Treasures from an ancient city dazzle in a new exhibit
"When Paul came to Antioch, it was the third largest city in the world," writes H.V. Morton in his delightful 1936 book In the Steps of St. Paul. In the mid first century C.E., the Syrian metropolis of Antioch (now Antakya, in Turkey), then a capital of the eastern Roman empire, "was wealthy and blatant, and there was a worship of the material achievements of life and the sensory attributes of riches, such as central heating, swimming pools, plumbing, and flood-lighting...."
Paul went to Antioch--as did Saints Peter and Barnabas and, in all likelihood, Matthew--to preach the new faith; and according to Acts 11.26, "It was in Antioch that the disciples were first given the name of 'Christians.'" As Morton evokes it, the thoroughfare Paul followed into the pulsating metropolis must have been clogged with boisterous traffic: "the bands of jugglers and dancing girls on their way to Antioch--cohorts on the march, merchants from Bagdad and Damascus with their silks, spices, and perfumes, itinerant Greek philosophers, gladiators, men with caged beasts for the circus at Antioch, pagan priests begging their way with a god in a tent; and somewhere in that crowd, symbols of the old world and the new, a Roman senator traveling in state...and on foot, a Christian on a greater mission...."
A souvenir Tyche is an ancient copy of a lost statue of Antioch's city goddess, with gold inset eyes, mural crown, and pleated drapery.
|Photograph courtesy of the Worcester Art Museum|
What Saint Paul would have found was a "city of consumers...full of rich aristocrats and nouveaux riches, and of wealthy, retired people who sought here one of the finest climates in the world. Something that we associate with Venice in the eighteenth century, with Paris in the nineteenth century, and with Hollywood today, with its deification of youth and beauty, distinguished Antioch during the lifetime of Paul. It was up-to-date, amusing, elegant, wicked...."
In Paul's day, this truly multicultural city, devoted to Hellenistic scholarship and Roman luxury, could boast a rich 300-year history, dating to its founding by Seleukos, one of Alexander the Great's generals, through its conquest by Rome in 64 b.c.e.
But what Morton himself found was a desolate backwater, for ebullient Antioch had been effectively obliterated by earthquake and plague in the sixth century. However, unknown to Morton, others, also interested in Paul, had commenced a more systematic search: an archaeological expedition, begun in 1932, which by 1936 was bustling with more than 2,000 workers.
The founding sponsors of that dig--the Committee for the Excavation of Antioch and its Vicinity--were Princeton University, the National Museums of France, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Worcester Art Museum. The excavations were suspended seven years later because of the Second World War, but in that brief period, what treasures were uncovered! Now, for the first time, many of these treasures have been gathered together, and on October 8 an exhibit called Antioch: The Lost Ancient City, comprising some 166 objects, opened at the Worcester Art Museum to run through February 4, after which it moves on to the Cleveland Museum of Art (March 18-June 3) and the Baltimore Museum of Art (September 16-December 30).
But before looking at the exhibit, let us pause briefly to ask why Harvard was not among the founding members of this exciting dig. In a letter dated December 10, 1931, from Charles Rufus Morey, professor of art and archaeology at Princeton and chairman of the Antioch Committee, to Paul J. Sachs '00, then associate director of the Fogg Art Museum--a letter dealing mainly with Morey's search for a curator of slides and photographs "on account of the matrimonial demise of our present incumbent"--we read in a handwritten scribble at the bottom:
P.S. Last chance for Antioch subscriptions: nearly all set to go. Doesn't the Fogg want to put in a couple of thousand a year with proportionate returns in find?
Sachs's answer, dated December 15, reads in part:
I wish we might subscribe to the Antioch situation, but I have no money for this purpose in hand, and I do not feel that it is good judgment to go out and ask for funds just at present.
So Harvard missed the early train. Meanwhile, the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) was the little train that could, with a huge endowment, even during those lean years, and a reputation as one of America's most important art museums--the first museum in the country, for example, to buy Monets and a Gauguin. James A. Welu, director of WAM, loves to tell the story of "little" Worcester's involvement in the Antioch excavations, an investment that gained for it in return arguably the most spectacular selection of the Antioch finds.
