Ariadne Galleries

Abstract Face
Period: Third to first century BC
Culture: South Arabian
Material: Alabaster
Dimensions: 14 cm H
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This highly abstract and enigmatic sculpture is typical of the art of the ancient south Arabian Peninsula, the fabled home of the Queen of Sheba, and the birthplace of one of the most intriguing and “modern” artistic styles to have emerged in antiquity. It is likely that the sculpture was intended to depict the person for whom it was made and it is perhaps this subtle blending of abstraction and naturalism that makes South Arabian works particularly compelling to connoisseurs of modern and contemporary art; a remarkable connection between cultures separated by millennia.

The smooth and tactile object was carved from calcite alabaster, a favoured medium for dedicatory sculpture for the period. Whilst the eyes appear to be closed, it is likely that, in fact, what we now perceived as eyelids were intended as the open whites of the eye, and the pupils would have been painted onto the surface.  Subtle veining can be seen on the surface of the alabaster, mirroring the translucent quality of skin.  The overall character is one of serenity and calm.

The art of South Arabia undoubtedly arose through trade exposure to the rich civilizations of Egypt to the west and Mesopotamia to the north.  A number of carved heads like this one have been found throughout the Arabian Peninsula.  This is due to the widespread custom of using such works as votives and burial markers.  For example, this head would have likely formed part of a larger figure of the owner, or would have been set on a rectangular stele, for insertion into a niche. A similar face is displayed at the British Museum.


Private Collection, Belgium, 1980s.
Private Collection, London, 2014.
Exhibited: Master Drawings and Sculpture Week, 4-11 July, 2014.