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When analyzing the figurative and archaeological documents of prehistoric Europe, it sometimes happens to come across images that express new aspects of body language which, due to the considerable difficulties of typological framing, have long been on the edge of research.The Self-Reflecting Adorant corresponds to the third position of the modern ballet, in which the arms are rounded and raised upwards, slightly ahead of the body line.

quinta posizione

The Self-Reflecting Adorant corresponds to the third position of the modern ballet, in which the arms are rounded and raised upwards, slightly ahead of the body line.

This almost unique gesture in the Camunian repertoire represented on the rock nr. 2 of Foppe di Nadro (Valcamonica, late 4th-early 3rd millennium BC), gives us some interesting insights regarding the gesture of the adorant: 1- based on modern interpretations (supported by a wide interdisciplinary agreement), the cupmark engraved on the inside of the thighs of the anthropomorph indicates its female sex; 2- the position of the arms folded inside differentiates the gesture of this anthropomorph from the classic prototype of the adorant; 3- there is a clear affinity between the gesture of the anthropomorph and the adjacent reticular structure, to which Anati (Evolution and Style, 1976) has attributed a vaguely anthropomorphic form. To understand the meaning of this image we must first reflect on the difference between the traditional representation of the adorant ( open arms and facing upwards, with some variations), and the new model, which I will call the Self-reflecting adorant , characterized by the same postural base with an important distinction: the arms are folded towards the inside and palms facing downwards.

orante (2)

Foppe di Nadro, Rock nr. 2-D ( Valcamonica, end IV mill.- early III mill a.C.)

It’s important to keep in mind that every single archaic figurative document is not the result of an individual creative act, but the faithful copy of an effective behavioral model, a schematic reproduction of an original knowledge that the community considered so relevant as to remove it from any kind of individual reworking. If we consider the traditional adorant as the cosmic mediator that deals with upward (celestial? Upward is a bit vague) communication, from the first visual impact we realize that the gesture of the Self-Reflecting Adorant, which is still described in the manuals as one of the five basic positions of the modern ballet, conveys a strong sense of closure towards the above and introspection into oneself.

The Self-Reflecting Adorant appears in some figurative repertoires in European and North African Prehistory starting from the Neolithic (5th-4th millennium BC), a period during which some communities, after a millennial journey of technological and social innovation, show an acquirement of high artistic competence, unknown to previous ages. At this time, in European iconography and movable art, more permanently than in the past, anthropomorphic figurines representing divine entities or perhaps only female subjects in a ritual attitude of prayer / supplication are attributed.

The liturgy is no longer limited to connecting with the upper or lower world through the traditional forms of ritual (music, song, prayer, dance); the renewed figurative technique re-elaborates and transforms into an image the archaic idea of “Transcendent”, meaning a reality that is grasped in a holistic sense, that is as an integral part of the world and in constant interaction with it, beyond the perceptive limits of man. The reticular structure engraved near the female anthropomorph of Foppe di Nadro is an example of this new artistic-religious sensibility that is expressed with a very schematic figurative language. After having made its appearance in the Balkan area around the 6th millennium BC, this “style” will spread by contact for almost 2 millennia amongst the European Neolithic communities, up to the threshold of the first metal age. In iconography and sacred plastic, the idea of Transcendent is incorporated into the form of idols in which a humanized universe is represented; the cosmic registers – the celestial dimension (the circle), the terrestrial one (the square) and the lower one ( to which no geometry seems to correspond) – are put in communication with each other by an imaginary line (axis mundi) through which energy transitions occur. As Arturo Schwarz suggests (“The vertical dimension of the immortal androgyne”, Valcamonica Symposium III, 1979) the traditional upward opening of the arms of the adorant allegorically expresses the conciliation between the male principle (the sky) and the feminine one (the earth), mediating their contradictions.