"Francis Henry Taylor, a Princeton man, who was our director here in the thirties, got us involved," says Welu. "He was barely 30 years old, but he had big ideas." (Taylor later became director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.) "He was right in the middle of his great project here, the Renaissance court building, when he was approached by his former professor at Princeton, Charles Morey. Morey in turn had been approached by the French National Museums, who had a concession to dig at Antioch for six years starting in January 1931. It was Morey's job to bring other museums in to help with the funding. They had to raise $220,000, a lot of money during the Depression; they were asking for $6,000 for five years, a total of $30,000. They'd contacted Baltimore, and Baltimore came in. But the other museums they approached, like Harvard, couldn't deliver the money.
"So here was Taylor, half the age of the trustees, persuading these old-timers to join in this dig. He told them they would get art works back in return--though in fact nobody knew for sure what the excavators would find. He also said that whatever was found there would be authentic, with a clean provenance, no dealers involved. They had military protection and the endorsement of the government, so this would be a window of opportunity. He concluded by saying that this was 'the greatest archaeological proposition in existence at this time.' Well, obviously he convinced the board. By the time Worcester was asked to reenlist in 1935, there was no question for Taylor because, as he reported, Worcester was helping to write a chapter of art history, and moreover, for its $30,000, had received textbook examples of art worth a quarter of a million dollars."
In 1936, Welu continues, the brash young Taylor, suspecting that Worcester had not received its fair share the previous year, decided to go to Antioch himself. (The agreement with Syria stipulated that Syria get 50 percent, the French 20 percent, and the American museums 30 percent, based on the amount each had invested.) His charm and persistence apparently paid off, because that year Worcester ended up with a cache of breathtaking artifacts, including both the largest mosaic and the largest sculpture found in Antioch: the famous Worcester Hunt Mosaic, and the elegant, if headless, Hygieia.
|A sixth-century ram, in stucco, from a Sasanian palace in Iran, represents one of the foreign decorative styles that influenced Roman, and thus Antiochian, art.|
|Photograph courtesy of the Worcester Art Museum|
Meanwhile, might it not be safe to assume that, back at Harvard, Paul Sachs was watching in dismay as all this bounty was, as it were, slipping through his fingers? We do know of the generosity to the Fogg of Sachs's classmate, ambassador and connoisseur Robert Woods Bliss '00, whose grand Georgetown mansion, Dumbarton Oaks (deeded to Harvard as a research center by Bliss in 1940), already had a choice Byzantine collection. We know of many contacts, professional and social, between the two men, including Bliss's chairmanship of the Fogg's visiting committee. Thus we may be allowed to imagine the sounds of pieces falling into place when we read in the minutes of the October 1937 meeting of the Committee for the Excavation of Antioch and Its Vicinity:
With reference to the action of the Committee at its last meeting that no new subscriber be admitted, the Chairman reported that at an informal meeting held in Worcester in February, 1937, this action was revised to admit as a new subscriber Dumbarton Oaks affiliated with the Fogg Museum of Art, represented at the present meeting by Professor Paul Sachs of Harvard.
A year later, Sachs playfully reminds Morey how useful he was, "as far as Antioch is concerned,...when I persuaded Mr. and Mrs. Bliss to step into the situation." [All excerpts courtesy of Harvard University Art Museums archives.]
The director of Byzantine studies at Dumbarton Oaks from 1955 to 1966 was Porter University Professor Ernst Kitzinger, who, as it happens, was the doctoral mentor--together with Hudson professor of archeology George M.A. Hanfmann--of Christine Kondoleon, Ph.D. '85, curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Worcester Art Museum, curator of the Antioch exhibit, and editor of its sumptuous catalog. Kondoleon, an authority on Roman mosaics and on late antique and early Christian art, was chairman of the art department at Williams College before assuming her current position in Worcester. Kitzinger and Hanfmann, she says, were the perfect preparation for Antioch: "They made me acutely aware of the links between the classical and early Byzantine worlds so vividly illustrated in Antioch."
These links are demonstrated convincingly in her exhibit, illuminating that period of history when Paul's message triumphed: when Greco-Roman paganism was superseded by Christianity. The emperor Constantine converted in 312, and by the time of his death in 337, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman empire. In Antioch, the pagan temples were closed by the year 400. All the same, the myths and motifs of paganism retained their hold for centuries on both Christians and Jews, in their worship and in their homes.
