Art Comparison: Qu’ran Manuscript and The Angel Gabriel

The following is the second paper I wrote for my Art History 100 class.  We were tasked with finding two art pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and then writing a paper that compares and contrasts them based on form and content.  Our choices were restricted to certain art periods from specific locations, like French Gothic or Italian Renaissance.  I chose the following two pieces because I found them particularly interesting on a personal level, as well as being easy to write about.

I think I might have been a bit off the mark on fitting The Angel Gabriel to the Renaissance standard, but I won’t know for sure until September, when I can get in touch with the professor and see the paper.  It was due on the day of the final, so there’s no way for me to get it back and check it out.  I’ll update the grade received and any notes from the professor at some point, on the Essays page.

(Note: The images were not included in the paper that was turned in.  I added them here so readers that aren’t as familiar with art as my professor can get a better idea of what I’m talking about.)


Introduction and Location

The paper will be discussing the differences and similarities between two works: The Angel Gabriel and Qur’an Manuscript. The Angel Gabriel was created in approximately 1493, is attributed to Masseo Civitali and is believed to have originally been located in the oratory of Santa Maria dell’ Anunnziata in Lucca, Italy. The work is now located in gallery 500 on the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the “European Sculpture and Decorative Arts” section. The Qur’an Manuscript was created in the early 14th century, by an anonymous artist in Iran or Iraq. The work is now located in a display case in gallery 203, on the Great Hall Balcony on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Formal Aspect & Genre Descriptions

The Angel Gabriel, Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Angel Gabriel is a Renaissance sculpture that is roughly life-sized. The sculpture is a painted and partially gilt terracotta statue. It appears to have been free standing on its original base, which is now broken. The statue is now anchored to a display base. The sculpture leans at an almost unnatural angle, covered in a draped garment that is smooth and flowing. The figure is naturalistically proportioned and detailed, though the face is idealized. On the back of the statue, there are two vertical slots where terracotta wings were probably inserted. Renaissance art was largely religious (Aston 105). Compared to the earlier Gothic style, Renaissance art focused more on the human aspect of the art subject. Where Gothic art was solemn and dignified, Renaissance works like The Angel Gabriel attempted to introduce tenderness and beauty into art without sacrificing the aura of divinity associated with religious figures (Aston 133). The introduction of a human element into the sculpture is apparent in the joyous expression on the face and in how the arms are crossed over the chest, as though the angel can barely contain the good news he is about to share. Rather than standing vertical, the angel is leaning forward towards the recipient of his news. Despite these included aspects of human emotion, the aura of the divine is still maintained through the idealized, androgynous face (angels have no gender), and the original presence of wings on its back.

Qu'ran Manuscript, 14th Century Iran or Iraq, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Qur’an Manuscript is a non-illustrated manuscript folio and an example of Islamic art. The page on display is 34.9 x 27.3 centimeters and was made with ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper. The page is primarily covered with naskh cursive text, but also contains decorative calligraphy and hand drawn vegetal and geometric images that are painted with gold. Islamic art as a whole is defined by a prohibition against making representations of living things, since it might create a temptation to commit idolatry (Evans 151). The resulting typical expression of Islamic art is mostly abstract, containing geometric patterns, references to vegetation and calligraphy. These elements were reflections of religious beliefs. The geometric patterns represent the perfection of Allah and the vegetation is a reference to paradise in the afterlife. Calligraphy also became a popular form of art, taking the place of images and being used to represent Allah. The main purpose of calligraphy was to appreciate the visual quality, rather than to read it. These elements are present in both secular and religious art, though secular art would not contain calligraphic quotations from the Qur’an.



Both The Angel Gabriel and the Qu’ran Manuscript have a similar theme. Both works are the products of religious devotion. Gabriel is a prominent figure that is present in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Stories about Gabriel appear in each religion’s holy texts. The Qur’an Manuscript is a handwritten and decorated page of the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam. The difference between the two works is that while The Angel Gabriel represents a religious idea, it was mostly meant to be decorative, appearing in an oratory. The Qu’ran Manuscript, on the other hand, while being decorative was also meant to be functional, a holy book to read and learn from.


The Angel Gabriel, Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Angel Gabriel specifically depicts Gabriel, an angel, leaning forward, as if appearing to someone. The name Gabriel means “God is my strength” or “the strength of God” and he is known as The Great Communicator (Aquilina 69). Throughout the Bible, Gabriel appears to people to bring them news from God. In Daniel 8:15-17 he appears to Daniel to explain a vision to him. In Luke 1:16-17 he appears to Zechariah to tell him that he and his wife shall have a child and that his child, John the Baptist, will prepare the way for the Messiah. Later, in Luke 1:26-38, Gabriel appears to Mary, to tell her that she will be the mother of Jesus Christ, the son of God. According to the information placard on the sculpture’s display base, it is believed that The Angel Gabriel was originally part of a pair of statues which included the Virgin Mary. Together, they would have formed an Annunciation Group, which represents the moment when Gabriel shared the news of her divine pregnancy with her.

Qu'ran Manuscript, 14th Century Iran or Iraq, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Qu’ran Manuscript is a page from the holy book of Islam, the Qu’ran. The top of the page contains a geometric, gold painted rectangular frame that contains decorative calligraphy which reads, “Surat Saud, Eighty Six Verses (Ayats), Mekka surat” (Hany), though Mr. Hany also noted that the surat actually has 88 verses. Just to the right of the rectangular frame is a drawing containing concentric circles around a vegetal image, probably of a flower, also in gold with a blue center. Additional matching representations of flowers, rosettes, are drawn throughout the text as markers between ayas, or verses. In the right margin are two decorative seals, one circular, one teardrop shaped, both in gold and surrounded by a blue outline. These seals contain kufic script in the center. The main text of the page is a cursive form of Arabic known as naskh, with recitation marks added in red ink. The text on the page on display is the last part of the 37th surah and the first 11 ayas of the 38th surah of the 23rd juz (part) of the Qu’ran, The Letter Saud, which was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad at Mecca. Preceding the beginning of the 1st aya in the 38th surah is the phrase, “In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful,” which is not part of the surah itself and precedes all of the surahs in the Qu’ran (Hany).


The original purpose of The Angel Gabriel would have been to inspire believers and deepen their faith. Many people at the time the statue was created were illiterate, and learning about Christianity, outside of sermons given by clergy, was through observation of religious art. When looking at the sculpture of Gabriel, believers would have been reminded of the good news he shared with people in the Bible, and particularly with Mary. If The Angel Gabriel was originally paired with a statue of the Virgin Mary, then viewing them together would have reminded viewers of their hope of salvation through God’s grace and Jesus’ Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross. The Angel Gabriel was originally designed to be a decorative piece for casual observation and reflection and, though it is now located in a museum rather than a religious building, the effect is essentially the same. It causes the viewer to contemplate the meaning of Christianity and Gabriel’s role in the Bible.

