The Fascination of the Female Deity in Asian Art

People from all over the world have believed the female symbol to be sacred for centuries. In fact, there can be no doubt that cultures in general have cherished the beauty while being amazed at the wonder of the female body. The obvious connection to youth and fertility is unmistakable through this powerful symbol. For…

People from all over the world have believed the female symbol to be sacred for centuries. In fact, there can be no doubt that cultures in general have cherished the beauty while being amazed at the wonder of the female body. The obvious connection to youth and fertility is unmistakable through this powerful symbol. For example, the Norton Simon Museum is one place where the premier collection of Khmer stone statues finds its home. The superb collection was put together by Mr. Simon himself in the early 1970s. His personal interest in Asian art had been revived while he was on his honeymoon in India. His second wife, the actress Jennifer Jones, seems to have influenced this fascination. So the Khmer collection reflects Simon's zeal for obtaining pieces which demonstrated the nationality of that particular Asian culture.

“Where Art Meets Science: Ancient Sculpture from the Hindu-Buddhist World” is a small exhibition. It features ten works of art. Nine of these works are from the museum's permanent collection. The tenth, which is also a modern forgery, is simply on loan. The first piece is called “Female Torso.” It is dated between 950-1000 CE and it belongs to the Banteay Srei style. The actual identity of the work is unknown. Many Khmer sandstone sculptures exist only as fragments. The delicate extremities carved in this brittle material are very easily broken. Sometimes certain parts have become lost over time. Today, archeologists do not have certain knowledge of what this figure might have worn in her headdress or held in her hands. She may have held nothing at all. Therefore, her unique identity is almost impossible to know.

During the Preangkor and Angkor periods, sculptures of female deities were produced in far fewer numbers. This is compared to the same pieces of the period which represented male deities. Often, female figures were intended to serve as companions to male figures. For this reason, their identification is usually determined by their relationship to their husbands or sons. Sometimes it can be discovered by the female deity's own attributes. However, it is safe to assume that the figure “Female Torso” represents a goddess. This is because portraits of individual women were not common in ancient Southeast Asian culture. The sculptures of figures were for divine beings or for the royalty often disguised as deities.

Images of female figures in Angkor period art are often represented with beauty marks. Such beauty marks emphasized the breasts and neck of the female body. Later sculptures employed the Angkor Wat and Bayon styles which did not emphasize beauty marks. In fact, beauty marks were entirely done away with over time. However, there is no disputing that early on the ancient culture saw value in highlighting the beauty of the female deity in art. The importance of the feminine is a universal fact of life. The modern world and our own time period is no exception. People remain fascinated by the female body symbol in art as well as other areas. So there is a certain, common understanding today of why ancient people chose to make this symbol a part of the divine.