Jun 2 Thu 10-11.30 am Morgan Hidden, Rare Copper Figures from Mesopotamia (May 13-Aug 21)

Back to Civilization, the First, with Mesopotamia Statuettes at the Morgan

A Precious Temple to the Gods of Order, Art and Beneficent Authority away from NYC’s Hectic Pandemonium

Artworks Without Ego Never Meant To Be Seen By Human Eyes

Inside the Morgan Library’s daylit main hall opposite the tea tables lies a small temple, where if you enter you will find seven small statues from Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization three thousand years before Christ was born, where the supreme deity Enlil decreed fates, and where kings buried copper figures deep in the temple foundations under the lower layer of brick with bitumen sealing to keep them air and watertight, of which seven examples of these exquisitely formed statuettes and some accompanying seals are displayed in seven individual cases in a display organized by Sidney Babcock, head of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Seals and Tablets at this scholarly museum which with the Frick and the Met in one of the three flagships of traditional art and culture in this raucous city, which otherwise is so busy with commerce and competition, and which now offers in this message from the past a sublime refuge from the harassment of urgent traffic, incessant neon ads, buses which no longer keep to schedule, a retreat into the past which could not be further away and more spiritually placating, in thus rare lineup of copper figures cast from wax models so perfectly formed that their humanity and individuality of facial expression is as apparent as the muscularity is lifelike and yet their whole expresses “the essence of beauty, order and civilization”, in Babcock’s phrase, quoted in the must-have 20 page illustrated guide available free for the taking in the wall container by the door, to be referred to later if the powerful and inspiring impression created in the head and heart fades after we return to the cacophony we live in 3300 years later.

A Neo Sumerian Copper Foundation Figure of King Ur-Namma
(detail). Mesopotamian, Third Dynasty of Ur, ca. 2112–2004 B.C.
reign of King Ur-Namma, ca. 2112–2094 B.C. The Morgan Library &
Museum, Purchased by J. P. Morgan, Paris, 1907.


New York, NY, April 7, 2016 — Standing about a foot tall, the small yet monumental “foundation figures” in ancient Mesopotamia were not created to be seen by mortal eyes. Cast in copper and placed beneath the foundation of a building, often a temple, they were intentionally buried from prying humans. Perhaps only intended for the gods, they combine both abstract and natural forms and were created at the behest of royal rulers concerned with leaving a record of their humanity, deeds, and civilization.

Surviving examples are exceedingly rare and a new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, Founding Figures: Copper Sculpture from Ancient Mesopotamia, ca. 3300–2000 B.C., brings together ten outstanding works, including ancient cylinder seals, from several public and private collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Babylonian Collection of Yale University. With the Morgan’s own Foundation Figure of King Ur-Namma serving as centerpiece, the show demonstrates how the medium of copper allowed sculptors to explore a variety of forms with a fluidity not available in traditional stone, resulting in figures of exceptional grace and delicacy. The exhibition also includes enlarged impressions of scenes engraved on cylinder seals, maps, and other visual tools to provide visitors historical and cultural context. Founding Figures is on view at the Morgan from May 13 through August 21.

“Pierpont Morgan, the founder of the museum, was fascinated with the art and civilizations of the ancient world,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum. “He made several trips to the Middle East and left the Morgan an extraordinary collection of cylinder seals and other artifacts that he had acquired. The exhibition Founding Figures continues this legacy and demonstrates the remarkable artistry of sculptors of the period who gave us figures of transcendent beauty.”

View the full press release
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