Ship's figureheads were used not only to display the power and wealth of the country or merchant who owned the vessel; they were often used to indicate the name of a ship when many, including often sailors, could not read. They were also seen as powerful talismans and good luck charms for the ship and those that sailed within her.
All that is likely true of the figurehead here, of the Roman Goddess Ceres (Greek: Demeter) particularly given the popularity of Roman culture in the Victorian era in which she was carved. The rise and expansion of the British Empire mirrored for many the rise and expansion of the Roman Empire. Latin was commonly taught to the educated Victorian and Classic Rome influenced art, literature and design of the period. Even Queen Victoria's engagement ring was of Roman design, featuring a coiled snake, a symbol of good luck and eternal love.
A particularly skilled and delicate carving, this figure's lovely face with fine features sits below abundant, coiled dark hair. Her green and turquoise multilayer stola or Roman dress is richly bordered with gold at the belt, collar, hem and sleeves. Such a thick garment with a border of this type (sometimes call an instita) was a way for Romans to display wealth and is a sign of both the expertise and ability shown by the artisan who created it.
Ceres was the goddess of agriculture, harvest, fertility and marriage. Seen as a protective deity, she was also a symbol of motherhood and abundance. Snakes, like the one coiled around this figure's left arm, were related to the goddess and she was sometimes depicted riding in a chariot drawn by snakes or holding a caduceus, which in this context would be a symbol of peace. It was also common in the time of Rome's first Emperor, Augustus (63 BCE–14 CE) to see Ceres depicted with snakes coiled around both arms which would be holding a sheaf of wheat, another key symbol to help the illiterate identify the figure in both Roman and Victorian times. It is likely this figure once held sheaf of wheat in her outstretched right hand.
There are many ships named Ceres in the historical record- several among the U.S., British and French navies and among many merchant ships as early as the 18th century including those of the British East India Company and the China Trade. Which ship CERES this figure once graced is lost to time, but she remains an outstanding example of Victorian art and figurehead carving and artistry.
The figure includes a modern made wood base in the shape of a wave, which allows the figure to be viewed at the optimal angle similar to how it was mounted aboard ship.
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