Clay delights at the Bible Lands Museum

The exhibition will be on show until June 2018.

Greek artifacts at the Bible Lands Museum (photo credit: VLADIMIR NAIKHIN)
Greek artifacts at the Bible Lands Museum
(photo credit: VLADIMIR NAIKHIN)
In this day and age, in which we are swamped by torrents of information and, particularly, constantly proffered images across the online media channels, it can be refreshing to take a moment to view a picture or two from yesteryear.
There are quite a few figurative works available, for the public’s relaxed and admiring viewing pleasure, at the Bible Lands Museum, as part of the “Gods, Heroes and Mortals in Ancient Greece” exhibition, which opened on January 26. The show is curated by Dr. Silvia Rozenberg who holds a PhD in art history and archeology, and is an expert in Greek and Roman cultures.
Rozenberg is clearly taken with the subject matter and spins out tale after tale as we tour the compact and sumptuously appointed display at the museum.
“This is an exhibition of Greek ceramics, which has been shown before but has never previously undergone a process of serious research and cataloguing,” she says. “When I was asked to curate this collection, I decided to approach it from two angles. I wanted to examine the works in chronological order and also to address the primary subjects with which the ceramic art engages.”
The ancient Greek artists addressed a comprehensive spread of subject matter. Mythology was a popular source of raw material for works of art in different disciplines two or three millennia ago. Gods and goddesses, and their shenanigans – some nefarious, others of a more romantic or heroic nature – were a boon to artists and an amenable font of yarns for the scriptwriters of the time.
Playwrights and creators of visually aesthetic products alike often dipped into the folklore of the time, relating how, for example, Zeus went about disposing of various rivals for his preeminent position in the divine hierarchy, or having his carnal way with any female he desired, even if the object of his ardor happened to be part of his immediate family.
The Greeks had plenty of deities to which they would offer sacrifices, and also glean tales aplenty of their multifarious escapades and deeds. The Greek pantheon took in gods and goddesses of all stripes, attributes and rankings, and they were an ever-present feature of daily life. They were depicted in pottery, for example, as human figures, and the ordinary Alexander or Eirene on the Athens street held them in great esteem and eagerly imbibed stories of, for example, their tussles with mythological monsters and demons.
This made pottery artifacts with relevant imagery attractive shopping items.
But the clay-based vessels were not just attractive home furnishings, they had a utilitarian purpose, too, and the exhibition takes in jars and vases designed to serve as water, oil and wine containers, while others – small jars and pots – were created to hold precious ointments and perfumes. The pots were decorated by the finest artists of the day, and were adorned with stunning images of the godly, mortal and heroic worlds. These elaborate images provide us with valuable insights regarding the habits, customs and crafts of the ancient Greeks, and are perhaps the richest source of information on their lives that we have today. Archeologists over the last century or two have learned a lot about, for example, what the well-heeled Greek wore 2,500 years ago. Hairstyles also feature, as do jewelry accessories.
All of that is currently on display at the Bible Lands Museum, across a wide spread of vessel types – from large twin-handled amphorae to oinochoes, or wine jugs, sultrily shaped lekythoi, which generally contained oil for libation purposes, to delicate diminutive wares, such as aryballoi, which served as perfume receptacles.
Firing techniques varied and evolved over the centuries, and potters learned how to vary the temperature of the kiln and subtly control the influx of fresh air to produce detailed red figures against a black backdrop, or vice versa, as well as white figures, with the latter generally designated for female figures. Later, technical knowhow progressed to the point that certain artists were able to achieve mid-range hues to produce, for example, figures with brown hair.
This exhibition displays vessels produced from the Middle Bronze Age (second millennium BCE), to the Classical period (late fifth century BCE). The making of beautiful and, at the same time, functional vessels required a great deal of skill and experience, and many practical utensils were related to as artwork. As a result, their creators – the potters or artists who decorated them – often signed their products, providing valuable documentary evidence for contemporary archeologists.
One of the earliest works in the exhibition is a Mycenaean kylix – a long-stemmed wine cup – decorated with stylized cuttlefish, dating from 1380 to 1190 BCE. Painters and sculptors of the day had not yet mastered the art of portraying human or animal figures accurately, and it wasn’t until the Archaic Era, between the eighth and early fifth centuries BCE, that artists began to produce somewhat more realistic works, with anatomical and facial features, and even some emotional expression.
“Gods, Heroes and Mortals in Ancient Greece” is a fun and beautifully crafted storyboard, taking the visitor through tales of the likes of Heracles – the only hero in classical times to attain divine status – Theseus, and the heroes of the Trojan War. The exhibition traces the world of men portrayed through scenes of war and athletics. It follows the footsteps of the women of Ancient Greece by depicting the feminine role model as bride, the woman in her domestic domain as well as women’s religious rituals. The circle of life and death is also portrayed, through vessels that carried burial offerings.
It is fascinating to follow the progress made by pottery manufacturers, through the more basic shapes and decorations of the late second millennium BCE, to the geometric era of the eighth century BCE and to the later pictorially presented narratives.
One of the most fetching items on display is a Mycenaean askos in the shape of a bird, dating from the 12th century BCE.
The askos was used to dispense small quantities of liquids such as oil, and is typically flat, with a spout at one or both ends.
The askos in question stands on three broad strap legs, one in front, two behind. There is a flattened tail, slightly upturned, at one end, with a schematic bird head, complete with a splaying mouth-spout, at the other. A second tall vertical spout with a flaring mouth and a strap handle rises from the back of the bird near the neck. It is a delectable piece.
At the other end of the size spectrum you can find, for example, a sixth-century lidded amphora with a flaring rim, cylindrical handles, wide neck, and an echinus – circular molding – foot. The rim, handles, neck, lower part of body and foot are covered by a black gloss that has turned red in places.
The expertly crafted scenes, on reverse panels on both sides of the vessel’s body, depict two of the main subjects related to the world of mortal men – war and athletics.
The lower shoulder and upper part of the body on the obverse carry a panel decorated with a battle scene comprised of a charioteer, clad in a long chiton tunic, driving a biga (a two-horse chariot) and two hoplite soldiers attacking another warrior. The drama is heightened by the inclusion of horses rearing above a fallen warrior, trying to protect himself with his shield. The hoplites, kitted out with greaves, short tunics, cuirass and high-crested Corinthian helmets, are armed with spears and circular shields. Finer details are rendered by incisions and a diluted brown-gray wash.
The “Gods, Heroes and Mortals in Ancient Greece” exhibition is based on works lovingly collected by the late Dr. Elie Borowski, the museum founder, and he clearly knew his stuff.
“He bought expensive works that were best you could find,” notes Rozenberg – and the proof is in the seeing.
The exhibition will be on show until June 2018. For more information: