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HOME : Biblical Antiquities : Sabean Art : Sabean Alabaster Head
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Sabean Alabaster Head - MR.006 (LSO)
Origin: Yemen
Circa: 600 BC to 100 BC
Dimensions: 4.5" (11.4cm) high
Collection: Biblical Antiquities
Style: Sabean
Medium: Alabaster
Condition: Extra Fine


Location: UAE
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Description
This striking alabaster head is a commemorative piece from the ancient kingdom of Saba which ruled over the lands of southwestern Arabia, centered in modern day Yemen. Technically, the Sabeans were one of four major powers in this area, also including the Minaeans, the Qatabanians and the Hadramites, but the peoples as a whole became subsumed as a single entity by the middle of the first millennium BC. Saba is perhaps better known as Sheba, whose famous Queen was recounted as having visited Solomon in the pages of the Old Testament. The wealth of the kingdom is legendary, and is primarily attributable to Saba’s position at the crossroads of the ancient world, receiving consignments (particularly of incense) from all across the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean basin. The city of Marib was also in an ideal position to control the trade route between India and Egypt, although this lucrative venture was cut short in the 1st century AD following the foundation of a nautical route from India directly to the port of Alexandria.

As well as being a highly successful nation state in their own right, the Sabeans embraced the multiplicity of cultural influences that they experienced as a trading superpower. Their alphabet – Musnad – was one of the most complex and elegant of the day, while they also had a second, cursive system (Zabur) that was used for day-to-day operations. They mummified their dead, had a pantheon of gods, and possessed liberal attitudes to the deities and traditions of outsiders. They also had a complex social stratification system, extensive public buildings and ceremonial architecture, and a literary/theatrical heritage that survives in fragmented state. It is for their art, however, that the Sabeans are best remembered. Their religion and mythology fuelled the themes of their sculptural works – primarily anthropomorphic and zoomorphic statuary – while their contact with other cultures and nations led to a highly derived and distinctive style. There are major works in bronze, precious metals and exotic minerals, but they are perhaps best known for works in soft stone such as alabaster.

This piece depicts a humanoid head and neck; while many such pieces were used as grave markers, the comparatively compact size of this piece counts against such a possibility. It is more likely to have been a commemorative object, or perhaps a deity that was once attached to a larger alabaster object or structure. The face combines expressionist styling with perfect finish. The whole head is domed from the base up, providing a lugubrious expression that is heightened by the long nose and slightly surprised raise of the double-arched eyebrows. The eyes are roughly diamond-shaped, with indents for inlays (now lost). The lips are raised above the level of the rather flat face, and pursed in a disapproving bow. Mainly, however, the features of the face are understated, with more emphasis being paid to the flow and form of the lines that go to make up the major structural elements.

This piece is very rare, as few such well-finished Sabean pieces have survived from antiquity. Expressionist and representationalist elements have been well combined to produce a harmonious composition that is surprisingly modern for such an ancient piece of art. This is a highly unusual and desirable piece. - (MR.006 (LSO))

 

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