“Seated Man” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

“Seated Man,” andesite, northwest Syria or southeastern Turkey, Neo-Hittite or Aramaean, mid-9th–8th centuries BC

“Seated Man,” andesite, northwest Syria or southeastern Turkey, Neo-Hittite or Aramaean, mid-9th–8th centuries BC

“Seated Man”–This man is a cube. He emerges from a block of stone in his display case at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He is pure shape. He has a pure face with wide-open eyes. He radiates the calm of the stone, the sense of presence and place of something that cannot be easily defaced or destroyed. His eyes might have been more unnerving if they were painted with dark, bright pupils and whites. Maybe, originally, they were painted. Maybe he was actually bright red with a gaze of turquoise, but here, that is all calmed by the texture of the stone and by its uniform color.

I like the fact that the human body is emerging from this cube looking like a piece of furniture, the lap perhaps a place for the placement of offerings or gifts. This man is pure compression. He is what art is about—the confinement or containment of the spirit in a physical material, in this case andesite, a very hard stone related to granite. It must have been a difficult job to carve him, to eke him out, to release him from the geology of his rock.

His disproportionately large head greets me, bringing some message from another time. It’s pure poetry. I don’t have to learn about it to understand it. I’m interested in its archaeology, but I’m also interested in what it communicates: directness, a solid, stolid sense that his culture was forever.

And as I walk through my suburban neighborhood at dusk, I realize that most people believe this. They think that our culture is forever. They believe that people will always be driving around in cars, mowing their lawns, and peering out their windows at birdfeeders that attract chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. My man tells me otherwise. This world will not last. It will change. My man admonishes me. But he also speaks of some great strength within human beings—the power to make art and ritual objects, the power to communicate through image and symbol. His culture has reached into mine. He’s in a museum, for God’s sake, halfway around the world from where he was unearthed. He got himself cleaned up and put into this glass case, and he makes me laugh. When I am gone, he’ll still be here. There’s great humor in that and also some insight.