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ART REVIEW

The MFA opens a classical art gallery

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A helmet from “Daily Life in Ancient Greece” at the MFA.

By Cate McQuaid Globe Correspondent 

A strand of cultural DNA reaches from Olympia, Greece, site of the first Olympics, straight to Fenway Park. I’m not referring to the architecture, or the sport itself — ancient Greeks favored individual over team athletics. 

It’s the fan-boy ethos, the lusty competitive spirit. Forget sportsmanship! In ancient Greece, winners reigned. Losers slunk out of the arena, ashamed. That’s a related strand, extending right to the Oval Office.

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“Daily Life in Ancient Greece,” a new permanent gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, delineates how much we have in common with Greeks, usually Athenians, who lived 2,500 years ago. The consonances chime so brightly, it’s almost eerie.

A large vase celebrates the Panathenaic games, staged to honor Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. She appears between two columns on one side; on the other, one combatant overpowers another in a sport called pankration that might be the granddaddy of WWE — a jukebox of boxing, wrestling, and more. Only eye gouging and biting were against the rules. 

Athletes competed in the nude; the body of the male athlete symbolized perfection and virtue. Before a match, competitors rubbed oil on their skin. Afterward, they had a special tool called a strigil to scrape off the oil and any dust, soil, or blood that had accumulated — there’s one with a vine decoration on view here.

Men competed exclusively in Athens, but in Sparta women also trained and vied for the laurel wreath. Women were much less frequently portrayed in the nude, but one jar here depicts nude women with strigils, suggesting they might be athletes. Certainly, they’re bathing. Nude women appeared on objects that may have been used at men’s drinking parties — another testosterone-laced DNA thread that twines directly with ours. 

These vessels are among the more than 250 objects, many recently conserved, on view in this enchanting new installation. It caps off a new display strategy that Christine Kondoleon, the MFA’s senior curator of Greek and Roman art, began putting into play in 2014 with another engrossing permanent installation, “Wine, Poets, and Performers in Ancient Greece.” An enormous head of a cyclops in that gallery is as melancholy as it is monstrous.

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The ancient galleries used to take a more taxonomic approach to display, and Kondoleon transforms them with chatty context and storytelling. “Daily Life in Ancient Greece” hums with fantastic details fleshing out artworks such as painted vases and clay figurines, and utilitarian objects — a fisherman’s needle, a loom’s warp weights. A moneybox sits near a surgeon’s kit; Plato called Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine, “persuaded by gold” and “shamefully fond of gain.”

The passage of millennia does change things, of course. Just as “Daily Life in Ancient Greece” reveals how Greek masculinity molded itself around competition, it offers insight into the somewhat cloistered lives of women.

Women often kept to a protected part of the house, where they cared for children and made textiles. They were not citizens — nor were foreigners or enslaved people. Kondoleon delves into domestic life through toys, such as a top decorated with palmettos and water birds, and functional pieces, such as an oil bottle used to anoint gravesites — a ritual undertaken by women.

But girls competed, too. In one charming sculpture, two squat on the ground, a little dog between them, hands touching. They’re playing knucklebones, a variation of jacks, but instead of jacks they toss the tarsal bones of a sheep or a goat in the air. It was a common children’s game in ancient Greece, and also a divinatory technique.

A bathing vessel painted with a bridal procession offers clues to ancient marital rituals. Marriages were arranged for brides in their early teens and grooms in their 20s, and usually the bride moved in with the groom’s family. Here several bewinged Eros tots usher the bride toward her bedchamber. 

The curator counsels in a wall label that the picture we get from these ancient objects doesn’t accurately represent life — it represents the ideals, values, and humor of a particular territory in Greece 2,500 years ago. Artifacts here teach us about war, beauty, and death. But there are few, if any, depictions of slaves, and more is known about the lives of citizens than non-citizens. 

Given that, I’d have liked to learn more here about Greece’s democratic government, especially in light of the current dysfunction of America’s. 

Each of more than 1,000 city-states had its own government. In ancient Athens, there were only about 30,000 citizens. Officials and juries were selected not by vote, but by lot, and paid a small sum to cover time away from work. For a while in Athens, one practice that did require a vote was ostracism. Citizens of Athens could elect to banish a politician for a decade, without even charging him with a crime. Imagine. 

If there isn’t enough about how power was wielded and stratified, the humanity of the people who played jacks and hoisted shields in battle echoes keenly through their possessions. Many objects on display were buried with the dead. There’s a dear clay sculpture of a barber at work. Small, lively vignettes such as this one sometimes filled tombs. Several of them are on view, and while they don’t offer the pageantry of athletic glory or the nuts-and-bolts utility of a surgeon’s tweezers, they are perhaps the most descriptive and beguiling glimpses of a society that set the course for Western civilization.

DAILY LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE

At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org 


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com
Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.