Menstruation in Hellenistic art : a new reading of the Tazza Farnese

Lichty, Virginia Malcolm
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This thesis explores the relationship between the two engraved scenes on the Tazza Farnese, arguing that the iconography served as a protective device and displayed metaphorical symbols of menstruation, fertility, family, and rejuvenation for a parthenos of the Ptolemaic court. Of particular interest are the aspects least researched within the lengthy scholarship on the Tazza: the shape, material (sardonyx), and the Gorgoneion. Scholars have done an extraordinary job of interpreting and analyzing the iconography of the interior figures, the date, and the style of the Tazza, yet the shape, material, and the Gorgoneion have received little attention. Generally, these subjects are mentioned in passing or quickly referred to in a couple of sentences within the literature of the Tazza; however, my premise is that these elements were meaningful for contemporary viewers. This thesis seeks to extensively research and discuss these unpopular facets of the Tazza, especially with the aid of ancient literature on stones and the Gorgoneion, to propose a new reading of the Tazza Farnese. In reviewing these aspects of the artifact, I argue that the Tazza was a sumptuous apotropaic agent for menstruation, fertility, and reproduction in the form of the material, shape, allegories and mythical creatures. Chapter One focuses on the unique shape, the material and its sensory qualities, and an analysis of ancient literature concerning gems and their magical qualities. Chapter Two focuses on the Gorgoneion and its iconography, with an elucidating discussion of the Gorgon’s Hellenistic representation as an homage to her original beauty and function as a symbol of fertility and rejuvenation. Chapter Three connects the interior figures, representing an allegory of the Nile, to the Gorgoneion as they serve through the motifs of menstruation, fertility, family, and rejuvenation, to present to a young woman the metamorphosis of her body into a woman and her duties as a wife in Ptolemaic society. The implied references of flowing liquids (as seen in the blood of the Gorgoneion, the Nile, the breastmilk of Isis, and the veins of sardonyx) and cyclical occurrences (the inundation of the Nile and the ecdysis of snakes) have led to my argument that the Tazza Farnese was a celebratory gift intended for a female on the cusp of transitioning into a woman.