Exhibition on love in antiquity opens in Athens

AP News
Posted: Dec 09, 2009 1:10 PM

When it came to endearments, Philonides wasn't a man of subtlety.

The lid of a small 5th century B.C. Greek vase, intended as a gift to a flute-player named Anemone, bore a picture of male and female genitalia. To avoid any misunderstanding, Philonides and Anemone's names were inscribed next to the appropriate parts.

The 2,500-year-old find, from a Greek museum's collection, is part of a groundbreaking new exhibition at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens dedicated to the ancient Greek god of love Eros.

What organizers say is the biggest-ever display of its kind brings together more than 270 artifacts from Greek and international museums, spanning a millennium from the 6th century B.C. to early Christian times.

Exhibits, representing the sacred and profane, the graphic and mundane, range from a 2,500-year-old love note and a spurned lover's deadly curse to a recreation of a Roman brothel.

"It is very easy to write about love, to read about love, even easier perhaps to fall in love, but it is extremely difficult to convey love through art," Cycladic Museum director Nikos Stampolidis said Wednesday. "Which is why there have been very few (archaeological) exhibitions about love."

"We tried to look at it not only as an abstract force of fertility or a god as represented in ancient sculpture or painting, but also as a human value and a daily act," Stampolidis said.

Most exhibits make for easy family viewing, including marble masterpieces such as the Louvre's winged Eros stringing his bow _ a Roman copy of a late classical bronze _ and the 2nd century A.D. complex of Eros kissing goddess of the soul, Psyche, from Rome's Capitoline Museums.

Early Greek writers refer to Eros, whom the Romans called Cupid, as a primordial force second only to Chaos and Earth in the order of creation. Others see him as a lesser divinity whose mother was Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty.

"Ancient writers used hundreds of adjectives for love," Stampolidis said. "Invincible, immortal, uncertain, sleepless, thief of reason, sweet but also bitter, running swiftly on a path of fire."

The display unblushingly looks into love in religion and marriage, the status of women in ancient society, homosexuality and prostitution.

First comes Aphrodite suckling the baby Eros, a theme reflected in Christian representations of the Virgin and Child, aiming his darts and even as an allegory of death.

The baroque affairs of the ancient gods are followed by love in everyday life: Demure vase paintings of marriage in classical Greece; a love note from one Arkesimos bidding his girlfriend Eumelis to come "with as much haste as possible;" a curse on a lead tablet from a woman wishing a deadly fever on a certain Hermias who spurned her affections.

The earthier section is upstairs, where museum officials advise parents accompany children under 16.

There's a recreation of a room from a Roman brothel excavated in Pompeii, vase paintings with graphic sex scenes involving all imaginable combinations _ what Stampolidis called "a kind of Kama Sutra" _ even a stone altar shaped as a giant phallus.

"Nothing was obscene for the ancients," Stampolidis said. "We must look at things in an open way, and we wanted to present the beauty (of love) through the aesthetics of ancient Greek and Roman art so as to gain a different reading of the ancient world."

"Eros, from Hesiod's Theogony to late antiquity" opens Thursday and runs until April 5.


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