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Gallery Text

The objects in this case present different visions of the female body. Statuette or vessel, funerary offering or object of worship, decorative feature or conscious work of art, they would have elicited very different — though not mutually exclusive — responses when seen in their original contexts. Some called for symbolic or religious understanding and were used in ritual, such as the Cycladic figure; others invited their viewers to reconstruct a narrative scenario, such as the Aphrodite binding her sandal; whereas yet others offered visceral aesthetic, sensual, and perhaps even tactile delight. One of the bodies here — Lachaise’s Woman Bending Backward — is not from the ancient world, but, like many other European and American works, depends very much on Greco-Roman models and ideals, even as it distances itself from them, for example with a pose not known from representations of women in antiquity.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Reclining Woman
Work Type
sculpture, statuette
1st century BCE-2nd century CE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World, Asia, Mesopotamia
Parthian period
Persistent Link
Level 3, Room 3200, Ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Art, Classical Sculpture
View this object's location on our interactive map
Physical Descriptions
L. 17.1 cm (6 3/4 in.)
Rudolf Meyer-Riefstahl (1880-1936) and Elizabeth Titzel Riefstahl (1889-1986), New York, by descent; to their son, Rudolf Meyer Riefstahl II (1929-2011), Rochester, Massachusetts. Private Collection, Massachusetts, (2011-2013), sold; [through Sotheby's, New York, 5 June 2013] lot 93, to Harvard Art Museums, 2013.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Marian H. Phinney Fund
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art
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This small alabaster figure represents a nude reclining woman, her legs, back, and proper left arm draped in a mantle. Several features of the original figure are not preserved: the hair was added in stucco or bitumen, the eyes were inlaid, and details such as jewelry were rendered in paint. Both feet and the lower part of the proper left arm are lost (the break in the arm was cut and drilled in modern times to attach the statuette to a wooden base).
The nude, seminude, or dressed reclining woman was a popular motif in Parthian-period Mesopotamia and was made in both terracotta and alabaster. Numerous examples have been excavated at Seleucia on the Tigris and also at Babylon, mainly in the residential areas of these cities. The type may go back to Seleucid times, but its combination of Greek and Near Eastern features is characteristic of Parthian art, as well.

The statuette embodies the meeting of two artistic traditions. The nude, largely frontal representation of a woman follows the conventions established for Near Eastern images of female deities, such as Ishtar/Astarte. The reclining pose, on the other hand, is Greek. It was developed for male banqueters but also employed for certain female figures, such as Nereids lounging on sea creatures. This reclining woman may in fact have been shown at banquet, since several terracotta figurines with the same pose hold a cup in the left hand.

The significance of the alabaster and terracotta images of reclining women has to be sought in a local context and remains disputed. It has been suggested that they represented the goddess Anahita and were used as fertility charms (mainly for the alabaster statuettes) or, alternatively, that they were tomb offerings related to notions of the funerary banquet (for the terracotta figurines). However, male recliners are more rare and few statuettes seem to come from tombs.
Publication History

Hans Henning von der Osten, Die Welt der Perser (Stuttgart, 1956), pp 118-119, pl. 93

Andrew Stewart, Greek Sculpture: An Exploration (New Haven and London, 1990), p 218, fig. 769

Exhibition History

32Q: 3200 West Arcade, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

Google Art Project

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at