The tenacity of paganism is gorgeously evident in the jeweled focus of the exhibit, the mosaics, brought together for this show from Baltimore, Princeton, the Louvre, and other museums to complement Worcester's own. To a great extent, according to Kondoleon, the Antioch excavations became principally a search for mosaics, because the team was repeatedly diverted from its quest for classical and Christian sites by the dazzling revelations in private homes--a "wholly unexpected" wealth of floor mosaics--some 300 of them, which "opened a new chapter on private life and domestic art in the Roman East."
A fashionable subject for Roman floor decoration was the hunt, an evocation of slaughter for the apparent delectation of guests and the greater glory of the owner. The great Worcester Hunt Mosaic, which, at about 20 feet by 23 feet, is the largest mosaic in an American museum (see image gallery), is a prized example of this gory but popular genre. More like a Persian carpet than a painting, it can be approached from any angle; Morey described it as a "loosening of the old Greek grip on actuality."
A limestone funerary monument, circa 200, from Palmyra shows contemporary Syrian clothing and jewelry fashions.
Photograph courtesy of the Worcester Art Museum
The legend of the drinking contest between Herakles and Dionysos was another favored Roman decorative motif, and Worcester's example, again part of Taylor's great 1936 coup, is among the world's finest (see image gallery). Worcester's Drinking Contest Mosaic is part of a T-shaped panel of six mosaics or fragments from five different museums, reassembled here for the first time since they were excavated. The Worcester mosaic abuts a masterpiece from the Louvre (on its first trip out of France) depicting the traditional Judgment of Paris. Here the shepherd Paris, in consultation with Hermes, is seen judging a beauty contest among the three goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera--an unenviable task that indeed, according to legend, led to the Trojan War. The dramatically landscaped scene, set into an extraordinary black frame luxuriantly curling with grapevines, birds, and peeking faces, is reunited here both with the Drinking Contest and its other former floormates: a dancing maenad and satyr from Baltimore and a much-damaged Aphrodite and an Adonis from Wellesley and Princeton.
This panel, from the dining room or triclinium of the so-called Atrium House, bids fair to be the centerpiece of the show. That seems to be the case for Kondoleon, who, together with Worcester's chief conservator, Lawrence Becker, has overseen what she calls a "super-ambitious rescue operation." As she explains, "We're taking what was once one mosaic--probably in the early second century--but which has been divided into six pieces, and we're making it look whole again. It's an enormous challenge," one that required conservators to spread themselves and their handiwork over the entire Precolumbian gallery for months. ("Super-ambitious" conservation treatment like this is one of the rewards reaped by lenders to the exhibit.)
But what did the second-century dinner guests see? First of all, says Kondoleon, "they must have been totally dazzled by the sheer density of ornamentation and figures. Then they would have been hugely impressed by the wealth of their host, which was, after all, surely one of the main reasons rich people commissioned these things." But also, she says, the guests, as they sat on couches on three sides, were probably members of an elite culture that "nurtured and revered all things Greek. These mosaics suggest the tone of the dinner conversation, and the themes of drunkenness versus moderation, of beauty and love, probably stimulated hours of good talk."
Like the wealthy homes, the public baths were a convivial focus for conversation and business, and the baths also were lavishly decorated with mosaics. (The waters of Antioch's perpetual springs were renowned for their abundance and delectability: Alexander the Great, after tasting the water, allegedly declared it sweeter than his mother's milk.) One of the largest and finest bath mosaics found by the excavators was the fourth-century Tethys Mosaic (see image gallery). Tethys was originally shipped to the Fogg, but she proved to be too large for installation. In 1939, she was packed into storage, where she remained until 1968, when she was transferred in wooden crates to Dumbarton Oaks, which beautifully and properly installed her in an outdoor pool. Displaced by new construction, she was again lifted--in 16 pieces--packed up, and stored until she was acquired by the Business School in 1989 and installed in 1992.
