It’s funny, given American political ideals, that our museums offer so few major exhibitions of ancient Greek art. The Met had one called “The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture From the Dawn of Democracy,” but that was in 1993. It was an expensive, blockbustery thing that told a story we already knew, and one that is only partly true: that Western culture, or whatever is good about it, was a Greek invention.
Some of us asked at the time why the curators, who had been handed loans of almost mythic status — the “Kritios Boy,” the “Grave Stele of Hegeso” — did so little with them. The show could have been an opportunity to break scholarly ground: to examine the role of class in ancient Greece, or to consider the lives of women and children, or to reconsider what classicism means as a value-laden historical concept. What we got was art-survey boilerplate.
Two years later the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore mounted a show on women in ancient Greece, impressively. And now New York has one too. Moderate in size, efficiently presented and somewhat stiffly titled “Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens,” it is not at the Met or any other museum but at the Onassis Cultural Center in Midtown, a kuntshalle-style space, now almost a decade old, devoted to Hellenic culture.
As conceived by its two curators — Nikolaos Kaltsas, director of the National Archaeological Museum of Greece, and Alan Shapiro, professor of archaeology at Johns Hopkins University — the show’s intention is twofold: to present a nuanced view of a still-elusive subject, and to correct, or at least revise, existing misconceptions.
The main misconception is the notion that women had a universally mute and passive role in Athenian society. It is true that they lived with restrictions modern Westerners would find intolerable. Technically they were not citizens. In terms of civil rights, their status differed little from that of slaves. Marriages were arranged; girls were expected to have children in their midteens. Yet, the show argues, the assumption that women lived in a state of purdah, completely removed from public life, is contradicted by the depictions of them in art.
Much of that art is religious, which is no surprise considering the commanding female deities in the Greek pantheon. Like most gods in most cultures they are moody, contradictory personalities, above-it-all in knowledge but quick to play personal politics and intervene in human fate. Four of them make in-depth appearances here.
Athena comes on as a striding warrior goddess, armed and dangerous, avid as a wasp, in a tiny bronze statuette from the fifth century B.C. This is the goddess who, in “The Iliad,” egged the Greeks on and manipulated their victory against Troy, and the one who later became the spiritual chief executive of the Athenian military economy.
Yet seen painted in silhouette on a black vase, she conveys a different disposition. She’s still in armor but stands at ease, a stylus poised in one hand, a writing tablet open like a laptop in the other. The goddess of wisdom is checking her mail, and patiently answering each plea and complaint.
Artemis is equally complex. A committed virgin, she took on the special assignment of protecting pregnant women and keeping an eye on children, whose carved portraits filled her shrines. She was a wild-game hunter, but one with a deep Franciscan streak. In one image she lets her hounds loose on deer; in another she cradles a fawn.
But no sooner have we pegged her as the outdoorsy type than she changes. On a gold-hued vase from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg she appears as Princess Diana, to use her Roman name, crowned and bejeweled in a pleated floor-length gown.
Demeter was worshiped as an earth goddess long before she became an Olympian. Her mystery cult had female priests, women-only rites and a direct line to the underworld. And although you might not expect Aphrodite, paragon of physical beauty, to have a dark side, she does.
She was much adored; there were shrines to her everywhere. And she had the added advantage of being exotic: she seems to have drifted in from somewhere far east of Greece, bringing a swarm of nude winged urchins with her. But as goddess of love she was unreliable, sometimes perverse. Yes, she brings people amorously together, but when things go wrong, watch out:
“Like a windstorm/Punishing the oak trees,/Love shakes my heart.”
So wrote the poet and worshiper of women, Sappho, who knew.