New Interactive Displays Explore Classical History and Mythology

BOSTON, MA (August 25, 2014)—Ancient treasures take center stage this September, as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), opens three galleries dedicated to Wine, Poets, and Performers in Ancient Greece. The new galleries, which open on September 16, focus on three themes: “Homer and the Epics,” Dionysos and the Symposium” and “Theater and Performance.” The poetry and drama of this storied civilization come alive through 230 works, primarily from the sixth century to the fourth century BC, including marble and bronze sculptures, ceramic and metal vases, and terracotta figurines. Many objects on view have been meticulously restored—some for the first time in a century. The fascinating displays will captivate anyone who has been inspired by Greek theater, mythology or the legendary heroes of Homer’s timeless epics. Set in the George D. and Margo Behrakis Wing of Art of the Ancient World (in the Museum’s original 1909 building), these three galleries have been renovated in order to present the MFA’s renowned Greek collection in a thematic way for the first time. Additionally, new interactive multimedia displays complement the installation by offering detailed looks at complex works of art, while the Museum’s mobile MFA Guide features a new nine-stop tour of the golden age of Greek culture.

“Boston has long been known as the Athens of America and there is no more fitting place than the MFA for a suite of galleries that bring alive the artistic and literary traditions of the ancient Greeks,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA. “I am particularly excited that technology enables us to watch scenes from the Trojan War as they unfold on vases that are thousands of years old.” 

Homer and the Epics, Krupp Gallery

The Krupp Gallery of Homer and the Epics presents the MFA’s world-renowned collection of works of art illustrating scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey—epic poems composed by Homer, the blind Greek poet of the eighth century BC. A striking marble portrait of Homer (late first century BC or first century AD) presides over a group of objects featuring scenes from the Iliad and the Trojan War, which was fought sometime around 1200 BC. Included are depictions of central episodes such as the Judgment of Paris, the Arming of Achilles, the Dragging of Hektor, and the Fall of Troy, as well as scenes not told in any surviving text, such as Ajax and Achilles playing a board game. A rare skyphos or Drinking cup (about 490 BC, signed by Hieron as potter and Makron as painter), illustrates the start and finish of the Trojan War, which was marked by the departure and the recovery of the beautiful Helen from Troy. Positioned near the gallery entrance, a large touch screen will provide an interactive introduction to the war using scenes from a series of vases. This display will enable visitors to get the full sweep of the story before exploring the rest of the gallery.  

The highlight of the Odyssey grouping is a marble Head of Polyphemos (about 150 BC or later). With voluminous, shaggy hair, a deeply furrowed brow, a single, almond-shaped eye between two clenched eye-sockets and parted lips, this head presents Polyphemos as a malformed monster. Also in this section, which features objects that illustrate the journey home of the Greek warrior Odysseus, a Drinking cup (kylix) depicting scenes from the Odyssey (about 560–550 BC) narrates the story of the goddess Circe magically changing the hero’s men into swine on one side, and his escape from Polyphemos on the other.

“From Homer’s heroes to the intoxicated ecstasy of Dionysos and his dominion over Greek theater, the visitors to these three new Greek galleries will be reminded of the spoken verses that gave rise to many works of art,” said Christine Kondoleon, George D. and Margo Behrakis Senior Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the MFA. “These galleries offer a cultural context and freshly present some of the best Greek painted vases in the world.” 

Dionysos and the Symposium 

A Marble head of Dionysos (about 4th century BC), god of wine and revelry, presides over this gallery, which introduces the significance of wine in Greek culture and religion. Many of the vases on view were the same types of vessels used in the all-male drinking party known as the symposium—an important event for the elite Athenian. Symposia activities included drinking games, philosophical discourse (as represented by a Portrait Head of Socrates (about AD 170-195)), the performance of poetry and music, and interactions with courtesans—who were the only women invited to these banquets. 

A central table in the gallery invites visitors to explore a variety of ceramic, silver and bronze vessels and jars used in the mixing and drinking of wine.  At banquets and symposia, guests would recline on ornate couches around tables like this, welcoming visitors to partake in the drink and merriment.  At their parties, Greeks enjoyed a great deal of humor, as seen in a Drinking cup in the shape of a braying donkey’s head (about 480 BC, Painted by the Brygos Painter). This object was fitting for the Symposium not only because Dionysos is often represented riding on mules and donkeys, but also because when raised to drink, the cup would “make an ass” of its user. 