The Qu’ran Manuscript was meant to be a functional copy of the Qu’ran, to be used by believers for study and recitation, as well as to inspire through the decorative artwork it contains. The Arabic text of the page, together with the rest of the text in the Qu’ran, is the physical representation of Allah through language (the written word) in the Islamic faith. The Qu’ran praises Allah and His creation, defines the relationship between Allah and the worshipper, explains the afterlife through eschatological texts and teaches Muslims how to practice their faith in everyday life. While the particular copy of the Qu’ran the page came from is no longer serving that purpose, the text of the Qu’ran has been copied, translated and distributed all over the world and continues to serve the function it was originally created for.


The Angel Gabriel is presented in a small room with other Italian Renaissance pieces. The room is well lit, and Gabriel is the first work you notice as you walk into the room. The lighting brings out the remaining color from the original paint and gilding on the statue, giving the viewer an idea of what it might have originally looked like. Appreciation of how the piece was originally displayed would be helped by having a similar work of the Virgin Mary opposite Gabriel, though that is probably not possible due to limitations in the museum’s inventory. An alternative would be to have a digital rendering of what it might have looked like in place at the oratory displayed next to it, or on the display base. As it’s now displayed, Gabriel appears almost out of place in the room and it requires a lot of imagination to picture how it would have originally appeared.

The Qu’ran Manuscript is set in a glass display case along the wall of the Great Hall Balcony. The display case contains other Islamic works that represent highlights from the Department of Islamic Art. The works range in date from the seventh to the eighteenth century and include textiles, jewelry, pottery and other manuscript pages. Since the case shows a cross-section of art, the overall effect is a bit jarring, especially combined with the noise coming from the entry hall below the balcony and the strong smells coming from the balcony dining area. The benefit of being placed in that location is that it catches the eye of people walking by and the skylights and windows help to keep it well illuminated. It would be easier to appreciate this work in a smaller room with other Islamic manuscript pages from the same time period.

Works Cited

Aquilina, Mike. Angels of God: The Bible, The Church, And The Heavenly Hosts. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009.

Aston, Margaret. The Renaissance Complete. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1996.

Civitali, Masseo. The Angel Gabriel. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Evans, Gillian Rosemary. The Church in the Early Middle Ages: The I.B. Tauris History of the Christian Church. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2007.

Hany, Islam. Translations and discussion of Qu’ran Manuscript and Qu’ran. Bradley J. Farless. 15 May 2011.

Unknown. Qu’ran Manuscript. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Where Does Fate End and Free Will Begin?

Note:  The following is the second and last paper I wrote for my World Humanities 1 class.  It deals with the issue of fate vs. free will in Oedipus the King, Macbeth, and the creation story of Genesis.  Please keep in mind that in regards to Genesis, this was written from a literary perspective and only using the information found in the first two chapters.  The paper has been edited slightly to look better as a blog post.


Some of the earliest artwork that’s been found, like the cave paintings at Lascaux in France and the Venus of Willendorf, indicates that man has had an interest in the supernatural since before recorded history. Archaeological evidence shows intentional burial of the dead with objects needed in the afterlife as much as sixty-thousand years ago and evidence also exists of the universality of religion in historic and modern times (Ember, Ember and Peregrine 446). This preoccupation with religion has led to the development of complex belief systems throughout history, from the Greek pantheon of gods in ancient Greece to the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which are based on the Jewish Talmud and Torah.

Starting with Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., scholars, theologians, historians and philosophers have speculated about religion. This speculation has sometimes taken the form of literature, such as the creation story in the book of Genesis, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These stories present situations that place man at odds with the supernatural. They pose the question of whether or not man has any control over his own life. Does man have free will, or is he driven by fate to success or failure? Each of the three stories gives us a similar, but different possible answer.

Adam and Eve Were Doomed to Fail

Adam and Eve stained glass window.
Adam and Eve stained glass window.

The book of Genesis is a Jewish religious text, later recognized by both Christians and Muslims, that tells the story of creation. In Genesis, God creates the world and then places man in that world as the pinnacle of His creation. From man, God creates woman and they live together in a paradise on Earth called the Garden of Eden. God also chooses to place the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. He tells Adam and Eve that they can enjoy the rest of the garden as much as they want, but they may not eat from that specific tree. Despite this warning, Eve does eventually eat the fruit of the tree and Adam joins her, causing them to be cast out of the garden.

Is it Adam and Eve’s fate to commit this sin, or do they have free will to avoid temptation? When God creates Adam and Eve, they are created without any concept of right or wrong. They have no concept of morality, because morality requires knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. When God places the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, he is setting Adam and Eve up for failure. Despite his instruction to Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree, they cannot be reasonably expected to follow this instruction, since they do not know that disobeying it is wrong.

God also allows evil to come into the garden, in the form of a talking snake, to tempt Eve into doing what God says shouldn’t be done. Even when Eve decides to eat from the tree, she does not do it out of a conscious act of disobeying. She does it because the tree is pretty and the fruit looks tasty: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes … she took of the fruit thereof…” (King James Version, Gen. 3:6).

God could have placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil anywhere in creation, but He chooses to place it in the Garden of Eden, where He also places man. God then tells Adam and Eve that they may not eat from the tree, but does not give them the mental capacity to understand that following His command is the right thing to do. God then allows the snake to tempt Eve. One could reasonably assume that an omniscient, all powerful God did these things for the sole purpose of ensuring that Adam and Eve would sin and fall from grace. Adam and Eve never had a choice in the matter.

(Image of Adam and Eve from The Rector’s Corner)

Laius and Oedipus Ruined Their Own Lives

Oedipus the KingIn Oedipus the King, Sophocles presents a tale showing that a foretold fate can be prevented, but is sometimes brought about by one’s own hands. The story revolves around two key prophecies from Apollo, one given to Laius and one given to Oedipus. Relating the story to Oedipus, Jocasta tells him that the oracle “declared that doom would strike [Laius] down at the hands of a son, / our son, to be born of our own flesh and blood” (Fagles 201). When Oedipus visits the oracle, he is told: “You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring / a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see– / you will kill your father, the one who gave you life!” (Fagles 205).

Both of these prophecies set in motion chains of events that lead to their fulfilment, but not because of fate or an inability to change the future. Laius and Oedipus both make conscious choices, of their own free wills, to act, or not act, on these prophecies, influencing the final outcomes. After hearing the prophecy, Laius could have acted in other ways that would have prevented its fulfilment. Laius could have killed Oedipus himself, or he could have raised him. If he had killed Oedipus outright, the prophecy would have had no chance of coming true. If he had raised Oedipus in Thebes, the boy would have either grown up to love him, or at the least he’d know who his son is. Knowing who his son is would have allowed him to keep an eye on him. Instead, Laius sends the baby Oedipus into the mountains with a shepherd, to die from exposure.

