‘Mysterious Sphinx’, Charles Van der Stappen
The ‘Mysterious Sphinx’, sculptor Charles van der Stappen’s best-known work, is considered a quintessential example of Symbolist and art nouveau sculpture. It was created for the Hall of Honour at the Colonial Exposition in Tervuren in 1897, where it was displayed on an onyx base set on a pedestal designed by Henry van de Velde. The ivory and silver sculpture is a shoulder-length portrayal of a young woman holding her right hand to her lips in a mysterious gesture. Her helmest is surmounted by an eagle, a reference to war and victory. On the other hand, her armour is decorated with poppies, symbolizing sleep. The serpent around her wrist represents death. Alluring beauty combines with the intoxicating destructiveness of the femme fatale, a central figure in the fin de siècle – a period characterized by a tension between confidence in and fear of the future, often with overtones of decadence.