BMCR 2022.08.15

Figurines: figuration and the sense of scale

, Figurines: figuration and the sense of scale. Visual conversations in art and archaeology. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 208. ISBN 9780198861096 $40.00.

Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

This edited volume consists of a versatile collection of articles, examining how scholars currently employ, understand, and conceptualize the term ‘figurine’. It brings together multiple art historical and archaeological fields of study, including those of Greek, Roman, ancient Chinese, and Mesoamerican cultures (1). Yet, its case studies allow for more than art historical and archaeological discussions, leaping into the realms of epistemology and conceptual inquiry. While the chapters address anthropomorphic figurines of many different attributes, materials, and contexts, they all regard figurines as three-dimensional, in-the-round objects that evoke human and animal bodies bearing on both mimetic and nonmimetic connotations (133). The volume’s authors are all intrigued by how figurines bring about a tactile, sensory experience, inviting us to handle and possess them. Beyond that, the authors all also focus on how figurines partake in broader systems of scaling, mainly miniaturization, and practices of copy, both of which the book presents as gateways into articulating the collective meaning and importance of figurines. Thus, figurines are defined by their referential qualities, as representing something full-sized, whether real or imagined (150).

Richard Neer discusses in “Small Wonders” examples of figurines, puppets, and miniatures from Archaic and Classical Greece, of the 8th–4th centuries BCE, examining how they induce a sense of fascination and wonder, or, in Greek, thauma (15–17). Neer is interested in the ways in which Greek figurines conceive size and scale not only as absolute categories, but as relative classifications, which are situational by nature (11–13). One of Neer’s main points is that Greek cult statues were oftentimes small figurines, serving, despite their size, as the focus of worship in temples (17–25). We can therefore conceive of an aesthetic of a ‘large figurine’, meaning, a small statue that brings monumentality to mind (35). Yet, Neer is also interested in how smallness allowed Greek artists to become more expressive and experimental with their quick and affordable artworks, compared to other formal, stately statues. To him, such Greek figurines are more fluid in their artistic style, and engage more freely with iconography, likeness, representation, and gender (27–30). Finally, Neer explores some contextual differences between toys and figurines (25–27).

Claudia Brittenham, discussing figurines from the Olmec culture in ancient Mesoamerica under the title “Shifting Scales”, is concerned with the meaning of figurines as diminutive, handled objects. Focusing on some 30 greenstone figurines found in cultic contexts at the site of La Venta, she considers them amongst other clay figurines and miniatures of animals and objects, like canoes (51–52). Setting figurines within broader referential systems, she discusses them with reference to figures and texts depicting children, but also considers them together with monumental objects, formidable architecture, and towering mountainous landscape (61–70). La Venta’s miniatures were meant to fit comfortably within a human palm, no matter how large their life-size referents were; the human body became their scale. This then brings Brittenham to contemplate their handling and display within the site, as such figurines were not meant to be positioned on a flat surface (57–60), but were placed together with objects of diverse sizes (61–70).

Wu Hung’s chapter “Thinking through Scale” is also a reflection on the meaning of scale orders (89). In the Lishan mausoleum of the first emperor, Emperor Qinshihuang (Xi’an, Shaanxi, China, of the 2nd century BCE), figurines of generals and officials stood some 1.80 meters tall—probably slightly larger than life-size—while stable boys and zookeepers were reduced to a total height of about 1.30 meter (107), and acrobats may have originally reached a staggering height of 2.50 meters (108). At the same time, the mausoleum also housed the remains of humans and animals, evoking an interesting relationship between representational and real (111–112). Indeed, the likeness of the emperor, the owner of the mausoleum, was beyond figuration (104). Despite their spectrum of sizes, the mausoleum’s statues are known to us as ‘figurines’—the common English translation for their Chinese name, yong. Yet, yong is a term mostly associated with objects from funerary contexts, of any size (88–89). In this case, miniature elements within the tomb—which were abundant—were not meant to be handled by people, but rather, were made compatible to the diminutive size of the souls of the deceased, who needed small passageways and vehicles to guide them (121). Hung therefore marks the First Emperor’s tomb as a milestone in Chinese art history, a moment when a sculptural system was designed from a referential perspective, where miniatures were placed alongside the life-size, the monumental, and remains of real bodies, creating new systems of meaning (126).

In the concluding chapter titled “Death of the Figurine”, Jaś Elsner presents overarching insights into the collective role of figurines in Judaic, Muslim, and Christian religions in late antiquity, or rather, points to their meaningful disappearance due to a growing distaste for idols (132). Despite its title, the chapter does not deal with iconoclasm or ritual killing of figurines, but rather, explores how monotheistic religions slowly strived to reject figurines (though Elsner notes some exceptions in Egypt and Iran). Thinking about Abrahamic traditions through the lens of Greco-Roman written history (including Ovid’s Pygmalion, 158–161), Elsner regards the figurine as the enlivened, materialized presence of an entity (or, more commonly, of a deity)—a placeholder, and a mediator between worshippers and gods. The figurine’s miniature scale thus transverses the practice of worship into an intimate, possessive relationship. Roles are reversed, as the worshipper physically handles their own god, dominating it. In this regard, Elsner expands the very meaning of the term ‘figurines’ to include their interventional (or even intrusive) potential—meaning, the ways in which figurines provoke their handlers to respond to them. To Elsner, such provocations are uniquely urgent and engrossing, compared to the more tamed responses we may have to two-dimentional visual depictions (151).

