Breast buttons and the Cesnola Collection

cyprus breast necklice

Bronze Buttons, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Acc. No. 74.51.5693

The Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Art, comprising over 6000 objects, was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1872. The collection is known best for its unrivalled stone statues and spans a vast period between 3000 BC to 300 BC, encompassing the twists and turns of Cyprus’ rich history. It was amassed by the American consul Luigi Palma di Cesnola, who served in Cyprus between 1865 and 1877 and later became a director of the Met (a deal he set up in return for his collection).
In Cyprus, Cesnola secured an excavation permit and shipped his finds to Britain in 1872, just before a Turkish ban on the export of antiquities. The collection is indeed prestigious but in Cyprus Cesnola’s actions are considered as looting, the result of illegal excavations and blackmail. As a result of the collection’s dubious history, information regarding the location and original cataloguing of finds is pretty much non-existent.

Among this collection are the eighty-three beads pictured above. Each cast bronze bead is shaped as a pair of human breasts with a flat projection to the back which is pierced horizontally. This can be seen slightly better in the photograph below, taken from a 1915 study by Gisela Richter. Both photographs are somewhat misleading, for the direction of piercing means that the beads would hang awkwardly if worn as a necklace. A more recent study from 2000 suggests the beads were designed to be sewn onto a garment as an appliqué. The buttons are 2.2cm in length, each with a crusty green patina, typical of ancient bronzes.

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Richter, G. Greek, Etruscan and Roman bronzes, New York, 1915, p336

The use of the beads is not the only thing which has been revised over the last century. Original dating placed the beads around the 7th/6th century BC, during the Archaic period when Cyprus was part of the Assyrian, and then the Persian empire. More recent opinion gives the beads a later date, perhaps during the Roman period, which began in earnest in 58BC.

With neither findspot nor certain dating, it becomes difficult to attribute the beads to any particular context, such as a religious site or burial ground. Whilst the 1915 study suggests a charm to ensure the protection of the mother goddess, the 2000 study is cautiously silent. The worship of a female fertility goddess, often referred to as the ‘Cypriot Goddess’ and probably associated with Astarte, has been attested in Cyprus from the Bronze Age and is thought to have been assimilated later with Aphrodite, who had cult centres across the island.

Whilst it is true that the Cypriot Goddess appears to have held great importance in Cyprus, and the island was known later as Aphrodite’s birthplace, this ‘Great Mother’ narrative can be overwhelming. Once a concept which explained away all female votives or deities, the notion of the ‘Great Mother’ has recently come under some much awaited scrutiny, tending to conflate the idiosyncrasies of different female deities into one pervading mega-entity of reproduction which Stephanie Budin calls ‘Earth Mother Fertility Goddess’. In our perception of the ancient world, the word female is never far from the word fertility.

So what should we make of eighty three breast shaped beads? As my previous discussion of votive breasts saw, reproductions of breasts might point to causes of complaint such as mastitis, lactation and even breast cancer, as well as more general notions of fertility and easy childbirth. But we should also remind ourselves that breasts can be sexual just as female goddesses are sexual entities as much as reproductive ones.


General Luigi Palma di Cesnola, American consul in Cyprus 1865–1877 ©The Cultural Centre of the Popular Bank Group.

The history of the cult of Aphrodite on Cyprus is one tied up in colonising notions of oriental sexuality in which Cesnola, unsurprisingly, played an influential role. In his book entitled Cyprus: Its Cities, Tombs and Temples, written in 1877 at the end of his stay on the island, Cesnola connects the ‘depravity’ of ancient worship of Aphrodite and the luxury that came with it, with the degeneracy of the people of Cyprus in his own time. He writes, “in this the worship of Aphrodite played an important part. To a great extent it decided the character of public and private morality throughout the island, and that the result was highly disgraceful may be seen from numerous passages in the ancient writers”, continuing to quote Herodotus, a Greek historian known for his orientalising tendencies. This theory, known as “enervation” theory, was promptly emulated and expanded to reinforce a perception in Victorian Britain of Cyprus as a destination for sexual tourism, its people perpetually corrupted by the power of Aphrodite.

The Cypriot Goddess, however, represented a complex multiplicity of roles, as Papantonoiu explores in his book about Cypriot religion. In mythology and material iconography, she encompasses not only sexuality and childbirth, but the fertility of the land, death, rebirth, political power and even warfare (Papantoniou, 2012). Compare this with the Ancient Greek perception of Aphrodite as primarily a goddess of love, desire and beauty, another, earlier appropriation of the Cypriot Goddess. 

The Met’s silence in its 2000 publication nods to these conflicted narratives, not only those of the Cypriot Goddess, shaped by colonialism both in antiquity and by imperial rule, but also of the Cesnola Collection itself, amassed by the same man who used the ancient cult of Aphrodite and Cyprus’ the hot climate to declare the degeneracy of the Cypriot people, thus justifying colonial rule in the 19th century.

The bronze beads remain a mystery, but – like the Cypriot Goddess – could at one time be signifiers of multiple meanings, recalling through the image of the breast the sexuality, fertility, beauty and power of both a female deity and the individual.


Richter 1915 Greek, Etruscan and Roman bronzes, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), 1915

Karageorghis, V. Ancient Art from Cyprus: The Cesnola Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2000

Papantoniou, G. Religion and Social Transformation in Cyprus, 2012

Given, M. Corrupting Aphrodite, colonialist interpretations of the Cypriot Goddess, 2002

Budin, S. L. ‘Creating a Goddess of Sex’ in Bolger, D. Engendering Aphrodite: Women and Society in Ancient Cyprus, 2002