The lioness and time

Some 5,000 years ago, in the heat, dust and endless wars of Mesopotamia, at about the same time that the people of the region were discovering writing and the wheel, a Sumerian artist picked up a piece of limestone and began to chisel away. At first he struck at it with sure, strong, practised blows and then he began to make careful cuts, to polish and shine the stone until the face of a thoughtful, glowering lioness emerged, on the body of a supernaturally strong human. This piece of sculpture, cut off at the knees, stands just 8.3 centimeters tall. Last Wednesday (December 5, 2007), it was auctioned for 57.2 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for a piece of sculpture. By Friday the identity of the buyer was still unknown, as was the future of the demonic lioness: Would the masterpiece be exhibited to the public again as it had been for the past 60 years (at the Brooklyn Art Museum) or would it be plunged back into the darkness which hid it for 5,000 years until its discovery near Baghdad – when the collector Alistair Bradley Martin bought it and loaned it to the Brooklyn museum. For those who did not have the good fortune to see the statuette at the museum, or who are not specialists in Mesopotamian culture, the publicity that accompanied the auction provided a rare reminder of the age and the people who created the world’s first known civilization and who still affect almost everything in our daily lives, right down to the fact that these thoughts are shared through writing. The wheel is the basis of mechanical movement on earth, the alphabet is the foundation of writing and the stone lioness is the symbol of human survival and creativity. Every person who is born – every generation – adopts the wheel and writing as if they always existed, as if they were there waiting for each one of us to pick them up and run with them. No one gives a thought to the anonymous minds that discovered them, that created them. The little lioness, coming from the same time and place, however, is very much the creation of one specific individual. This stone that someone today can hold and look at is the very same stone that its creator held in his hands sometime around 3000 BC. We can feel his presence even though we cannot know who he was nor why he created this creature that is half-lioness and half-human. What we do know is that the artist was a master, with technical expertise and aesthetic principles that are truly unique. He had years of personal experience behind him and a tradition of centuries, if not millennia, as his guide. Other ages may have masterpieces on a monumental scale, but no one can say that what is perfect in one age is superior to that of another. It is as if there is a plateau somewhere high in the mountains, an imaginary global museum in which the masterpieces of each age coexist on equal terms. The bronze King Sargon or the demonic lioness of anonymous Sumerian artists cannot be compared with Praxiteles’ Hermes nor with the Parthenon nor the Hagia Sophia nor the pyramids of Egypt or Central America. They coexist as the remnants of lost civilizations, leaving us the message that perfection is attainable in each age, that perfection can be appreciated thousands of years later. They also teach us that it is not at all certain that each age will be succeeded by one that is better. Archaeologists believe that the stone lioness was intended to provide protection to a ruler, to ward off evil and perhaps to provide him with power. It may represent the hope on the part of the wearer to acquire the strength of the lioness or to placate a divinity associated with the lioness. A sense of the supernatural may have led to the creation of the masterpiece, but it is its aesthetic triumph that makes it a victory over mortality. Today, after so many years, the value of the lioness may no longer be religious but it is greater than ever. Because time – the passing of millennia, of centuries, of each lifetime – is the battle that each human watches with awe. And awe is the essence of beauty. When it survives, the carved stone – often so fragile, like flesh – is the measure of the age that created it and the age that admires it. The stone that is chiseled and caressed is the matter that represents time and spirit. The stone that passes like a meteor through human history carries the marks of the never-ending battle between the human being and that which he or she can never control – fear, death and time.