It has been obvious for many years that few areas of the Museum of Fine Arts’s permanent collection were more poorly presented to the public than its stupendous Greek and Roman holdings. The relevant galleries, on the eastern side of the building, had almost no climate control, which meant that in summer they were baking. This made for uncomfortable viewing, but it was also, of course, totally inappropriate for the fragile objects on view. The glass cases were often dusty. Wall labels were typed out on cards.
Now, three contiguous galleries devoted to aspects of Ancient Greece have been opened to the public, and the difference they make is enormous. The temperature and humidity are now perfectly controlled. Everything is clean and gorgeously displayed. The wall labels are informative but unobtrusive, as are the several touch screens which help visitors come to grips with a few key objects or themes.
The installation was planned and executed by Christine Kondoleon and Phoebe Segal, the MFA’s curator and assistant curator, respectively, of Greek and Roman art.
Each of the three galleries — really just one long gallery, divided by transparent glass cases — has been arranged by theme.
The first is devoted to Homer and the Epics. The second focuses on Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and the Symposium. (Symposia were all-male parties, held in Dionysus’s honor, at which wine was drunk, philosophy was discussed, music and poetry were performed, and erotic encounters took place.) The third, called “Theater and Performance,” explores Greek theater, including comedy, tragedy, and music.
These themes are all interconnected. But as distinct categories, they make excellent sense. Not only do they answer to basic aspects of our curiosity about the culture of ancient Greece, but they also play to the MFA’s strengths.
The MFA’s collection of Homeric material is probably the best in the United States. One of its star objects is a bust of Homer himself, widely considered to be the world’s finest. Carved from Greek marble, it probably dates to around the time of Christ, so it’s younger than many of the other objects here. But the tangled knots of the poet’s beard and hair, his blind eyes, his animated brow, and his craggy face all convey an inward intensity that establishes him instantly as the gallery’s presiding genius.
His presence is reinforced nearby by the gallery’s only painting, and its most glaring anachronism (although a very apt one): a 19th-century oil painting by Puvis de Chavannes titled “Homer: Epic Poetry.” (The work relates to the famous murals Puvis painted for the Boston Public Library.)
Homer’s centrality to the Greeks had crystallized by about the sixth century BC, and in the later stages of the Archaic Period (800-400 BC), representations of events relating to his Iliad, and to other lost epics concerning the Trojan War, appeared with increasing frequency.
A stunning mixing bowl, from about 490-480 BC, depicts two violent scenes from the war. One side shows Achilles stabbing Memnon, the king of Ethopia. Memnon fought on the Trojan side, and here falls into the arms of his mother, Eos, goddess of the dawn.
The other side shows Diomedes, the greatest of Greek warriors after Achilles. (He features prominently in this gallery). He is shown here wounding Aeneas, the Trojan prince who, according to Virgil, went on to found Rome. Just as Memnon falls into the arms of Eos, Aeneas falls into the arms of his mother, Aphrodite.
It was Aphrodite, of course, who had triggered the Trojan War when she bribed Paris to choose her as the fairest in a competition. After attacking Aeneas, Diomedes was so incensed by Aphrodite’s intervention on his victim’s behalf that he wounded her. Later that day, helped by Athena, he also attacked Ares, the god of war.
Two gods wounded in one day: not bad for a mortal. (But maybe, on reflection, not such a good idea.)
There are other extraordinary things here — too many to mention. A red figure mixing bowl (about 470-460 BC) shows atrociously violent scenes from the fall of Troy. (“No tongue,” wrote Virgil, “could describe the carnage of that night and its orgy of death.”) Cassandra, naked, is about to be raped. King Priam, meanwhile, is being bludgeoned to death by the body of his own grandson. It’s awful.
On the other side of the room, various objects depict lurid or fantastical characters from the Odyssey. There is an impressive sculpted head of the fearsome Cyclops, Polyphemus, whose one, centered eye connects him, strangely, with the blind bust of Homer across the gallery.
There is also a powerfully expressive sculptural fragment of a weeping siren, and, nearby, an unusual and poignant red figure jar showing Odysseus in the Underworld with Elpenor, the youngest member of his crew. Intoxicated on Circe’s island, Elpenor had fallen from her roof, and was now being tormented in Hades because he had not received a proper burial. Odysseus, who made sacrifices on his behalf, is shown here listening — with great compassion and philosophical interest, one feels — to Elpenor’s words.
In the gallery devoted to Dionysus and the Symposium, we are gently ushered away from the heady realm of the epics into a more social realm, presented with a fitting blend of theater and anthropological curiosity. The layout of the gallery, with a big central table holding a giant, brass mixing bowl (another very rare object), invites us to imagine a typical symposium.
We also see a beautiful 4th-century BC marble head of Dionysus, which is as crucial to this gallery as the bust of Homer is to the earlier one. The god’s features are slightly feminized, reminding us, perhaps, of 20th-century Dionysian rock gods like Mick Jagger and David Bowie.
There are also satyrs, erotic scenes, and references to wine and drinking. Look out for the small decorated cups, which were designed as presents for young boys and used to give them their first taste of wine.
The third and final gallery, dedicated to theater, is as compelling and various as the first two. There is a herm-bust of Menander, the great (and unusually handsome) dramatist who wrote more than 100 comedies. There are wonderful masks, grotesque heads, and a small selection of the MFA’s extraordinary collection of small Greek terracottas, many of them showing comic actors in character.
One obvious highlight is a huge funerary mixing bowl, showing the beheading of Thersites by Achilles (in reference to a play since lost), and — bringing us full circle — another, very special mixing bowl showing scenes relating to Agamemnon’s murder. Agamemnon was, of course, the Greek king who aroused the anger of Achilles during the siege of Troy by taking his lover. He returned to his home, Mycenae, after sacking Troy, only to find that his wife, Klytemnestra, had taken a lover, his cousin Aegisthos.
In one scene illustrated on the bowl, Aegisthos attacks Agamemnon with a sword while Klytemnestra hovers ready with an ax. On the other side, her children (by Agamemnon) avenge his death by attacking an unsuspecting Aegisthos, while Klytemnestra again rushes in madly with her ax.
Plans — they appear excellent to me — are in place to overhaul and rationalize the rest of the MFA’s classical galleries, so that Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art, along with the recently installed (and outstanding) ancient coins gallery, will all be on the same level, and logically connected.
Unfortunately, it seems the project will proceed in a piecemeal fashion (surely more expensive in the long run?) and will depend on the unpredictable availability of money.
So come, generous donors of Boston! Get on that phone. You live in the Athens of America, after all. We are talking about objects and a culture that occupy a central place in Western civilization, objects that have arrived in our presence after a very long journey indeed.
Do not betray them now. Pick up a copy of the Iliad (one such copy, lent by the Krupps, collectors who made possible the Homer gallery, is on display here), or look into the blind eyes of the MFA’s Homer. Straightaway, you will see why it matters.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.