(NICHOLSON MUSEUM, SYDNEY)
BY PATRICIA ANDERSON
It looks like carelessness. The whole panoply of the gods of antiquity — male and female –all missing in action, while three chaps with beads representing Christianity, Judaism and Islam — not one of them with any appetite for fun or adventure — currently corner the religious market. They each represent a cutting from the ‘single male god’ branch which took hold quite recently, while their cousins in antiquity have a far older roots.
And where are we to find the adventures of these gods and goddesses recorded?
Principally in the black and red figure pottery of ancient Greece retrieved from archaeological sites all around the Mediterranean — from Spain to the Black Sea and beyond. It is one of the few art forms of antiquity to which specific artists can be assigned.
There was much excitement at Sydney University’s Nicholson Museum of Antiquities last month when a handsome volume: Red Figure & Over Painted Pottery of Southern Italy (or Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum for the Latin speakers) by senior curator Michael Turner and former curator Alexander Cambitoglou was launched. It is a contribution to a remarkable international imperative to document vessels surviving from antiquity which began in 1919 and has seen 380 volumes published in 24 countries.
Turner and Cambitoglou’s most recent scholarship records the remarkable collection of red-figure vases in the museum’s collection, two thirds of which were acquired by Arthur Dale Trendall (1909–1995). Trendall, a former curator of the museum was described by Sir John Boardman (Britain’s most distinguished historian of ancient Greek art) as “one of the greatest classical art historians of the twentieth century”. Trendall himself once suggested that he had “20,000 loves … and they were all vases”.
The red-figure technique, where the narrative and decoration is left the colour of the clay and turn red when fired, and where the figures are delineated by fine black lines with the space around them painted a lustrous black, allowed a new freedom of composition. There were innovations in draughtsmanship which presented the human body in every imaginable position.
When Trendall began collecting for the Nicholson Museum the antiquities market was depressed and bargains abounded –the Lukanian skyphos (a wine cup) for example, was acquired for £18. Its subject is Aura who personifies the sea breeze and Eros, the mischievous god of sexual appetities.
The multiplication of gods and goddesses was particularly robust in ancient Greek mythology, which makes keeping track of their exploits and achievements quite an adventure. Prometheus, before he lost his liver to an eagle is credited with discovering how to make fire, and with inventing pottery and metallurgy.
And if that is not enough, he created Pandora, that mischief maker whose magic box, once opened, created bedlam. Dionysos was the god of the grape and the pleasures of intoxication –as it were, and also theatre and death. His Dionysiac rites involved an extreme degree of informality, but more importantly they were associated with the initiation into rites which remain unknowable except to those initiates.
Interestingly, the ancient Greeks — and the Romans — made certain that no individual god was weighed down with too many responsibilities. Athena was the Goddess of the City (and hopefully a friend to good architects). Zeus had his hands full with thunder, rain and clouds, Poseidon ruled the waves and was in charge of earthquakes, while Hades busied himself with the underground.
The market place (that is to say, today’s bourse) was Hermes’ responsibility, and thus he should now be prayed to fervently — and often — by the grey suits in glass towers. Asklepios attended to medical needs, while the goddess Eileithya, kept an eye on childbirth. Pan had his hands full with flocks of sheep, while Aphrodite concerned herself with love and beauty — and so it goes.
Very sensible arrangements all round. And further, the exploits, foibles and dilemmas of these gods and godesses express the deepest desires and defects of humanity at large.
A Bell Krater (a vessel used for mixing wine and water) from the original collection of Sir Charles Nicholson, is a good place to start in referring to handful of these distinguished vessels. It has as its subject Poseidon, who can be identified by the trident he holds, and Amymone (meaning ‘the blameless one’ who is gazing into his eyes. Flying towards them is Eros bearing a wreath.
A second Bell Krater features Dionysos with a horned satyr (one of Dionysos’s priapic companions who can be recognized by his horse tail and large ears. He holds a thyrsus (a kind of pine cone tipped wand) which was a symbol of fertility and hedonism.
A Nestoris (two-handled jar) depicts a youthful naked Herakles, with his lion skin draped over his left forearm, standing before a seated Nike. Her name was adopted by a synthetic footware company in 1964 — an excellent choice as in antiquity she was the goddess of swift victory.
Finally, another Bell Krater depicts Pan, that guardian of flocks with the legs of a goat, cloven hooves, shaggy hair and an erect member, dancing in procession with a graphically nude female who could be a maenad (a Dionysosian camp follower) who is beating a tympanon (a small drum). And should we need to remind ourselves of the status of female gods in the world of antiquity, consider this. Athens was named for Athena, Europe was named after Europa.