Representation as Visual Exegesis

The Stone Figurines of Chalcolithic Cyprus


  • Richard G. Lesure University of California, Los Angeles



Chalcolithic, Cyprus, figurines, metaphor, schematization, subject matter


An image may signify not simply by resembling its referent but also by being similar to or different from other images. Among Chalcolithic stone figurines from Cyprus, that second dimension of signification seems to account for much of the formal variability. Several heterogeneous types were characterized by differential schematization: images ranged from highly schematic to more recognizably anthropomorphic. In each of these types, formal relations among the figurines suggest an underlying logic uniting a diversity of images. Individual figurines would have been perceived both as distinctive and as part of a systematically varied whole. Cross-referencing among the images is so pronounced that it needs to be given serious attention in any effort to characterize subject matter. I suggest that the stone figurines were not depictions of people, but rather of signs—logo-like symbols conceived of as vaguely anthropomorphic. It is thus the more schematic of the figurines that come closest to depicting the basic subject of the images. Anthropomorphic detail constituted an elaboration on the core image, and it signified metaphorically rather than literally. Like cartoonists who distort the faces or bodies of politicians, Chalcolithic figurine makers manipulated the form of stone figurines to interpret the meaning of their subjects. These representations can be thought of as ‘visual exegeses’, because an interpretive commentary on the referent was embedded in the form of the image. Indeed, most of the differences in form among the figurines derive from the varied interpretive elaborations of the artists rather than an effort to distinguish different referents.

Author Biography

Richard G. Lesure, University of California, Los Angeles

Richard G. Lesure is Professor of Anthropology and Marilyn Beaudry-Corbett Endowed Chair in Mesoamerican Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research interests include archaeological rhetoric, the interpretation of prehistoric art, and the social transformations associated with sedentism and agriculture in Formative period Mesoamerica.



How to Cite

Lesure, R. G. (2017). Representation as Visual Exegesis: The Stone Figurines of Chalcolithic Cyprus. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, 30(1), 33–58.