Antioch's mosaics, dating from the second to the sixth century c.e., on the whole fared better against nature and depredation than its early sculptures; "time has dealt harshly with Antioch's monuments from the Hellenistic period," according to Cornelius Vermeule III '47, A.M. '51, curator emeritus of classical art at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. But, as he writes in the catalog, Worcester's great Hygieia, goddess of health, as well as the colossal feet of Asklepios (all that remains), "are without doubt the grandest surviving contributions of Antioch to the sculpture of Greco-Roman Syria....The curls, the flesh, and the complex drapery of the Hygieia are breathtaking in concept and execution."
Then there are the Tyches. Many of the great cities of antiquity had their own particular city goddess or Tyche (in Latin, Fortuna). The visitor to the exhibit will be greeted by four silver gilt statuettes (from the British Museum) representing the Tyches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. There is also a bronze Tyche of Antioch from the Louvre, and Kondoleon's personal favorite, the Worcester Museum's own seven-inch bronze Tyche of Antioch, a new acquisition. "Isn't she beautiful?" says Kondoleon admiringly. "The giant original on which she is based was made by a sculptor named Eutychides; she was maybe 30 feet high, bronze, and she sat under a baldachin. The Tyche of Antioch was the first ever created. You came into the city and she greeted you, just as the Statue of Liberty greets you today." And like the Statue of Liberty, she must have inspired thousands of souvenir copies like this one, "something for townsfolk or tourists to put with their other tchotchkes."
Of all the objects in the exhibit, those that perhaps show most persuasively the survival of the old pagan gods may be the least spectacular items on view--four little magic curse tablets made of thin lead (see image gallery). These scrolls (and nine others, all Princeton's) have provided months of labor for Florent Heintz, Th.M. '93, Ph.D. '99, former keeper of coins at the Harvard University Art Museums and now a curatorial assistant at Worcester.
The purpose of the tablets, explains Heintz, "was to place a curse on a person or a group of people, or even on horses--specifically those pulling chariots in the hippodrome of Antioch. There were four teams--Greens, Blues, Whites, and Reds--and each team would race from one to three quadrigas (four-horse chariots). The scrolls, dating from the fourth or fifth century, were all found in the water drains that ran along the central barrier of the hippodrome. They were rolled up, and some of them were pierced with nails. They were placed there, usually the night before a race, by accomplices hired by magicians, who in turn were hired to write the curses and manufacture the tablets. This was not just a display of superstition; it was really an integral part of the race."
But what did these tablets actually say? "One of them has a very long magical inscription and an inscription invoking a series of deities--among them Hecate, Poseidon, and Dionysos--and even an enigmatic reference to the great gods of Samothrace, using their secret names. Then it says, 'Bind down and lay waste the horses of the Blue faction,' and lists about 35 horses by name. What is so interesting is that here, when the official religion was Christianity, we have a jumble of pagan gods invoked."
Why use the water drains? "In the magical system of beliefs in antiquity," Heintz explains, "people who died untimely or violent deaths were considered not able to reach the underworld completely, but were believed to be spirits or demons hovering around certain places, such as their graves or underground bodies of water. If you wanted to harness one of these wandering spirits to perform a particular deed, you had to place one of these tablets in the grave of one of these spirits or, as in this case, in contact with underground water.
"The magicians or their accomplices had to go there at night, bribe the guards, remove the tile on top of the drain, drop the curse tablets in, recite a few incantations, put the cover back on, and then make their getaway." If we visualize 100 shady characters in various disguises tripping over each other in the dark, Heintz would agree. The magicians were kept busy by many other customers as well. For example, says Heintz, "Shopkeepers tried to place curses on their competitors, as well as protect themselves against their competitors' curses, and they buried particular talismans in their own shops to attract business."
This recalcitrant backsliding was a favorite target of the Christian church. John Chrysostom ("golden mouth"), the celebrated fourth-century priest whose dyspeptic and sulfurous sermons in the cathedral of Antioch drew immense crowds, preached fervently against these talismans and magic texts, warning that he knew very well "those who use charms and amulets, and encircle their heads and feet with golden coins of Alexander of Macedon."
Besides the gods, myths, and physical pleasures of Greco-Roman paganism, the "lugubrious cleric," as John has been called, inveighed against other snares lying in wait for the susceptible--for example, Judaism. Jews had been present in Antioch as farmers and artisans even before its founding by Seleukos, who rewarded his Jewish soldiers and perhaps slaves with land in the city. Many Antiochian Jews prospered, and although no synagogue remains were found by the excavators, two are attested by early texts.
