With a still and haughty gaze, the Lady of Elche observes impassively what is going on around her. Who knows how many events she must have been seeing during the 2,500 years of life the Reina Mora, the Moorish Queen, even though for many of those she had to wait before seeing the light one more time, underground in the countryside of Elche, in Spain.
Above: picture by Daniel Andrew Loero shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
Who buried that mysterious bust of woman wanted to protect it even though we don’t know what from. On the 4th of August 1897 it was a random day like many others for the farmers working in Doctor Manuel Campello’s land. A 14 years old guy who was helping out to plough the field, with the hoe hit a rock. Another worker came by, Antonio Maciá, discovering the artifact but he left it there, waiting for Campello to arrive.
What they figured out in the meanwhile was that the bust had been buried there on purpose, who knows when, with a series of rock slabs as protection. Campello asked to transport the bust from the soil to his home in Elche, with a crowd of people forming to attend the relocation of the Reina Mora, as it was immediately renamed by the locals.
Above: picture by Heparina 1985 shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
The news of the recovery flowed from mouth to mouth and a flocks of people gathered under Campello’s house so that he had to place the statue on display outside, in his balcony. Pedro Ibarra, local archeologist and journalist wrote:
“A beautiful bust, sculpted with the utmost perfection. It represents the image of mankind in its most correct form. Solemn majesty as well as a sweet facial expression. Impeccable pureness which takes back to the Greek art, here representing God Apollo, perhaps. The sculpture is today object to admire in Elche and tomorrow in the scientific world. A new secret from those lands has been revealed, which tells us about the history of our people”.
Above: public domain image
The first interpretation was superficial and was immediately rejected, even though no one knows for sure to whom that face belonged. What it is known is that it is a woman, who wears precious jewels and rich clothes: may a goddess, or a priestess or again an influential character with ceremonial garments on. The most peculiar detail is the headdress with its two wheels (rodetes in Spanish) on the side of the face joined with a tiara placed on top of her veil.
The sculpture, in limestone, is charming even for its dull ochre tones which add up an aura of timeless mystery. Originally though the artwork, probably a full-body figure, was polychrome, with red lips and coloured clothes, while the eyes were covered by glass paste. The cape which lays on her shoulders is at the centre of the chest with a buckle but it leaves the necklace on display, once covered by gold foils as well as its long hanging earrings.
Reconstructions of the colour scheme in the Lady of Elche
Above: picture by Francisco Vives shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
The sculpture, which dates approximately back to the IV century BC, has Greek influence in its style and perhaps the unknown artist was indeed Greek.
However many are the questions that still do not have answers and give room to different interpretations. Maybe the Lady of Elche is the representation of the Phoenician goddess of fertility Tanit, worshipped in Spain too at the time of Carthage.
Creative theories which are based on the lengthened shape of her head and the odd wheels on the side, suggest that the Lady of Elche was a princess of Atlantis which for some myths it was based around that area: the extravagant headpiece would be in reality an advanced technological device.
Daughter of Jephthah by James Tissot, inspired by the Lady of Elche
Above: public domain image
There has also been who questioned the authenticity of the statue, “too delicate for being sculpted in the Pre-Christian Spain” (John Moffit, 1995), but the study on the traces of pigments on the artwork revealed an ancient origin.
Another research, conducted in 2011, found out that the bust had been used as a funerary urn. So maybe that woman with that idealised beauty and with her solemn gaze could be a goddess to keep company the dead towards the underworld?
No one will ever confirm this, but what is certain is that the mysterious Lady of Elche, symbol of the Spanish identity, had a huge impact on the Art of the country in 1900 from Picasso to Dalí, who defined her as:
“a new concept of beauty, with the glory of a queen, the charm of an angel and the strength of an amazon”.