilities in their disciplines of study” by providing scholarship assistance for these students to pursue a special project or educational opportunity. Hosted in the 2nd Floor Gallery of the H&R Block Artspace in Kanas City, Missouri, on November 21, 2013, the inaugural Warwick Scholars Reception opened with comments from KCAI President Jacqueline Chandra, Ph.D.. Serving as representative of the 2012-13 Warwick Scholarship awardees, I then presented an overview of my Warwick Scholars project and discussed my research trip to New York City the previous March.
Utilizing primary document analysis, first person interviews, and in-situ observation drawing upon the records and resources of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), the foremost outcome of my Project was to craft an interdisciplinary research paper into the provenance of 14–13th C. BCE Hittite figurine Seated Goddess with a Child. Examining this artwork as an historical document, and surveying the transnational citation of mythoi and sociocultural cross-pollination in her iconography, I evaluated the legal and ethical considerations of her patrimony and stewardship.
Below is an abbreviated transcript of that presentation.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for coming!
My name is Devon Schiller, a senior in the art history and painting departments here at the Kansas City Art Institute graduating this December. A nontraditional student, I am one of last year’s Warwick Scholars.
Last spring, the funds generously donated by Warwick Society members Jane Voorhees, Gary and Pam Gradinger, and Sharon Blickensderfer supported my pursuit of an interdisciplinary research project into art crime prevention and cultural heritage. Designing my project as a six credit hour directed study, my research included a trip to New York City, where I spent eleven days conducting interviews with professionals in the fields of art history, art heritage law and policy, and museology, as well as working at the museums of this provocative art community. My objective was to craft a cultural history—an “adventure”–across time and through a socio-cultural landscape of myth and ethic, individual identity and iconographic tradition, looting practice and claims of ownership, all as connected to a single art object: Seated Goddess with a Child.
Through my research and in my paper, The Sun-Goddess in the Temple of Muses: Claims to Ownership and Assertions of Identity from Hittite Anatolia to Contemporary New York, I trace this golden pendant from her forging amidst the social and political environs of the 14th-13th century BCE Hittite Empire in Anatolia; through the formation and eventual dissolution of the Persian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, a period for which no documentation on this figurine has yet been uncovered; to the archeological practices and art market of the first half of the 20th century when, in the aftermath of World War II, it is suspected that the Goddess was removed from the region by looters; arriving at the first documentation of her provenance in 1965, when she was acquired by Norbert Schimmel, a private collector then living in New York from a German antiquities dealer; the Goddess’ current stewardship in Gallery 403 of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The inspiration for this project followed from my studies in painting conservation at the Studio Art Centers International in Florence, Italy in the summer of 2011. There, as we endeavored to preserve, extend and document the life of artworks, we spoke of these artistic masterpieces as our ‘Patients’, our primary maxim the Hippocratic Oath of a physician: primum non nocere, or “first, do no harm.” Fascinated by the role of ethics in the visual arts, and with ethical questions also central to my studio practice, I took notice when, in 2012, Turkey sought to repatriate the Goddess in an attempt to assert their competency, power and influence on the world stage, a political action essentially geared to move them closer to membership in the European Union.
Although Turkey first rejected the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970, their ratification on April 21, 1981 allows for antiquities already outside their borders to remain so without consequence of legal action to the artifact’s current owner. Consequently, most of Turkey’s claims have no sustainable legal basis, the result reliant rather on the ethical determination of the individual museum. In an attempt to circumvent UNESCO and assert the legality of their claims, the Turkish government cites a 1906 Ottoman-era law banning the export of artifacts. Unfortunately for Turkey, these efforts have not resulted in the Turkish state’s desired outcome, but rather angered a number of world governments and garnered animosity from the international museum community.
While researching in New York, I had the opportunity to sketch the Goddess from in-situ observation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; discuss the pendant and current events surrounding her with Museum staff and visitors from across the globe; interview staff of the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) regarding some of the legal issues involved in repatriation, the ethics of the museum community and their current implementation, and the practice of looting as conducted down through history; and analyze primary documents at The MET’s Thomas J. Watson research library, as well as numerous secondary sources that I reserved in advance.
Above: In-Situ Sketch of Seated Goddess with a Child (foreground), ink on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, April 14, 2013.
Through my research, I do of course examine the question: who is this pendant depicting? The identification with the Sun-goddess of Arinna, one of the two principal deities of the Hittite Empire, is reasonably conclusive. The limited debate in the academic community over this attribution concludes that because the Goddess’ left hand hovers near but does not in fact touch the child, she serves more as a nursemaid rather than a nourishing, life-giving mother; and consequently, that this deity is not the Hittite ‘Queen of Heaven and Earth’. Yet, these art historians fail to the note the essential influence of materials in shaping the figurine. This aperture is explained by the fact that the solid gold casting of the child has been soldered onto the hollow-cast mother. The space holds pragmatic import rather than symbolic significance.
In my research paper, I conclude that it is no longer possible to have a purely aesthetic experience or to immaculately perceive Seated goddess separate from her history beyond the now-extinct Hittite society of her casting. Seated goddess, though forged by the Hittites, offers a host of cultural influences: from the metalworking techniques assimilated by the Hittites from native Anatolian societies to her gold materiality likely imported along Akkadian trade routes or perhaps melted down from the looting of a neighboring nation; from the kourotorophic iconography of nurturing mother and child seen also in ancient Egypt to the artistic conventions of the Hurrian lion-throne and solar disc headdress so prevalent across the Ancient Near East. Even the figurine’s referent, the Sun-goddess Arinna, that mythic female Creatrix to whom the Hittites turned for justice and bravery, solace and remedy, drew her inspiration from countless other extant goddesses, and would go on to pollinate the mythoi of Greece, Rome and Western Civilization. A historical document, the Goddess has inherited historical, aesthetic, and philosophical meaning from the cultures that have claimed her, and her modern market history is now integral not only to her value, but to her story.
Because of the generosity of the Warwick Society donors—because of you [gesture to donors in audience]–I was able to challenge and refine my abilities in the professional climate of New York, reform and advance my practice as artist and academic, and mature and clarify who I am as an individual. Now, as I near graduation from the Kansas City Art Institute this December, I am empowered to more proficiently pursue my graduate education and professional career.
Please help to support this year’s applicants to expand their education and understanding of the world, develop their skills in their chosen fields of study and proficiencies as emerging artists. With your assistance, the only limitation to what we [gesture to prospective Warwick Scholars in audience] can become is our imagination, our will, and our desire to achieve. The funds you donate truly can transform a life, as they have with my own.
Thank you again. I have copies of my paper on the Sun-Goddess as well as of my artist statement available if you are interested, and would be happy to talk with any of you individually should you have any questions. Good night and good luck.”
Artwork, photographs and essay © 2013 Devon Schiller. All rights reserved.