In the Self-Reflecting Adorant, on the contrary, the inward folding of the arms is a sign of the profound ideological change undergoing in the late Neolithic Camunian liturgy, followed by substantial changes in the conception of space, such as the transfer of part of the sacral communication from the vertical to the frontal dimension. In this perspective the gesture of the Self-Reflecting Adorant constitutes the starting point of a path not entirely traveled, a provisional anticipation of what will happen to the European liturgical system in the not distant transition to the subsequent megalithic phase (5th-4th millennium BC). In this phase, on the first engraved stelae of Valcamonica, the gestural outline of the Universal Man makes its appearance, which is more responsive than the previous to the requirement of frontality and more suited to the sacred spaces that host the new “idols”. In this way the object of worship, the Divine, while preserving in the skies its original site to which the traditional gesture of the adorant will continue to be directed, is reproduced as a two-dimensional and placed image based on the new, very strict rules of representation at the center of the ritual space. In addition to Valcamonica, the Self-Reflecting Adorant was found in some ceramic documents of pre-dynastic Egypt, in particular the culture of Naqada I and II (3800-3200 BC), and in the Magura cave, (Chalcolithic culture of Bodrogkeresztur, Bulgaria, III millennium BC). From the funerary contexts of the Naqada site comes a certain number of vases decorated with female figurines portrayed on the deck of a boat, one of the means by which, in the Egyptian religion, the deceased passed into the world of the dead. At the center of many scenes is the female worshiper with her arms folded over her head, often surrounded by one or two smaller male figures.

mosè e naqada

On the right: the Self-Reflecting Adorant with his arms supported by two male figurines (Naqada Culture); in the center: portal of the Romanesque church of San Cassiano in Controne (Lucca, 12th century). Aronne and Cur hold up the arms of Moses portrayed in the pose of the adorant, who receives the energy from the sky and transmits it to the Jewish army. Left: decoration of the whole vase with female figurines and the funeral boat (pre-dynastic Egypt, end of IV mill. BC).

According to Erich Neumann (La Grande Madre, 1978) some of these little men have the function of supporting the woman from the armpits to increase the effect of posture and prolong it. The same function is described in a biblical passage in which Aaron and Cur support the arms of an exhausted Moses after having long performed the adorant’s gesture to infuse energy into the Jewish army in the crucial battle against the Amalekites (Exodus 17: 8-13 ). The female figurine object of representation cannot therefore be the Great Mother, as claimed by the Gjmbutas (The language of the goddess, 1997) but rather an initiate that repeats the gesture made by the goddess to lead the dead to eternal life and periodically restore fertility to the earth. In fact, only a human being needs the support of other men, certainly not a divinity, who has unlimited energy at all times.
dea madre

Female statuette (pre-dynastic Egypt, late 4th millennium BC, Brooklyn Museum, from Ordynat, 2013). The lower part of the body is not rendered in naturalistic terms: the face is a bird’s beak, while the arms are curved above the head of the figurine and pushed backwards.

The idea that a cult of the Mother Goddess spread between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, has generally been rejected, also because of the lack of archaeological and anthropological evidence to prove it, while the female figures object of the hypothesis are too distant in the space and time. In addition to the position of the arms, the statuette shows two other elements of particular interest: 1 – the face of the figurine is entirely occupied by the beak of a bird; 2- the lower part of both the figures painted on the Nagada vases, and the statuettes, does not show the anatomical details of the legs and feet, but a single undifferentiated body that, starting from the broad female hips, ends with a more thinned shape. These elements allow us to go deeper into the analysis and to formulate two further hypotheses: a- both the painted figurine and the statuette do not express a dance pose, as suggested by Garfinkel (Dancing at the dawn of agriculture, 2001), as in most cases dance cannot be performed without the aid of the lower limbs; b- despite the presence of the bird’s beak, which is repeated in other forms of predinastic art (palettes, combs, amulets and flints), suggesting a sort of theriomorphism, the position of the arms cannot be traced back to the extended wings for flight of birds, but only to a sense of self-reflection.


Left: The Lady of the Magura Cave (Bulgaria) in the position of the Self-Reflecting Adorant. At his side a smaller schematic anthropomorphic was depicted, to which the gesture is addressed. Right. The figure of the adorant acts as a cosmic mediator between the hunter and his prey.

Even the paintings of the Magura Cave (Bronze Age, Bulgaria) made with bat guano show the Self-Reflecting Adorant with the bitriangular body, in a particular relationship with a schematic and ithyphallic anthropomorph, of smaller dimensions, represented as a sort of totem or a pole planted in the ground (Anati: 1971). The arms of the “dancer” folded over her head in an elegant attitude of prayer / adoration, clearly recall the figurines of pre-dynastic Egypt. In addition to hunter / gatherer / farmer, the identity of the Chalcolithic man may also for the first time be attributed to that of a warrior and predator, while the woman has by now lost the pre-eminence of the previous ages, even if in the figurative universe painted on cave walls, its function as a mediator between human and cosmic reality is still partially recognized. The most obvious example is provided by the hunting scenes, in which the Self-Reflectig Adorant is represented between the hunter and the animal, confirming that his mediation is decisive for the success of the hunt.

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