Instead of being left to die, Oedipus is given away and becomes the adopted son of the King and Queen of Corinth, where he in turn grows up and receives his own prophecy. When Oedipus hears this prophecy, he makes a conscious choice to leave Corinth, to avoid killing the people he believes are his parents. However, he also makes a choice to not heed the remainder of the prophecy. When trying to escape from an unpleasant fate, shouldn’t one take into consideration the whole prophecy? It’s true that he believes his parents are Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, but considering the stipulations of the prophecy, he could have chosen to avoid killing or marrying anyone in the future.

When Oedipus encounters a rude traveller on the road, instead of choosing to avoid trouble and run away, he attacks and kills the man, who turns out to be his biological father. When presented with an opportunity to marry, he takes it and unwittingly marries his mother, rather than remembering the prophecy and abstaining from marriage altogether. Through their own actions and their own choices, Laius and Oedipus both fulfil the prophecies they are given.

(Image in this section from

It’s All in the Journey, Because the End Doesn’t Change

Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.
Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we are presented with yet another way to view fate. While returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches along the road that present Macbeth with two prophecies. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, which he is. They then hail him as Thane of Cawdor, which confuses him since there is already a Thane of Cawdor. Finally, they hail him as “…Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Orgel 9). Shortly after the witches disappear, Macbeth finds out that he has been named the Thane of Cawdor. The witches do not tell him when these prophecies will come true and whether or not it is a deception on their part, Macbeth takes his immediate naming of Thane of Cawdor as a cue to act to ensure the fulfilment of the third prophecy.

At this point, Macbeth begins to control how he will bring about his own fate. Macbeth and his wife conspire to kill the current king, Duncan, and after succeeding, Macbeth is placed in power. He attains the kingship and his prophecy is fulfilled. However, because of the way Macbeth chooses to reach his prophesied destiny, his reward is short lived, violent and ends in tragedy. If Macbeth had chosen to wait for the prophecy to fulfil itself, he may have been a much older man when he was named king, but the transition would have likely been more peaceful and he might have even sat on the throne longer. In Macbeth, fate is absolute, but how Macbeth attains his fate is optional.

(Image of Macbeth and Banquo with the witches from Wikipedia)


These three works of literature each present a different view of how man is subject to fate. Is man locked into his fate with no chance to escape, like Adam and Eve in the Genesis creation story? Can man avoid fate altogether by acting on prophecy and making the proper choices, as evidenced by Oedipus the King? Or is our fate absolute, with only the way we get there left to our discretion, as in Macbeth? As long as man continues to believe in the supernatural, questions about man’s relationship with the divine will continue to be debated, because there is no way to definitively prove that any particular view is correct.


Ember, Carol R., Melvin R. Ember and Peter N. Peregrine. Anthropology: Thirteenth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010.
Fagles, Robert. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984.
Orgel, Stephen. Macbeth. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000.
Thomas Nelson Bibles. The Holy Bible; Containing the Old and New Testaments; Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001.

Culture Clash: Small-Town American vs. Somalian Immigrant Culture

This is a paper I wrote for my 100 level Anthropology class.  It deals primarily with an incident that occurred in Lewiston, Maine, between the residents and a massive influx of Muslim Somali immigrant refugees, and the reactions of both sides.  The paper was written along specific guidelines, as well as from an anthropological and cultural perspective.  The purpose of the paper is not to debate whether or not it was ‘right’ for the Somalis to be in the town, or to have been admitted to the country.  It was, instead, to discuss how culture affects relations between people from different areas, what cultural concepts are being demonstrated, and possible accommodations or solutions that could be offered.

The specific guidelines for the essay are as follows:

1. Review the video on migration above. [Migration: A Profile of the US]

2. Read article “Mixed Welcome…” … and

3. Answer the following questions in your paper:

  • Explain how aspects like migration, religion, food, dress, language, & religious holidays are cultural.
  • How are these cultural elements different in Somali culture than they are in small-town American culture?
  • What is important to know about these cultural elements, as they apply to Somali culture?
  • What do the Somali immigrants and the local Lewiston residents probably have in common?
  • What could local American government institutions, schools, and residents do to make accommodations for—and be sensitive toward—the cross-cultural differences?
  • How does this experience of cross-cultural contact illustrate what we’ve learned about cultural knowledge, individual behavior, and the process of cultural change?

Additionally, the paper was to be written in APA style (which I hope I got right) with at least 5 different references for material covered in the course to date.  I’ve included the references at the end of the post, so that the in-text citations make sense, and so a potential reader can find more information or verify the information I’ve presented in case they’re doing their own research for a paper.  I’ve also added some images to make this long stretch of text a bit more visually appealing.

Please keep in mind that this paper was written based only on the information given, rather than on any more recent events in Lewiston.

If you have any questions about the paper, please feel free to contact me or leave a comment.


Culture Clash: Small-Town American vs. Somalian Immigrant Culture

America is a great melting pot of cultures, but sometimes, cultures don’t want to be melted. To be more specific, there are sometimes groups of people who immigrate to the United States, but don’t want to assimilate into American culture. They bring their culture with them and then create isolated pockets of their own cultures within the greater American society. This isn’t an issue that only comes from immigrants. There are groups in the United States who have been here for generations that we all accept, like the Amish, who do not embrace modern American culture. Perhaps the reason we don’t mind having these insular groups in the United States is because they are, in fact, insular. They don’t try to impose their beliefs on the established order. In the case of the Amish, many of the beliefs and practices are still similar enough to our own that we can, if not accept them, understand them.

Problems arise when two very different cultures attempt to interact with each without trying to understand or make accommodation for each other first. Each group makes demands of the other group, oftentimes without being willing to compromise in any way. This paper will be discussing the ways in which culture and the misunderstanding of it have led to culture clashes between Somali immigrants in Lewiston, Maine and the local, small-town American population already living there (Belluck, 2002).

What is Culture?

Before trying to understand how cultural differences have led to misunderstandings between immigrant populations and the local, receiving populations, it will be helpful to understand just what culture is. The popular idea of culture is that it’s a desirable trait you can somehow acquire by attending a certain number of plays, visiting art galleries, or by going to classy concerts (Ember, Ember, & Peregrine, 2010). The reality is that culture is a difficult concept to nail down (Townsend, 2011) and an exact definition has been debated by anthropologists, with entire books being dedicated to the subject (White J. J., May/June 1998). The earliest definition of culture stated that it is “[t]hat complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (White E. B., 1871). This is a very inclusive definition, which leads you to believe that almost every aspect of daily life is cultural, and it is. Waking up in the morning and having a cup of coffee is cultural. Using an alarm clock to get out of bed at a set time is cultural. Driving your car to work every day is cultural. Going to church on Sunday is also cultural. Culture is everything we’ve been trained to do by the external sources that surround us (parents, television, education, radio, etc.), that allow us to function as well-integrated members of our societies.

