Ancient Greece, Archaic, ca. 550 to 525 BCE. A monumental stone sculpture of a seated sphinx, finely carved in the round upon an integral rectangular plinth. The legendary mythological creature is shown with eagle wings presenting intricately delineated plumage in bas relief, the body of a lion displaying a proud posture supported by its haunches with tense muscles to indicate its fierce character, and a long tail. Interestingly, this sphinx wears a crescent moon (delineated in relief) around its neck. In Greek mythology, the crescent moon is usually associated with Selene, the Titan goddess of the moon which she drove across the night skies, as well as lunar goddesses Artemis and Hecate. In this case, the sculptor was most likely suggesting a link to Hecate (see more on this in the extended description below.) Size: 22.75" L x 12.75" W x 28" H (57.8 cm x 32.4 cm x 71.1 cm)
The legendary sphinx was known from the Bronze Age onward in various forms throughout the eastern Mediterranean region. Although the Great Sphinx of Giza is certainly the most famous, sphinxes have a large place in Greek mythology as well due to the intermixing of Egyptian and Greek culture via trade routes across the Mediterranean. The Greek version of the sphinx, unlike the male Egyptian one, traditionally possesses the head of a human female, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. Famously, the sphinx - sent by Hera to punish the city of Thebes for displeasing the goddess - stood outside Thebes, taking vengeance upon anyone who failed to answer its riddle. Oedipus would eventually solve the riddle: what animal walks on four legs, then two, then three? The answer of course was man, who crawls as an infant, grows to walk upright, and in his advanced years, leans upon a walking stick. (More recently, in the fictional world of J.K. Rowling, a sphinx appears in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to ask Harry a riddle as he makes his way through an enchanted maze.) Given this association with trickery and riddles, the crescent moon necklace on this sculpture is probably symbolic of Hecate, as she was the goddess of magic and witchcraft who was also associated with crossroads and entryways.
The Greeks oftentimes placed images of sphinxes upon funerary monuments to protect the deceased against grave robbers. Just imagine this sculpture, perhaps gracing a tall grave monument or stele, more than likely painted in bright colors as was customary for all Greek statues, at once reflecting the opulence of the elite class of Archaic Greece and steadfastly guarding the honored deceased.
See a similar, though less complete version of a limestone statue of a Greek sphinx in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Accession No. 43.11.6) on view in Gallery 153.
Provenance: private East Coast, USA collection
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Body repaired from two large sections - pretty much down middle. Missing head and losses to wings and edges of plinth. Large section on right wing reattached, another area of right wing resurfaced/restored. Resurfacing to right proper haunch. Expected surface wear, abraded areas (particularly to the chest), and weathering commensurate with age.