Read together, the chapters of this book present figurines to be effective entry points into essential art historical questions about anthropomorphism, zoomorphism, representation, and ideas of scale and miniaturization. All chapters address figurines within a contextual, referential system, where small-scale figurines become meaningful by reflecting something else—be it the full-sized human body, or a monumental statue—which may, or may not, be known archaeologically. Elsner compellingly frames figurines to be “art history’s most archaeological object”, and archaeology’s “art-historical…special case” (3–4). More specifically, they allow art historians to pose questions of function and context and archaeologists to consider cultural historical issues and how art objects bear on rather intangible aspects of religion. All authors regard figurines as culturally-dependent and as metonyms for other objects, or as proxies for other forces. Thus, while the authors underline how ‘figurine’ groups together several, distinct, culturally-specific terms (152), the book presents an overall cohesive approach in exploring this class of objects. Of course, as Brittenham emphasizes, ‘figurine’ it is not a term we use in our own everyday life: “we have dolls, action figures, scale models…they had figurines” (183). Another stream connecting the book’s articles is the concept of animation. Brittenham aptly places Elsner’s view within familiar anxieties about idols, characteristic of Abrahamic religions (182), which plays into the animated, enlivened qualities associated with figurines. This, in turns, connects with Neer’s ideas on figurines as automata (27–28) and Hung’s discussion of figurines’ resemblance to “puppets” placed in story-telling scenes (123).

Readers who hope to find discussions on figurines as folk-art objects—as possible indications for social stratification within the practice cult, or within domestic vs. institutionalized religion—will find that such parameters are not the focus of this present volume.[1] Other readers, who may wish to explore figurines as markers of womanhood, as representations of female bodies (148), or address questions of gender in antiquity,[2] will also discover that this book is mostly not concerned with those avenues. Rather, the book’s comparative visual approach often distances itself from anthropological or societal questions (except for Hung’s chapter, which presents the emperor’s mausoleum while building on concrete, historical settings from courtly life). In fact, this book is read as a reflection on the epistemology of figurines, focusing on how we think of figurines, and what figurines can teach us of the ancients’ knowledge of the world. Even though it discusses figurines in ancient Greece or Mesoamerica, the book’s overall takeaways aim beyond any culturally-specific study of figurines’ aesthetics or function. Indeed, Figurines is part of the book series Visual Conversations in Art and Archaeology, also edited by Elsner, which fosters a vaster phenomenological framework, exploring our use of classifications and categories in visual studies of the ancient world. Being based on the proceedings of conferences held at the Center for Global Ancient Art at the University of Chicago and under the Empires of Faith Project at the British Museum, this book should not be regarded as a reference book on figurines; nor does it proclaim to directly engage with all previous scholarship on the subject, or summarize current literature pertaining to the study of figurines in specific cultures. Interestingly, influential works by Langin-Hooper and Martin on the theoretical turn in the study of the miniature are not addressed in Figurines, although they are cited in the bibliographies of some chapters. Langin-Hooper and Martin have challenged the idea of the figurine as being fore and foremost a semiotic referent, while building on diverse case studies from the ancient world; Figurines may have therefore engaged in productive dialogue with their ideas.[3] Elsner’s book should be used somewhat differently, as a springboard for scholars and students to experiment with, pushing themselves to articulate and theorize their own approach to figurines, miniaturization, scale, and animation in their respective fields of study, and to conceive of figurines as semiotic icons in playful, creative ways. Scholars and students of art history, archaeology, and the study of material culture, will therefore find this book potent with questions that may inspire innovative studies in their own regions, cultures, and periods of specialty.

Authors and titles

Introduction, Jaś Elsner
1. Small Wonders: Figurines, Puppets, and the Aesthetics of Scale in Archaic and Classical Greece, Richard Neer
2. Shifting Scales at La Venta, Claudia Brittenham
3. Thinking Through Scale: The First Emperor’s Sculptural Enterprise, Wu Hung
4. The Death of the Figurine: Reflections on an Abrahamic Abstention, Jaś Elsner
Epilogue, Claudia Brittenham


[1] See, for instance, Moorey, P. R. S. 2003. Idols of the People. Miniature Images of Clay in the Ancient Near East. Oxford and New York: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press.

[2] See, for instance, Darby, E. 2014. Interpreting Judean Pillar Figurines. Gender and Empire in Judean Apotropaic Ritual. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. Ancient figurines’ ongoing role in contemporary feminist narratives speaks volumes as to the universal, global meanings we attribute to such enduring icons of female bodies. Artist and filmmaker Nina Paley recently (2018) animated a widely popular series of 24 prominent ‘goddess’ figurines and depictions from various ancient cultures and periods ( as part of her film ‘Seder-Masochism’ (, performing as visual commentary on patriarchy in the story of Exodus. Ruth Patir’s exhibition M/otherland, curated by Mayaan Sheleff, OnCurating Project Space, Zurich, 2021, animated Judean Pillar figurines as going through intrusive, arduous fertility treatments (Braverman Gallery: Ruth Patir Solo Exhibition M/ otherLand ; M/otherLand).

[3] Martin, R. and Langin-Hooper, S. M. (eds.). 2018. The Tiny and the Fragmented: Miniature, Broken, and Otherwise Incomplete Objects in the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Another volume, which was published at the same time as Figurines, groups together other of Langin-Hooper’s relevant works on the subject (Langin-Hooper, S. M. 2020. Figurines in Hellenistic Babylonia. Miniaturization and Cultural Hybridity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).