So then, what is a society? And how do we define what cultural traits belongs to a society? A society is (Ember et al., 2010) “a group of people who occupy a particular territory and speak a common language not generally understood by neighboring peoples” (p. 224). These territories may or may not correspond to existing countries, which is the case with the Somali, who have populations in Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia (Shurgin, 2006). For a behavior to be considered a cultural trait of a particular society it must be a widely held belief or practice that is commonly found amongst the population (Ember et al., 2010). Using this information, it can readily be accepted that aspects of a society that are shared and practiced by the majority of a people are elements of that society’s distinct culture. This can include their choice of clothing, the types of food they eat, their language(s), holidays, and even beliefs. In regards to the Somali in Lewiston, even their migration can be seen as a result of culture. “Push and pull” (Migration: A Profile of the US, 2009) cultural factors in the country being emigrated from and the receiving country can act as powerful motivators to cause a migration. For example, the climate of war and conflict in Somalia, caused by the cultural tradition of clan loyalty is a strong push factor for emigration, whereas the relatively open, accepting, and peaceful society within the United States (caused by our culturally derived judicial and governmental systems) can be a strong pull factor, making it a desirable destination for immigrants.

So, culture is a powerful influence that affects almost every aspect of our lives. We grow up believing that the way we do things, our culture, is the normal way of doing things, and when we’re confronted with foreign cultures, especially those that are radically different from our own, it creates tension, and sometimes fear. However, it also challenges us to expand our view of the world and recognize how we’re different from other people, and how we’re the same. We have to allow for the fact that people are going to be different based on where they’re from, and because of these differences they may not see even the simplest aspects of life the same way we do. The tensions in Lewiston are caused by a failure to adequately understand other peoples’ cultures, both on the part of the Somali and the indigenous residents. One example is the mayor sending a letter to the Somali community, written in English, when most of the Somali don’t understand English. On the other hand, you could say that the Somali reaction to the letter was overly violent, because they immediately assumed it was an attack, instead of understanding the local economic situation and thinking of how their intrusion in the local culture has affected the original residents (Belluck, 2002).

These differences between cultures have become much more prominent in the media lately, specifically between what you could call Muslim culture and American culture, due to the United States’ military actions in the Middle East over the last decade. Because of these conflicts, Muslims in general are branded as the enemy. This idea of Muslims being the enemy has been well seated in the United States, and it is with this outlook that the Lewiston residents encountered and came into conflict with the obviously Muslim-influenced culture of the Somali immigrants.

Cultural Differences and Similarities:
Somali Immigrants vs. Lewiston Natives

Beginning to recognize differences between the culture of the Somali immigrants and the native culture of the Lewiston residents would help to shed light on the problem, and perhaps present solutions. The Somali come from a country on the Horn of Africa, which is predominantly Muslim. Many of the elements of their culture are borrowed from nearby Arab countries. Some of their practices may be seen as primitive or strange to Americans, but the culture of the Somali immigrants is simply a result of where they were born.

Somali immigrant workers.

(Image from: The Two Malcontents)

An important thing to understand about the Somali is that their culture and daily habits are heavily influenced by their religion, Islam, even to the point of their legal system being based on sharia (Islamic) law (Culture of Somalia, 2011). Despite President Obama’s recent announcement that the United States is not a Christian nation, the United States has been heavily influenced by the ideas and morals presented by the Bible. Many of our laws are based on Christian ideas and many of the great changes in our society, such as the end to slavery, were partially argued on the grounds that it violated the religious principles of Christianity (Gilson, 2009). It would be more accurate to say that the United States is a secular nation with Christian values. It’s easy to see how conflicts could arise between a Christian/secularist culture and a culture that is heavily influenced by Islam, especially since most Somalis hold their Muslim beliefs and practices in the highest regard.

The Somali’s adherence to Islam has had a profound effect on their culture. In terms of clothing, most Somali dress in adherence to Islamic principles. Men must wear clothing that covers them from neck to knee, and women must be covered from neck to ankle in non-form-fitting clothing. Married women may additionally wear a head scarf and/or a shawl (Culture of Somalia, 2011). The clothing they wear is sometimes based on region, sometimes adopted from neighboring Arab countries, but is almost always designed for a hot, arid climate and is in compliance with Islamic ideology. Most Somali speak the Somali language, but are illiterate. However, because of the influence of Islam, many Somali can speak and write Arabic, which is the language of the Qur’an. The Somali practice Muslim holidays, such as Ramadan, the month of fasting to celebrate the revelation of the Qur’an; Id al-Fitr; the First of Muharram, when an angel shakes the tree of life and death; Maulid an-Nabi (a celebration of Muhammad’s birth); and Id al-Adha, which commemorates the story of Abraham and his son Ishmael (Shurgin, 2006).


(Photograph by Kevin Fleming/CORBIS)

Other aspects of Somali culture are influenced by the region they come from. In addition to the clothing being adapted to hot, arid climates, the environment has affected their social structure and diet. Many Somali still live off the land as nomads and herders. Their diet consists mainly of cereals and grains, with few vegetables or meats. Due to adherence to Islam, alcohol and pork are not consumed. Milk, tea, coffee and water are the consumed drinks. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, a division of labor based on gender and age has been created, and people tend to live in multi-generational households. They also value interdependence and commonly have large families (Culture of Somalia, 2011).

By comparison, US society is very different. The most commonly recognized and observed holidays are secular or Christian. Individualism is highly valued in society, with children being shooed out the door as soon as possible. Families are typically small, with 2-3 children, rather than the 6+ in Somali families. Alcohol is consumed in great quantities, and a meal is not considered complete without meat, including pork at breakfast. The literacy rate in the US is high due to standardized education and people generally dress according to fashion, rather than a strict religious ideology. One of the greatest differences, though, is the separation of church and state. The Somali culture is incredibly Muslim, and as stated before, even their laws are drawn from their Islamic faith. Despite earlier Christian influences, our government is increasingly enforcing the separation of religion and government from public institutions. Private companies also try to enforce rules against actively promoting or practicing religion in the workplace. This active attempt to remove religion from daily life seems quite natural to Americans, because it’s a principle that the country was founded on. Religion has its place, and US society has determined that place to be outside of public areas. To a Somali Muslim, however, it may be seen as an attack on the Muslim faith, particularly since they require allowances for prayer times throughout the day, as well as facilities for performing ablutions before prayer (Mohammed, 2009). The denial of these facilities for those actions may be seen as a proper separation of church and state, but to a Muslim who is unaware of that cultural trend it may feel targeted.

Despite vast differences in culture, the Somali and the Lewiston residents both have things in common. Both groups have pride in their culture and are trying to do the best they can with the opportunities they’ve been given. Both groups hope for a better future for themselves and their families. Both groups likely value having a peaceful, happy town to live in, where they don’t have to be afraid of physical violence or racially motivated attacks. Both groups are likely hoping for a peaceful resolution that will allow for coexistence. At the time of the writing of Belluck’s article (2002), they also had one more thing in common. They failed to try to understand each other before reacting to the situation they found themselves in.

