On 19 May, the British Museum will open the first major exhibition to focus on mythological representations of the feminine – from deities and demons to saints and other spiritual beings – in order to explore how cultures ancient and modern viewed women, and how female authority was both feared and revered through time.
The displays will feature over 70 objects (drawn from the British Museum’s collections and international loans) representing 5,000 years of history and six continents – including painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculptures, Egyptian amulets, Japanese prints, and Indian relief carvings. Visitors can also see more contemporary creations, including an icon of Kali, one of the most prominent Hindu goddesses venerated in India, which was created especially for the exhibition by Bengali artist Kaushik Ghosh; and the 1994 sculpture Lilith, by American artist Kiki Smith, which has been loaned to the British Museum by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Lilith is a figure from Jewish and Mesopotamian traditions, depicted both as a fearsome primordial demon and as Adam’s disobedient first wife, who was expelled from the Garden of Eden for not submitting to her husband; she was later adopted as a symbol of defiance to patriarchal expectations. Her origins are represented in the exhibition by a ceramic incantation bowl, dating to c.AD 500-800, from what is now Iraq; such objects were traditionally buried upside-down beneath the threshold of houses for protection.
Shifting perceptions of female figures like Lilith help to trace how feminine power – whether nurturing, creative, destructive, or an entwined combination of characteristics – has been understood and represented in different cultures. In turn, these representations help us to explore how religious beliefs have shaped attitudes to women, female identities, and gender roles across history – a subject that is still resonantly relevant today.
Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic will run at the British Museum until September, after which it will transfer to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, followed by a five-venue tour of Spain between 2023 and 2025.
Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic is at the British Museum in London 19 May-25 September and will be at the National Museum of Australia 8 December 2022-27 August 2023. It will then visit CaixaForum Barcelona (5 October 2023-28 January 2024), CaixaForum Madrid (29 February- 9 June 2024), CaixaForum Sevilla (10 July-27 October 2024), CaixaForum Zaragoza (27 November 2024-16 March 2025), and CaixaForum Palma (22 April-17 August 2025).
For more information on the exhibition, see the website www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/feminine-power.
ALL images: Trustees of the British Museum.