You can never predict how the internet will react to something. On Friday, I tweeted a picture of a bronze Etruscan statuette which I described as ‘Etruscan Lisa Simpson’. I’d actually tweeted this already, about six months previously, but came across it again as I was revising a chapter. This time, Lisa caught everyone’s imagination, at time of writing (the following Monday), the tweet had 3.5k retweets, 15k likes and over 1.2 million views. This… wasn’t what I was expecting.
The most common reactions were love for the statue (welcome), pictures of other statues that look like cartoon characters (very welcome), and a few questions about whether the statue was real or some kind of Banksy hoax. It definitely is real – at least as far as I know – and I thought I’d put together a post with a few comparisons so you can see what is going on with this statue.
Although the statuette (11.4 cm) looks like a little cartoon girl with spiky hair to our eyes, the Met lists it in the catalogue as a priest or offerant – its clothing and torso is male. Here’s our Lisa Simpson next to another very similar statue of about 8cm for comparison. Both are Etruscan statues of the Hellenistic period (approx. 3rd – 1st century BC).
You might be able to see that our Lisa has something in one hand – in fact, the catalogue says that the statue is holding a patera (or shallow plate) in its outstretched hand, and a pyxis (small decorative box) in its lower hand. These were probably used in religious rites – the patera for pouring libations and the pyxis for incense. Here is an Etruscan patera, an Etruscan bronze pyxis of the 6th century BC and a very fancy gold and silver South Italian pyxis of the 3rd century BC with an Etruscan inscription to give you an idea of what this ideas might have looked like in real life.
These details seem very difficult to make out on the statueete – how sure are we that this is a priest holding a plate and box? The statuettes above are small and somewhat stylised – but we can see what they represent much more clearly if we compare them to (roughly) contemporary examples with more precise details. First, three Etruscan priests, also in the Met. You can probably start to see from these examples that the pose and clothing are similar across many different statuettes – and that the spiky ‘hair’ is a garland or crown, and not hair at all.
We can also see a similar theme in this female figurine, possibly a goddess. You can see the difference in her clothing, but she is also holding a patera and pyxis.
These small votive statuettes were probably meant for dedication to a god. Generally, these kinds of votives were produced by craftsmen in bulk, and bought by travellers to the shrine or sanctuary. They were not usually made specially for the person who dedicated them, and this goes some way to explain why we see the same shapes and themes over and over again. They were not cheap – any dedicant would have to have some disposable income to afford them – but because they were made in bulk, they were accessible to many people. The Votives Project is a great place to look if you’re interested in learning more about votive statues in the ancient world, plus some modern parallels.
In any case – it’s been a fun week on the internet! If you go and see Etruscan Lisa Simpson (on display in Gallery 171 of the Met), let me know.