Accommodation and Cultural Change

Regardless of whether or not it is ‘right’ for the Somali immigrants to settle in Lewiston, or to have been admitted into the United States, it has already happened, and rather than create tension and possibly incite violence, this is an opportunity for these groups to learn about each other and possibly find a common ground to work from. For the residents of Lewiston, the only way for these two groups to come to grips with each other is through dialogue. This dialogue could be opened through town hall meetings. The local government could hold these meetings to address concerns in the town that everyone, including the immigrants, could voice their opinion on. The feeling of working together produced by these meetings would start building a sense of community. Additionally, qualified speakers could be brought in to talk about important cultural aspects of both Somali Muslim and American culture. Another possibility for Lewiston is that they could insert short, commercial-like infomercials into normal commercials that give a brief description of Somali Muslim cultural aspects, like why they wear burkas or why they pray five times a day. In the future, though, steps could be taken by the US government to prevent this type of situation from occurring in the first place.


Robert F. Bukaty / AP
Somali women and children in downtown Lewiston, Me.

When such large and foreign populations are introduced into American society, certain steps could be taken to ensure successful integration. The key to that success is education. It’s hard to predict where large groups of immigrants will attempt to settle, so the best solution for educating locals would be to introduce anthropological and cultural perspectives classes into secondary education as a mandatory requirement on a national level. The United States doesn’t exist alone, and understanding the world around us is beneficial for more reasons than just getting along with potential immigrants. As for the immigrants, mandatory and extended education about American culture, prior to being admitted into the general population, would likely go a long way towards accelerating their assimilation into society, or at the least, help them understand the people they’ll be interacting with. If the Somali immigrants in Lewiston had been taught about the role women play in our society, they wouldn’t have reacted the way they did to female employees (Belluck, 2002). Another helpful accommodation the government could make would be to provide English lessons for refugee immigrants that are admitted to the country. If the government is going to introduce groups of foreigners into US society, it should take responsibility for its actions and make sure these people are well equipped to, at the least, communicate with other Americans on a basic level. It is irresponsible to simply turn them loose in the US and expect them to become successful members of society. These refugee immigrants should also be evaluated for potential job skills, and if none are found, they should be trained. Again, it is irresponsible to simply release these people into American society, where they will invariably wind up living off the welfare system in perpetuity.

There are many things institutions, such as schools, could do to accommodate Muslim Somali immigrants, but the question to be asked is should they? As previously stated, the separation of church and state has rendered the practice of religion in public schools, for example, impossible except for the most private and innocuous of activities, such as praying silently (to yourself) over your meal at lunch time. If these sorts of restrictions have been placed on religion in public institutions, based on a Constitutional Amendment, should we make allowances for immigrant religions just for the sake of appeasement? Should we create a double standard where one religious group is excluded and another is permitted as much freedom as they want? Part of living in the United States is adhering to the local culture, which includes the local laws regulating what is acceptable in public institutions. If that means that religious traditions have to be slightly modified to fit the current situation, then it wouldn’t be the first time it has happened. Rather than ask what the government can do for them, they should ask what they can do for the government. Performing ablutions in a school’s gym showers would be perfectly fine, but allowing Muslim students to miss class time for religious practices would be unfair to the other religious groups that are denied similar privileges, as well as be detrimental to their education, since they would be missing instruction. If an accommodation for Muslims to practice religion in the schools is made, then that same accommodation should be afforded to people of all religions. If that were the case, then the solution would be simple. The school day could be extended by half an hour to 45 minutes, with a period of ‘free time’ beginning at noon. This would allow immigrant Muslim students to go to the gym showers to perform ablutions, conduct prayers in a designated location, and then return to class without missing out on anything. It would give students of other faiths time to have religious meetings, or to hang out with friends, or even to do homework. Another advantage would be that the practice of having a break between classes would start acclimating students to the educational atmosphere present in most colleges. In short, for a religious accommodation in a public institution, such as a school, it should be an ‘all-or-nothing’ policy that includes everyone.


(Photo from ISEDSolutions (Institute For Social And Economic Development))

The experience of the Somali immigrants in Lewiston and the reactions of the locals (noted in Belluck’s article (2002)) illustrate some of the basic concepts of culture and cultural change. We, as individuals, are all products of our social and physical environments, meaning we are all shaped by the culture around us. The way we interpret the world around us depends as much on culture as it does our educations and economic abilities. Because the Somali’s grew up in their Muslim dominated African culture, they had certain expectations of what liberties they should have, what ‘place’ women should be in, and they also had certain expectations of what to believe in terms of ‘white people’. When the mayor of Lewiston presented them with his letter, they immediately assumed they were being put upon by an “ill-informed leader who is bent towards bigotry” (Belluck, 2002). They assumed that because he was white, his intentions toward them were racist, based simply on the color of his skin. In this instance, the mayor’s skin color acted as a “floating signifier” (Jhally, 1997), conferring certain expectations in regards to his behavior, and the behavior of the other white townspeople. The mayor’s letter was made based on the townspeople’s own interpretation of what “them people” (Belluck, 2002) did or did not understand about American culture, economics and the situation of the town. It was an assumption of the Somali’s level of intelligence, based on the fact that they’re from a third world country and have immigrated to the United States. The integration of the Somali immigrants into the Lewiston population also gives us a clear example of acculturation. Based on Belluck’s article (2002), we can see that the Somali immigrants did what most Americans do when confronted with a social problem: they turned to the media to gain attention for their situation and swing popular opinion in their favor. If that isn’t American, nothing is. You could also say that the Somali have adopted the “American Dream”, migrating from place to place within the US to try to find a better life for both themselves and their children, even going so far as to dream of having “a house by the beach one day” (Belluck, 2002).


Culture is a powerful factor that influences our lives in ways that most of us never even begin to guess. It affects our outlook on life and can cause us to come into conflict with people of other cultures due to differences and a lack of education. The Lewiston residents and the Somali immigrants to Lewiston found that out the hard way, by allowing conflict to occur, rather than initiating discussions to learn about each other and overcome differences and challenges as a unified group. These sorts of problems could be greatly alleviated by an aggressive education campaign among American secondary students and incoming refugee immigrants. Additionally, greater freedoms could be allowed to people in institutional settings for the accommodation of religious practices, so long as those practices do not interfere with the actual purpose of the institution and the implemented policies are unilaterally applied. The case of the Somali immigrants in Lewiston serves as a great example of the importance of understanding culture and how it works, or doesn’t work, for us in the real world, as well as showing us the beginnings of cultural acculturation of immigrants. The process of understanding and reaching common ground between groups with such different backgrounds will never be an easy one, but with proper education and respect it will be possible.


