Walters' gold exhibit surveys Greek civilization through the ages

November 21, 1991|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Evening Sun

If all that glitters isn't gold in the "Gold of Greece" exhibit opening Sunday at the Walters Art Gallery, it's because some of the jewelry also incorporates gemstones or silver.

A golden coincidence has this show coming to the Walters shortly after the "Gold of Africa" show ended its run at the Baltimore Museum of Art. What a luxurious experience to have so much gold lent to these two museums at a time when Baltimore City otherwise seems to have no gold at all in its own coffers.

The Greek gold at the Walters spans a 4,000 year period, and, even more strikingly, was collected by one man, the late Anthony Benaki. He founded a museum in Athens in 1930. The Benaki Museum and the Dallas Museum of Art jointly organized the present touring exhibit.

Although the enormous time span covered by this exhibit and the no less daunting number of cross-cultural influences on jewelry design are only dealt with in cursory fashion in the exhibit and its accompanying catalog, the major stylistic evolutions come across. Of course, it's helpful that Greek jewelry constantly referred to some of the same design sources over the centuries. One can see the influence of Egyptian jewelry in the papyrus flower motif of a necklace made during the Mycenaean period of Greek art (16th through 12th centuries B.C.), then centuries later still see the Greeks relying on Egyptian and Near Eastern designs.

Greek art during the Archaic Period (8th through 5th centuries B.C.) was discovering the geometric logic and naturalistic forms later used to express the ideals of humanism to which we still adhere.

However, the Greeks were also an incredibly superstitious civilization. One of the pleasures of this exhibit is seeing how jewelry was used to invoke the gods and ward off evil spirits. A "Gorgoneion" from the Archaic Period, for instance, was placed as an amulet on a dead person's clothing. Made from gold foil, this amulet represents the face of the Medusa, which, as myth had it, would turn to stone any man who dared gaze upon her. So any corpse wearing such an amulet would presumably be safe from demons or grave robbers. Gaze upon it at your own risk.

Among the animal forms on which the Greeks relied for design inspiration were the snake, whose curling and protective shape proved perfect for bracelets; and the ram's head, which was believed to both protect the wearer from illness and boost a man's potency.

Those charms must have worked in their various ways, because Greek culture reached its peak during the Classical Period. Indeed, the so-called Golden Age of the 5th century B.C. refers to jewelry as much as to drama, sculpture and democracy.

The closely related Hellenistic phase that followed -- epitomized by the reign of Alexander the Great -- also saw a wealth of Greek ornamental design. Considering how widely Greeks roamed in this era, it's especially poignant to see a pair of earrings that are vase-shaped pendants. Is it suggesting too much to say that these mini-vases remind us of how Greek merchant ships took vases full of wine or olive oil to many ports of call in the eastern Mediterranean? And that a family made wealthy from such trade would want ornaments showing the source of its fortune?

If those earrings are cleverly allusive, there is also a pride of craftsmanship to be seen in them, and, indeed, in other objects fabricated through the centuries. Nowhere is this conveyed more strongly than in a show-stopping "ivy leaves" wreath made somewhere between the 1st century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D. Its leaves of gold beaten thin for the sake of the lean victor who would wear it, this wreath is remarkably well preserved.

The Roman conquest of Greece and the ensuing development of the Byzantine empire involved changes of artistic styles, and, for that matter, of gods. In general, jewelry increasingly placed more emphasis on big gemstones -- some imported from India -- and less attention was paid to the surrounding gold work.

But despite such changes, there was also the philosophical and design continuity of "modern" societies wanting to lay claim to the heritage of ancient Greece. Well into the 19th century, a Greek bride getting gussied up for her wedding would wear jewelry that someone living in Constantinople hundreds of years before would have enjoyed wearing.

"Gold of Greece: Jewelry and Ornaments From the Benaki Museum" opens Sunday at the Walters Art Gallery, at 600 N. Charles St., where it remains through Jan. 19. Call 547-9000.

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