Some Christians, writes Glanville Downey, who excavated at Antioch and was a librarian at Dumbarton Oaks, "were drawn by the simple monotheistic faith of the Jews; others were attracted by the reports of miraculous cures performed by the relics of the Maccabean martyrs, the heroic Jews who had died for their faith under Antiochus IV," descendant of the Antiochus for whom Antioch was named. According to apocryphal legend, the remains of these martyrs--described in the Fourth Book of Maccabees, which may have been written in Antioch--were housed in the Ashmunit Synagogue in Antioch, later to become the Church of Saint Ashmunit.
Of course Christianity prevailed. By the fourth century, Antioch was an Episcopal see, and from its rites ultimately developed the rites of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In John Chrysostom's day, the churches were enormously wealthy, able to extend help to the poor and hospitality to the great number of pilgrims who trekked to the city--attracted not only by its resort amenities and its traditional link with the apostles, but by its cults of holy men, martyrs, and somewhat eccentric saints.
The bronze head, on loan from Harvard's Sackler Museum, dates to about 200; it portrays Empress Julia Domna, the daughter of a Syrian priest, who married Septimius Severus. She starved herself to death in Antioch after learning of the assassination of her elder son, Caracalla.
Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, ©President and Fellows of Harvard College, photograph by Michael Nedsweski
The hills surrounding Antioch were dotted with the caves and retreats of hermits. John Chrysostom himself had spent two years alone in a cave on a starvation regimen, thereby ruining his digestive system. But the most singular of these holy men, and a famous Antioch landmark in the fourth century, was the monk and ascetic known as Simeon the Stylite, who lived on a pillar (stylos). As Brown professor Susan Ashbrook Harvey writes in the catalog:
Simeon settled on a hilltop in the wilderness southeast of Antioch, taking up his stance on a pillar about sixty feet high. Atop the pillar on a platform about six feet square, with no shelter of any kind, Simeon stood in ceaseless prayer...for forty years, until his death in 459 at more than seventy years of age.
"During the day," she continues, "he dealt with a vast crowd of visitors, 'a human sea' of pilgrims, from emperors to bishops to peasants....In effect, this holy man ran an extensive social-service network from the top of his pillar."
Visitors to the Antioch exhibit will see the Metropolitan Museum's splendid silver gilt Antioch Chalice, part of the so-called Antioch Treasure, a group of liturgical objects found outside the city. The interior of the chalice was thought to be the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. This is not its first visit to Worcester. In February 1937 in a show, Art of the Dark Ages, the museum featured the famous chalice, then in private hands. It had been been displayed at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, where it was billed as the Holy Grail. At the 1937 Worcester show, it was surrounded by armed guards, and visitors were not allowed closer than three feet. The cup is now assumed to be no earlier than the sixth century.
From Dumbarton Oaks come three elegant silver "apostle" spoons, conveying the blessings of Saints Peter, Paul, and Matthew. These spoons, no doubt part of a set of 12, belonged to a wealthy Christian named Domnos, according to the monogram. And from the Metropolitan are two beautiful silver plaques, possibly book covers, picturing Saint Peter with his cross and Saint Paul with his book. Such exquisite artifacts, illustrating the affluence of the Christian population of Antioch, and indeed of Antioch generally, remind us anew of the historic significance of the humble disciple, meandering through the hustling marketplace of the East, carrying with him the grace of Jerusalem, and ultimately contributing to one of civilization's great achievements--the lost city of Antioch.
Visit our image gallery to see art from the exhibit.
The Worcester Art Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; on Saturdays, it opens at 10 a.m., and admission is free until noon. At other times, admission fees are $8 for adults and $6 for senior citizens or full-time students with current ID cards; children under 17 are free at all times. The museum, located at 55 Salisbury Street, Worcester, Massachusetts, is readily accessible via the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-290 (Rte. 9 exit). Antioch: The Lost Ancient City runs through February 4, 2001. For more information, call (508) 799-4406 or visit the museum's website (www.worcesterart.org).