Migration: A Profile of the US. (2009). Retrieved April 2, 2011, from Pearson: myanthrolab:
Culture of Somalia. (2011, January 18). Retrieved April 3, 2011, from Wikipedia:
Belluck, P. (2002, October 16). Mixed Welcome as Somalis Settle in a Maine City. Retrieved April 2, 2011, from The New York Times:
Ember, C. R., Ember, M., & Peregrine, P. N. (2010). Anthropology. Prentice Hall.
Gilson, T. (2009, August 12). Christianity and the Abolitionsist Movement. Retrieved April 3, 2011, from Thinking Christian:
Jhally, S. (Director). (1997). Stuart Hall – Race, The Floating Signifier [Motion Picture].
Mohammed, H. (2009, June 3). The Somali Culture and Beliefs. Retrieved April 2, 2011, from The Somali Cultural Association:
Shurgin, A. H. (2006). Culture of Somalia. Retrieved April 2, 2011, from Countries and Their Cultures:
Townsend, C. (2011, March 30). Class Lecture. New York City, New York, USA.
White, E. B. (1871). Primitive Culture. London: John Murray Publisher.

White, J. J. (May/June 1998). Helping students deal with cultural differences. Social Studies, 107.

Significance and Consequences of ‘Xenia’ in The Odyssey

A map of places visited in The Odyssey.
A map of places visited in The Odyssey.
(Image from:

This is a paper I wrote for my 100 level World Humanities class.  It deals with concepts of hospitality in The Odyssey.

The guidelines for this paper are as follows:

What is xenia?  What are the basic expectations that come with proper xenia?  List TWO examples of good xenia in The Odyssey, and one example of bad xenia.  (be sure to include at least one example from Books 13 – 24)  What are the consequences, good or bad, of each?  Why is xenia important to civilization?  What does it represent or establish in the minds of people of ancient Greece?

The paper was supposed to be at least 1400 words, double spaced in 12 point font, and in MLA format with a Works Cited page, so you’ll see that tacked onto the end of this so a reader can make sense of the in-text parenthetical citations that I’ll be copying into this blog post.


Odysseus and Athena
Odysseus and Athena

One of the most important themes in The Odyssey is the concept of xenia, which is the old Greek word for hospitality. In modern times, hospitality is something we rarely think of, and the first thing that comes to mind is the hotel industry, but in ancient Greece, xenia was not about hotels, or just about etiquette, it was a way of life with many benefits in a world that was still mostly savage.

Xenia was more than just being polite to strangers. It was a set of rules and customs that defined the guest-host relationship between two individuals, two groups of people, or an individual and a group (Wilson 370).  Some basic rules of this relationship were that the guest could not insult the host, make demands, or refuse xenia. Additionally, the host could not insult the guest, fail to protect the guest, or fail to be as hospitable as possible. It was also customary for gifts to be given to the guest, or for a gift exchange to be conducted between guest-friends (Wilson 370).

This complicated guest-host relationship placed equal burden on both the host and the guest, starting with the guest finding a ‘proper’ place to seek xenia. The custom was for the guest to take shelter in a home that fit his social standing, so you would not normally see a beggar looking for hand-outs at the palace of a king, or a noble seeking xenia from a commoner under, ideal circumstances at least.

This custom of xenia also carried a burden of trust, where both the host and guest would have to rely on custom in regards to personal safety. This trust was reinforced by both fear of word getting out that the host had provided improper xenia, and fear of retribution by the gods (Biggs, Joseph and Bennet, Mollie), since one never knew when a traveller might actually be a god in disguise, come to test the level of your xenia. All travellers were seen as sent by Zeus and under his protection (Homer 153), so giving proper xenia was also a way of showing reverence for the gods, especially Zeus in the form of Zeus Xenios.

(Image above from:

Examples of Xenia in The Odyssey

The Odyssey “may be viewed as a study in the laws of hospitality” (Pitt-Rivers 13) and is full of examples of both good and bad xenia, where good xenia is rewarded and bad xenia is punished. The theme of punishment and reward for how xenia is offered runs throughout The Odyssey, starting with Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus to his return to Ithaka and eventual vengeance against the suitors. The story relies so heavily on concepts of xenia that The Odyssey could not have been written without it in mind. Almost every encounter between characters gives us demonstrations of how xenia should, or shouldn’t be carried out.

Good Xenia:  Odysseus and Nausikaa

One of the best examples of good xenia in The Odyssey is that of Nausikaa (Homer 104 – 108), a princess on the island of the Phaiakians. Odysseus had been shipwrecked and took refuge under a bush for the night. Late the next morning, he woke up to the sound of girls screaming while at play with a ball they had accidentally kicked into a nearby stream. Seeing an opportunity for help, he decided to approach them. Emerging from the bushes, rough, ragged, crusted with dried seawater and covered only by an olive branch, he approached Nausikaa and her maids-in-waiting. A natural reaction in this sort of situation would be to run and hide, which is what Nausikaa’s maids-in-waiting did, but Nausikaa, remembering the obligations of xenia, as well as the dream Athena had sent her the night before (Homer 99 – 100), stood her ground and waited for Odysseus, to hear him out.

After he spoke, she used what means she had available to her to offer good xenia to a guest on her father’s island. She called back her maids and reminded them that “Strangers and beggars come from Zeus: a small gift, then, is friendly” (Homer 105). She then directed her maids to take him to the river and bathe him, providing him with oils to rub onto his skin. She provided him with fresh clothing, taken from the laundry she’d washed in the river. She also offered him food and drink. These are all examples of good xenia to a stranger. She took care of his needs and then, afterwards, she even offered a parting gift: information about how he could accomplish his task of getting home. She told him how best to approach her parents and how best to win them over, so he would have a good chance of receiving the help he needed to get home.

Odysseus, for his part, also kept up his side of the obligations of xenia. He calculated how best to seek her aid without insulting her (“In his swift reckoning, he thought it best to trust in words to please her—and keep away; he might anger the girl, touching her knees.” (Homer 103)), made requests but not forceful demands, and gratefully accepted her gifts and advice. It’s easy to see the result of good xenia here, in terms of how Odysseus profited by it. He eventually encountered Nausikaa’s parents, was well received, entertained, and was sent on his way in a Phaiakian boat to Ithaka, loaded down with treasures.

It’s more of a stretch to see how the Phaiakian’s benefited from their good xenia, since the boat that took Odysseus home, along with its crew, was turned to stone within sight of Skheria Island, their home. It’s possible that the ability to tell future guests that they once played host to the great Odysseus may bring them some fame and honor. Also, because of their remote location, the Phaikians might have become complacent. This incident caused them to become more wary of helping strangers (Homer 235), which could be a good thing for them, especially in a speculative future where other, less hospitable, groups of people move into their area.