In another case in the gallery, objects are grouped to reveal the cult of Dionysos—who was worshipped through rituals closely related to the making and drinking of wine.  Many drinking vessels on view feature dancing nude satyrs and maenads that suggest the mood of inebriation and excess associated with the god. A Two-handled covered jar (amphora) with Dionysos in a vineyard (about 540–530 BC) depicts the rustic deity tended by satyrs and sipping wine while surrounded by a lively pattern of baskets, twisting vines and ripe, juicy grapes.  Visitors to the gallery will also learn the importance of wine as a driver of the ancient Mediterranean economy through a selection of coins minted by Greek cities that exported wine. 

Theater and Performance

Tragedy and comedy as they are known today were developed by the Greeks as early as the sixth century BC. This gallery features rare objects that reveal scenes from a variety of plays, many of which are now lost—highlighting ephemeral performances of dancers, musicians, singers and actors.  Plays in Ancient Greece began as a way to honor Dionysos, and were written and performed for the festivals held in his honor.  Painted scenes from the works of Menander, Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus are all featured in the gallery.  Many of the plays gained a wider audience when the Greek settlers of Southern Italy and Sicily embraced this art form and built stone theaters to feature the spectacles. Local painters in the region captured scenes on vases such as the Mixing bowl (krater) with an actor running (about 350 BC, painted by the Konnakis Painter). All of the actors in Ancient Greece were male, wearing masks (made from glue-soaked, molded linen) with exaggerated facial features that could be easily read by the audience from their seats. None survive today, but ample evidence of what they looked like can be found in many painted terracotta miniatures—such as Suspension disk with Comic mask of a slave (1st century BC).

Perhaps the most famous vase illustrating the genre of tragedy is the MFA’s Mixing bowl (calyx krater) with the killing of Agamemnon (about 460 BC, the Dokimasia Painter). This unique representation shows Aegisthus killing Agamemnon, the husband of his lover, Klytaimnestra, while the reverse reveals Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, taking revenge for his father’s murder by killing Aegisthus. Some aspects of the vase’s depiction of this scene are not directly traceable to Aeschylus’ famed version of the play, demonstrating that multiple versions existed at roughly the same period—meaning Ancient Greece’s lively theatrical scene can only be partially explored through fragments of written plays and objects such as these.

The prolific comic playwright Menander is represented by a marble bust (late 1st century BC or early 1st century AD), one of the finest portraits of him in the world. This distinguished man, with deep-set eyes and a smooth bony face, changed the nature of comedy. Inventor of the “sitcom,” Menander shaped his plays from everyday life and laid the groundwork of European comedic tradition. “New Comedy” (321–263 BC), as these early “sitcoms” were known, featured actors playing stock roles (crafty slave, false virgin, young lover, courtesan). Bawdy comedies of a different sort, known as “phlyax” plays, can be seen in the MFA’s collection of fourth-century BC vases from Sicily and South Italy (Great Greece/Magna Graecia)—where playwrights and actors from Athens traveled to perform for Greek settlers. 

Interactive Displays in the Galleries of Wine, Poets, and Performers in Ancient Greece

The MFA’s renowned collection of Greek art contains some of the most visually complicated objects in the Museum. iPads will be placed near two particularly detailed vases in order to explain the narratives and “unpack” their symbols. Visitors can discover details they may not have otherwise noticed (similar to “Looking Closer” interactives in the Benin Kingdom Gallery and Kunstkammer Gallery).  In the Homer Gallery, one iPad will focus on the Mixing bowl (calyx krater) with scenes from the fall of Troy (about 470–460 BC). Circled by a continuous frieze of episodes from the Greek sack of the city of Troy, depictions include images of the priestess Kassandra, King Priam of Troy and the Trojan warrior Aeneas. The iPad in the Theater and Performance gallery highlights the Mixing bowl (volute krater) with the Death of Thersites (about 340 BC)—an elaborate vase that was probably influenced by a lost play. Depicted are Achilles, who has just beheaded Thersites, as well as divinities and a number of characters from the Iliad

Art of the Ancient World at the MFA

The three new Greek galleries are part of the George D. and Margo Behrakis Wing, which houses the MFA’s Art of the Ancient World collection (one of the finest and most comprehensive in the world). Encompassing a wide geographical area—including Egypt, Nubia (Sudan), the Ancient Near East, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Anatolia (Turkey)—highlights include the 13-foot-tall Juno, the largest classical statue in the United States; an intricate Marine mosaic excavated at the site the ancient Roman city of Antioch; the Michael C. Ruettgers Gallery for Ancient Coins; and the Anne and Blake Ireland Gallery of Gems and Jewelry of the Ancient Mediterranean.

MFA Guide is made possible through the generous support of the John W. Henry Family Foundation.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 pm, weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit mfa.org or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.

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