Reclining with her arms crossed, this female figure is typical of the sculpture of the Cyclades in the mid-2000s B.C. known as the Spedos variety, named after an Early Cycladic cemetery on the island of Naxos. This group is one of the most common and widespread examples of the canonical female figure types, characterized by a slender elongated body with folded arms, a U-shaped head, and deeply incised cleft between the legs. Details of the human form are reduced to a minimum, giving the figure a ﬂat, geometric quality. Incisions on the Getty’s example delineate the arms from the body, define the abdomen and pubic triangle, and indicate fingers and toes. The breasts are lightly modeled. The nose is the only carved feature on the head, and other details may originally have been enhanced with brightly colored pigments. Viewed from the side, the back is straight and continues the line of the neck, while the head is slightly arched and the knees gently flexed, a further characteristic trait of the late Spedos type.
Sculptors living on different islands produced marble figurines in a similar style but with distinctive variations. The recognition of different artistic personalities in Cycladic sculpture is based upon recurring systems of proportion and details of execution. This figure is attributed to the Steiner Master, who was active sometime in the period from 2500 to 2400 B.C. Like all artists at this early period, his real name is unknown, and he is identified only by the style of his work. At least seven figurines can be assigned to this artist. All display a U-shaped head with broad cheeks and slender nose; a short, broad neck; and straight, stiff legs. The sculptor takes his name from this figure in the Getty Museum, once in the Steiner collection, which is the largest and perhaps the latest known work by him.
Within Cycladic culture, the figures’ role and meaning remain elusive. Those with known archaeological contexts come mainly from graves. Most figures cannot stand, as their feet and toes point downward. They may therefore have been meant to lie on their backs, as their folded arms suggest repose. In ceremonial use however, the figures would have been held or carried upright in procession. Hundreds of fragments were found in a sanctuary on the island of Keros, deliberately shattered and ritually discarded. It is uncertain whether such generic images depict human beings or deities, but the fact that the majority of Early Cycladic figures are female, and are represented nude, suggests they are probably linked with the idea of fertility and reproduction, which was often a central spiritual concern of ancient Mediterranean religions.