Collection Highlight: Lovers (Mithuna)

This week in the spirit of looking at love, Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, offers more insight on one of our masterpieces that will be on view in the West Wing galleries in December after reinstallation is complete.

Lovers (Mithuna), 1000s. India, Madhya Pradesh, Khajuraho style,
Medieval period, Candella dynasty, 11th century.rust-colored sandstone.
Overall - h:74.00 cm (h:29 1/8 inches). Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 1982.64


What is it?
A high relief sculpture from a medieval temple in northern India depicting a pair of lovers in an intimate embrace.

What is it made of?

How old is it?
One thousand years old

How was it used?
It was part of the sculptural embellishment on the exterior wall of a temple. Erotic imagery is a standard element on sacred monuments made for a wide range of religious groups in India, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. Loving couples alternate with iconic images of divinities, narrative scenes from myths and legends, animal figures, floral carvings, and architectural motifs. Such idealized heroes and heroines, who are evocative of young mothers with breasts depicted as though full of nourishing milk, signal the auspiciousness of birth, prosperity of life, and the abundance of all creation, both in the present and ongoing into the future. Imagery pertaining to the fecundity of nature indicated to worshippers and visitors to the temple that their offerings and prayers would similarly be fruitful and productive.

What makes this object unique/special?
This erotic sculpture reveals a remarkable artistic skill and sensitivity in the balance achieved between the timelessness of their unblinking gaze and the fleeting instant when his hands are in the act of removing her garment and nudging aside her string of pearls. Movement and texture are concentrated around their upper bodies, while their simple stances and smooth planes of flesh stabilize the composition. The exaggerated size of their eyes, linearity of the facial feature and ornaments, and the impossible twisting of their limbs and her body create an unnatural stylization that heightens the intensity of the scene, as the two figures seem effortlessly unified in their embrace.

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