If the "Gold of Greece" exhibit that opens at the Walters Art Gallery today contains some of the most exquisite jewelry ever made (and it does), surely it contains some of the ugliest as well. It just goes to show that nobody has matched the golden age of Greece, not even the Greeks themselves.
A selection of about 200 works of gold jewelry and ornaments from the Benaki Museum in Athens, the exhibit covers a grand sweep of almost 35 centuries, from the Mycenean period a millennium before the age of Periclean Athens down to the late 19th century.
It includes works made in Greece and its environs, and in some cases objects made as far away as Syria. But always present is the Greek influence, so pervasive throughout the Mediterranean world, at least in antiquity, because of the strength of Greek culture.
Like all works of art, these earrings and pins and bracelets and necklaces are more than just pretty (or in some cases not so pretty) things to look at. They reflect aspects of the society from which they come, religion and economy no less than taste and craftsmanship.
They reflect the ups and downs of a people whose long history has dealt them empire and subjugation. And they reflect, too, that people's undying sense of continuity with the past. Coming upon a late-18th century bridal diadem near the end of the show, one meets a face that resembles the sixth century B.C. gorgon seen near the beginning.
Not at the beginning, however. The show is installed chronologically, but opens with an out-of-sequence come-on, a spectacular wreath of oak leaves from the Roman period, dazzling in its brilliance and striking in its faithful reproduction of nature.
This piece, however, reflects a desire to knock the viewer over with scale and glitter that one doesn't meet until after the acme of Greek civilization.
There is much of interest most of the way through this show, but most rewarding is the first part, up to and including the flowering of Greek culture. In these sections one sees to some degree the development of the aesthetic ideals and philosophical ideas that made Greece long the intellectual center of the world.
DTC The earliest works here, from the Mycenean period of the 16th to 12th centuries B.C., already exhibit a balance of forces, combining strength of form with grace of decoration, as in the 15th-14th century necklace of 32 lily-shaped heads. Some of the grace was no doubt a result of the influence of the earlier Cretan civilization, an influence which can also be seen in the figures on two signet rings.
All that impresses is not gold. After the end of the Mycenean age, about 1100 B.C., there was a period of disruption and poverty. The poverty is reflected in the use of bronze rather than gold from the subsequent geometric period: the ninth and eighth centuries. But some pieces from this age, such as a spectacle fibula (pin) with its pair of concentric spirals, possess an astonish
ingly abstract purity and integrity of design.
In the subsequent orientalizing and archaic periods, which extend through the sixth century, the use of gold returns. The delicate beauty of a diadem in the style of Rhodes, with its depictions of sphinxes and rosettes and its use of such techniques as filigree work and granulation, reveals the influence of the Near East. There is a growing naturalism of depiction, and in particular the kneeling archer on an archiac period ring indicates the increasing importance of the human form in what the show's accompanying book calls "the Greeks' embrace of the ideological principle of anthropocentrism" -- mankind as the center and measure of all things.
In the classical age of Greece, in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., ideals of form, quality of craftsmanship and a sense of balance and restraint combine to produce works of unequaled perfection. With a piece such as the fourth century rams' head bracelet, the simplicity of the overall form and the strength of the ram's heads is balanced by the elaboration of the bands of
minutely worked decoration, which contribute to the overall effect of the piece without ever taking over.
In the subsequent Hellenistic period, down to the Roman conquest by the first century B.C., decoration sometimes does take over. A late fourth century pair of earrings with a tiny lyre player depicted on each one certainly represents the ultimate in craftsmanship, but it is simply too busy to be completely satisfying. Such is not the case, however, with a second century medallion with the bust of Athena, her head modeled in the round. This bust, with its lifelike expression, flowing hair and realistic drapery, is perhaps the most sheerly beautiful work in the whole show. And the viewer should pay particular attention as well to a third century pin, crowned by a tiny figure of a crouching Aphrodite modeled on a famous statue.