(Image above from:

Good Xenia:  Odysseus and Eumaios

Another example of good xenia in The Odyssey is Odysseus’ reception by Eumaios (Homer 248 – 249), a swineherd on his estate in Ithaka. Even though Odysseus appeared to be a homeless, wandering beggar, he was still received well by Eumaios. He was immediately invited in for food and drink: “Come to the cabin. You’re a wanderer too. You must eat something, drink some win, and tell me where you are from and the hard times you’ve seen” (Homer 248). Eumaios even arranged his own bed as a bench for Odysseus to sit down, reminding Odysseus that “…rudeness to a stranger is not decency, poor though he may be…” (Homer 249). When evening came, Eumaios made a bed for Odysseus and even offered him his own cloak to keep him warm during the night. This level of courtesy towards a man, who, for all appearances, was nothing more than a beggar, shows Eumaios’ dedication to proper xenia. Odysseus continued to stay with Eumaios for multiple days, but at no point did Eumaios ever insist that he leave. He offered as much hospitality as he could to Odysseus, trusting in the customs of xenia that Odysseus would make no unreasonable demands or overstay his welcome.

For his part, Odysseus made no demands of Eumaios and did not threaten or insult him, despite his humble offerings. In fact, Homer repeatedly indicates Odysseus’ pleasure at Eumaios’ actions. Eumaios’ hospitality, and later his help, enables Odysseus to reclaim his house and get rid of the suitors. Because Eumaios treated Odysseus to good xenia, and proved his continuing loyalty to him during the conversations they had while Odysseus was in the guise of a beggar, his life was spared when Odysseus slaughtered the servants who had turned against him and against his house.

Bad Xenia:  Odysseus and The Suitors

Odysseus slaying his wife's suitors after returning to Ithaka.
Odysseus slaying his wife’s suitors after returning to Ithaka.
(Image from: FrogStorm)

One of the most obvious examples of bad xenia in The Odyssey is the treatment of Odysseus’ house, and Odysseus himself, by the suitors who, in his absence, have come to his home seeking his wife’s hand in marriage. The mere fact that they came to his house, seeking Penelope’s hand in marriage, isn’t necessarily wrong. Odysseus had been gone for nearly 15 years when the suitors showed up. There had been no solid news of him, and no one had any idea if he were alive or dead. What makes their behavior bad xenia is the way they went about it. They imposed themselves on the household, devouring the livestock, consuming the wine, insulting their host, Telemakhos, and refused to leave when their presence and intentions toward Penelope were obviously not wanted. Penelope tells the suitors in the hall, “Others who go to court a gentlewoman, daughter of a rich house, if they are rivals, bring their own beeves and sheep along; her friends ought to be feasted, gifts are due to her; would any dare to live at her expense?” (Homer 325) She also later reminds them, “suitors indeed, you commandeered this house” (Homer 393). The suitors even made plans to kill Telemakhos, to get him out of the way so they could further their goal of obtaining Penelope’s hand and dividing the spoils of the house. Since Odysseus was, in fact, still alive and master of his house, all of these transgressions of xenia can be seen as transgressions of xenia against Odysseus.

Additionally, when Odysseus returned home, though in disguise, the suitors continued to show bad xenia. Antinoos was particularly vicious to him. As he made his rounds of the suitors’ tables, in the guise of a beggar asking for hand-outs, Antinoos threatened him with violence, mocked him by calling him a pest, and then threw a stool at his back that hit him (Homer 326). These actions, along with further demonstrations of bad xenia on Antinoos’ part and from all the suitors in general, show us the exact opposite of what good xenia is.

In the role of the guest, the suitors insulted their host by overstaying their welcome, by making unreasonable demands on the house in terms of provisions, and by attempting to kill Telemakhos. In the role of the host, the suitors failed to provide proper xenia by insulting their guest, Odysseus, by injuring him instead of protecting him from harm, and by not being as hospitable as possible. Their bad xenia was well rewarded, since Odysseus was home with the blessings of Zeus, who avenges bad xenia, and Athena, Odysseus’ patron goddess. As Odysseus prepared to draw the first arrow, Zeus sent an omen signalling his approval, a loud thunderclap. Still playing up to his role, Odysseus proved himself by firing the arrow through the rings on the axe-heads, and then turned bring an end to the mockery the suitors had made of his house. Antinoos, the most vicious of the suitors, was the first to fall. In the end, all of the suitors died, and the disloyal servants with them. Bad xenia met with a bad end.

Importance of Xenia in Greek Civilization

The custom of xenia was, to the Greeks, the mark of civilization in the late 12th century BC, a time when most of the world was still savage. This is evident by Odysseus’ statement: “Now, by my life, mankind again! But who? Savages, are they, strangers to courtesy? Or gentle folk, who know and fear the gods?” (Homer 102) This was his reaction when he woke up on the island of Skheria and heard Nausikaa and her maids screaming while playing with their ball. He wondered if the people of the island would show courtesy (xenia), or if they were savages that had no regard for Zeus Xenios. This shows us that any place that did not practice xenia was considered uncivilized.

Besides being a measure for determining who was civilized and who wasn’t, it was an important part of the religious aspect of their life. Since they believed that Zeus was the patron god of travellers seeking xenia, honoring a guest was the same as honoring Zeus. Failure to honor a guest was to risk incurring the wrath of the gods. Xenia was also a good way for Greeks to develop reciprocal relationships with each other, creating bonds of trust between members of city states, and more importantly between the nobility of the city states. These bonds of xenia could prove useful if one friend were attacked. He could call on the people he’d shown good xenia to, to aid him in seeking reparations, or for making war. Hopefully, though, if good xenia is practiced by all, then hostilities would not be a problem, because proper respect would be shown by both the guest and host, reducing the chances of conflict. In this way, the Greeks’ sense of community is greatly aided by the relationships created through xenia.

Showing good xenia could also be a way of spreading fame for your house or country. When Odysseus is on the island of the Phaiakians, as part of King Alkinoos entertainment (his xenia toward Odysseus) he presents the Phaiakian dancers, in the hope that Odysseus would, “on his return tell his companions we excel the world in dance and song, as in our ships and running” (Homer 132). Later, when Odysseus is in his own house posing as a beggar, he implores Antinoos to give him a bit of bread, telling him, “Let me speak well of you as I pass on over the boundless earth” (Homer 324). In other words, he would tell others he met of Antinoos’ good xenia and raise his reputation and fame. Of course, that’s not what happened in that instance, but it’s still obvious that providing good xenia was beneficial to reputation and fame. Xenia was as important a part of Greek civilization as government, reinforced by religion and constantly producing beneficial results for all parties involved.


The Odyssey, with all of its examples of both good and bad xenia, offers us a look into the world of the Greeks, and the importance this cultural element played in their daily lives. Throughout the story, bad xenia is punished and good xenia brings rewards to those who offer it. It was religious, it was beneficial, and it distinguished the Greeks from their barbarian neighbors. The Odyssey, as well as being an entertaining story, reinforced the ideals of civility among the Greeks who heard it. Today, in addition to being a reference tool to better understand the Greeks, The Odyssey is just as entertaining, enlightening, and exciting to read.

