Fetal Art.

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olmec

One rarely thinks of the human fetus as the subject of artistic treatment, but Carolyn Tate and Gordon Bendersky make a good case in Olmec Sculptures of the Human Fetus that this is exactly what one set of very peculiar looking ancient Mesoamerican sculptures are -- realistic renderings of fetuses at various stages of development. They write:

Olmec sculptures of fetuses are extremely naturalistic. For example, on
the sculpture below, note the careful attention to the swelling and
folds around the eyes, the chin, the bony protrusion of the clavicle,
the subtle shapes of muscles in the upper arms and legs, and the
rendering of cuticles and fingernails.



tate

Tate and Bendersky provide more supportive evidence for their theory in the article cited. They also speculate as to the symbolic meaning of the figures:

Most Olmec stone figurines represent humans in a state of physical or
spiritual transformation. The metamorphosis evident in the developing
fetus, from a tadpole or fish-like form to a human one, makes it a
potent symbol for such a process. In fact, among the Mixe, contemporary
descendants of the Olmecs, the female supernatural power that controls
bodies of water also controls human childbirth and fishing. It is as if
one "fishes" for children, or as if fish were placed in the womb in
order to be "cooked" into human infants, as the Mixe say. Similarly,
the fetus parallels the life cycle of maize, the quintessential
Mesoamerican symbol of the miracle of life. Both undergo dramatic
transformation, the fetus apparently from "lower" to "higher" animal
and the maize from seed to gloriously upright fruiting plant to seed
again.

The photo of the jade figurine is from Wikipedia

The drawing is from Tate and Bendersky, captioned:  Seated fetus effigy with arms clutching knees, from Catemaco, Veracruz area. Basalt. Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution. Drawing: G. Bendersky


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