Thursday 4 May 2023

Exhibition: Gods & Goddesses in Luxury & Power

The photo at the top shows two heads at the start of Luxury and Power - Persia to Greece, an exhibition that starts today at the British Museum. I was lucky enough to be invited to a preview last weekend. Both heads were found in Cyprus at the sanctuary of Apollo. The stone sculpture is thought to depict a worshipper while the bronze one might be the Greek god Apollo or Reshef, a god of war originally from the Levant region. Both show Greek and Persian styling as well as a blend of religious beliefs.  

The exhibition is primarily about material opulence rather than spirituality - how the Persians loved their bling, the Greeks were more restrained but ended up embracing luxury too. There's some beautiful shiny things on display, so if you like seeing impressive gold drinking vessels and ornamentation, you will enjoy this exhibition. However, there's also quite a bit of interest for those fascinated by ancient pagan deities.

The Parthenon on the Acropolis was a treasury as well as a temple to Athena. It held bowls, jugs, jewellery, incense burners and other things fashioned from precious metal or jewels that had been captured from the Persians. These were paraded each year at the festival of the goddess. The democratic Athenians felt more comfortable considering them tribute to their deity than using them as symbols of secular rank, which was a feature of Persian society. A frieze depicting the parade is at the exhibition.

There are a few sculptures of Aphrodite at the exhibition which show how her image was blended with that of goddesses from other countries. The picture to the left shows Aphrodite-Anahita from the ancient kingdom of Armenia. The Greek goddess of love is syncretised with the water goddess Anahita. 

The most exceptional loan to the exhibition is the Panagyurishte Treasure from Bulgaria. The objects were discovered by three brothers in 1949 and are outstanding examples of ancient metalworking, demonstrating the influence of Persian and Greek luxury across the Balkans. The Treasure consists of nine richly decorated gold vessels: 8 rhyta (jugs) used to pour wine and one bowl to drink it. 

The photo below shows the Panagyurishte Treasure (© Todor Dimitrov, National Museum of History, Bulgaria). Three of the rhytons depict female heads. They could depict Athena, Hera and Aphrodite, or possibly Amazon warriors or meanads who followed the god of wine, Dionysus.

Luxury and Power - Persia to Greece is on at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, until 13 August. Tickets are £15/free for members.

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