Works Cited

Biggs, Cory, et al. The Value of Hospitality. n.d. 27 March 2011.

Homer. The Odyssey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1998.

Pitt-Rivers, Julian. “The Stranger, the Guest and the Hostile Host.” Peristiany, J. G. Contributions to Mediterranean Sociology. The Hague: Mouton, 1968.

Wilson, Nigel Guy. Encyclopedia of ancient Greece. Psychology Press, 2006.

“The Three-Headed Male Figure”—African Art (Kuyu)

You may remember last week I posted about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s bizarre laptop policy.  This post is about the reason I was there.  I had to write an essay for my 100 level Art History class on either a Greek, Indian, Egyptian or Sub-Saharan African sculpture from the museum.  You’ll notice in the instructions below that it says we could write about paintings or architecture, but the professor told us to stick with sculptures in class.  It’s not a traditional essay, since there’s no real opening or closing paragraph, but these are the instructions we were given:

The paper (1 – 2 pages) should consist of four paragraphs.  It should be as follows:

Paragraph 1:  Identify the work briefly but adequately.  Start by stating that “the paper will be discussing the formal aspects and the museum presentation of the following piece”, then give the title of the work, name of artist if known –if unknown write anonymous—medium, country of origin and date.  Mention where it is located in the museum.

Paragraph 2:  Describe the work by writing a complete formal analysis.  In looking at the form you will consider the various aspects of form that are discussed in class, such as:  materials, size, texture, kind of shapes and lines, colors, light…etc.  A person who is not familiar with the pieces should get a clear idea of how they look through your description.

Paragraph 3:  Consider how the piece is exhibited (displayed).  That would include, the approximate size of the gallery (room), kind of light used in the gallery, the case where the piece is exhibited; if a painting, the way it is hung.  Mention the other objects in the room and their effect on your chosen piece.   In case you are working on an architectural piece such as a room, it will be within a larger gallery, consider its relation with its surroundings and what is displayed within it.  Do you think the display effects [sic] the piece and the visitor’s experience negatively or positively?  Explain.  If you were the curator, would you change the exhibit (display)? Yes, no, why?

Paragraph 4:  Suppose you’d like to do research on the piece.  What questions would you like to answer?  Write down any question for which an answer can’t be found by just looking at the piece.

So, those are the guidelines I was given to write this paper, and this is what I came up with:


Three-Headed Male Figure: Formal Aspects and Museum Presentation

The paper will be discussing the formal aspects and the museum presentation of the following piece: “Three-Headed Male Figure”. The work is a 19th century wood and pigment statue by an anonymous artist from the Kuyu peoples in the Congo Basin area of what is now the Republic of the Congo. The work is located on the ground floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, New York, in room 352 of the “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” section.

The “Three-Headed Male Figure” is a free-standing, carved wood statue of a partially nude male figure. The statue is cylindrical and appears to be carved from one solid piece of wood. The figure is standing upright, in an erect, rigid posture. The statue’s feet are large and rounded, extending backward from the rear of the leg as far as they do forward. The legs are cylindrical and smooth and are disproportionately short compared to the rest of the body. The lower portions of the legs are covered by sets of raised carved wood lines that resemble simple torques. The arms are narrow and are carved flat against the torso, which is highly cylindrical and lacking in natural definition. The front and back of the torso are covered with an assortment of geometric patterns, as are the upper portions of the legs. A toggle shaped pattern covering the upper legs circles the whole form, but leaves the genitalia exposed in the front. The geometric patterns across the abdomen are mostly rounded, with shapes that include circles, curved lines similar to hills, and beaded areas which are also clustered in circles. The rear of the torso is covered in one pattern of lines with points that extend downward on each side of the spine. The patterns are carved from the same wood as the rest of the statue and are raised from the surface, in relief. They are carved deep enough to provide areas of shadow in the pattern, depending on how it is positioned in relation to a light source. The head of the statue is oblong and taller than natural. The cheeks and foreheads are covered with carved decorations. The features of the faces are carved deeply, with hard, strong lines. The faces are arranged so that one is pointed forward and the other two are angled backwards just behind each shoulder, with no gap between each face. Large portions of the statue were originally covered in white and red pigments. Some of those pigments still remain on the tops of the geometric designs on the upper legs and torso, as well as on portions of the faces.

The statue is positioned in a medium sized gallery room, which is filled with other African art pieces. The pieces are all contained in glass display cases which, in most cases, allow for viewing from all four sides. There are no external windows in the gallery and all of the lighting is artificial. Compared to the Greek and Roman gallery, the lighting is dim, with most of the light being focused on the individual pieces. The lower lighting in the room and the focus of the light sources on the pieces invites the viewer to more seriously consider the artwork on display. The positioning of the lighting also allows for the geometric patterns on the pieces to have areas of shadow, which adds to the viewing experience and gives the pieces more depth, emphasizing the three dimensional aspect of the sculptures. The “Three-Headed Male Figure” is positioned in the center of the rear portion of the room, in its own glass case, with multiple light sources illuminating the statue’s three faces. In addition to focusing the viewer’s attention on the pieces, the artificial lighting in the room protects the wood of the art pieces from sun damage and reduces the damage that could be done to the remaining pigments. The gallery the “Three-Headed Male Figure” is positioned in gives it context. The room is quiet, and the spotlight-style lighting greatly adds to the enjoyment of the viewing experience. The smaller pieces, which are grouped together in large display cases, are well positioned, but to improve the overall experience of viewing the sculptures and other large items in the room, benches could be added, so viewers could sit and reflect.

To better appreciate the “Three-Headed Male Figure”, it would be helpful to have a more thorough understanding of the piece’s background and use. African art is functional, so without understanding what it was used for, you can’t truly understand the significance of the art. To further that understanding, research into the traditions and culture of the Kuyu peoples, and other native peoples in the area, could lend insight into what the sculpture was used for. It would also be interesting to know who in the society made the piece: a professional, a priest, a family member, or the person (or persons) for whom the piece was intended to be used. Besides knowing how it was made and what it was used for, it would also be helpful to know how it was originally displayed in the community and whether or not the people that used it interacted with it, or if it was only viewed. Lastly, it would be worthwhile to find out if similar statues are still used by the native peoples of the region, or if the practice has died out completely.


The paper wound up being 2.5 pages, double spaced and in a 12 point font, which was also required.  The paper hasn’t been graded yet, but when it has, I’ll add that to the new “Essays (Graded)” page I added to this blog, which can be accessed from the tab bar under the header.

And now, the moment you’ve possibly been waiting for.  What does this “Three-Headed Male Figure” actually look like?  (Click on the images to see larger versions).

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff to look at in the Met, and I’m very much looking forward to my next trip there, where I can simply look and enjoy, without having to consider how to write a paper about the sculptures, though I think I will be able to appreciate them more, now that I have a better understanding of how these items are made and what they were used for.