Sunday, January 11, 2009

Worshipping Women: Onassis Center

Love the title of this article! I'm sure I've blogged about this exhibit at the Onassis Center before; this provides fresh insight. Onassis Center Lets Teen Brides Bathe, Satyrs Romp in N.Y. Show Review by Cynthia Cotts Last Updated: January 6, 2009 00:01 EST Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- On a broken piece of pottery, two young girls dance around the altar of Artemis, holding hands and praying that she will ensure their fertility. The painted fragment, found in a well in Athens, is a glimpse of the world inhabited by the women of ancient Greece who, denied a role in political activities, flocked to religious rituals and elaborate ceremonies surrounding marriage and death. It’s part of “Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens,” a crisply conceived exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in midtown Manhattan that pulls together riches from the Vatican and the Louvre, as well as rarely shown pieces from regional museums in Greece. The stars of the show are the Greek goddesses -- the wise warrior Athena, the huntress Artemis and sex-symbol Aphrodite -- but they share the stage with mortal women who left stone carvings and bronze figurines in the deities’ sanctuaries and poured them daily libations. The show is organized into mini-shrines, matched with photos of the sanctuary grounds as they are preserved today. Its centerpiece is a strapping statue of Artemis, who inspired her prepubescent followers to be athletes and demanded that they be virgins. The statue is on loan from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, which contributed many of the 155 pieces in the show. Married at 15 Ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, was also known as a phallocracy, in which men dominated women. While young men were educated and given a vote, their sisters were traded for marriage at age 15 or earlier. The show aims to refute the stereotype that the women of yore ended up stuck at home, living lives of quiet desperation. The exhibition focuses on work from the 5th century B.C., a time when Greece produced political discourse, oral poetry and art -- but no written chronicles. The art from that period is exquisitely wrought, but shrouded in mystery. Each piece leaves the viewer to imagine: Who created it, in what workshop and to what end? Many of the works here tell a layered story: A volute-krater -- a vessel used to mix water and wine -- is illustrated with two ceremonies: a formal one with a woman preparing to make an offering to the gods; the other, a frolic of maenads and satyrs. Though the rituals often involved animal sacrifice, such violent scenes are rarely seen in Greek art, said Alan Shapiro, a classics professor at Johns Hopkins University, who co-curated the show with Nikolaos Kaltsas, director of Greece’s National Archaeological Museum. Nor do we see wedding nights, though the vases depict the moments leading up to that conventional plot point. Teenage girls were often married to undesirable men twice their age. But as the vase paintings show, when a girl was being handed off to a stranger, her family tried to distract her with sacred water baths and paintings that depicted Eros as a nubile young man. Sexy Pluto Loss of virginity wasn’t always traumatic. On a marble tablet, the goddess Persephone is shown twice: first, attending to her mother, Demeter; and then partying with Pluto, who carted her off to hell. With Demeter, the young deity looks shy and aggrieved; but next to sexy Pluto, she smirks knowingly, eyeing a spread of sweetmeats and cakes. Because the craftsmen left behind no documents, it is difficult to know whether the scenes they painted were the product of observed reality, or visually and emotionally heightened fantasy. The loutrophoros, a vessel used to carry sacred water, also appeared in death rituals. One such vase in the exhibit shows a woman caressing the head of a dead young man; around the curve, a team of men lowering his coffin into the grave. Greek women were skilled at lamenting and beating their breasts. But Shapiro points out a plus-side to funerals: They were a respectable place to chat up members of the opposite sex. “Worshiping Women” runs through May 9 at the Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Ave. Admission is free. Information: +1-212-486-4448; (Cynthia Cotts is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.) Image: Athena, from Tillya Tepe, 1st century CE. Notice the fringe of serpents that serve as the Goddess' "apron." The archaic symbolism still survived into the first century CE. This particular image reminds me of some ancient Egyptian images I have scene of the pre-dynastic Goddess Neith.

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