For me, the most impressive object is the 18.5-inch bronze statue of Sequana herself. Slim and small-breasted, she wears a flowing dress that exposes her forearms and part of her chest and falls in pleats to the floor, revealing the tips of her pointed slippers. A large, broad crown partly covers her wavy hair, which is parted in the middle and tied at the back of her neck. Long tendrils frame her face.
She is young, with large eyes and refined features, and wears a look of anticipation. She stands in a boat, her forearms outstretched as if in a gesture of welcome. The prow of her boat is the head of a duck that holds a round object — a pomegranate, perhaps — in its long bill; the stern is the duck’s upswept tail.
“I find her superb,” Frédérique Bouvard, a curator, told me during one visit. “She is our Mona Lisa.”
A fictionalized 18th-century story about Sequana turned her into a proto-feminist survivor who escaped the clutches of a lascivious Neptune by transforming herself into the Seine River. (The Seine was initially called Sequana.) The story is woven into the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, who succumbed to Hades and had to spend much of her life trapped in the underworld. Unlike Persephone, who fell victim to her abductor, Sequana escaped.
More famous than the Musée Archéologique is the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. Founded in 1787, it has recently reopened after an extensive renovation and is considered one of France’s most beautiful museums. It includes objects from antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as masterpieces by Titian, Veronese, de La Tour, Tiepolo, Delacroix, Monet, Manet, Sisley, Cross and Rouault.
But if you have only one museum in Dijon to visit, make it the Musée Archéologique. Even passionate French art lovers do not know the story of Sequana and the offerings that were given to her; it is a journey deep into a secret history of France.
I sometimes fantasize about making Sequana, a minor and forgotten regional goddess, world famous. A pre-Christian healing goddess with no ties to any living religion, she would fit nicely into the official French policy that reveres the republican ideal. She could be the secular version of Joan of Arc, the warrior-martyr, and of Our Lady of Lourdes, the miracle worker. She could become the most important female icon in France.
Elaine Sciolino is the author of “The Seine: The River That Made Paris,” to be published Oct. 29.