When woman's place was at home A beauty: The Walters' splendid show on women in ancient Greece gathers some of the greatest works of Greek art.

November 05, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In ancient Greece, it was typical for a young woman of 14 to be married to a 30-year-old man whom she hardly knew, if she had met him at all. Then she'd spend most of her time at home, bearing children, spinning and weaving, and managing the household.

While in the presence of men, she'd keep her eyes downcast and arms at her sides to show her modesty. She was not a citizen of the city-state -- only men were citizens -- and she took no part in its political life.

But she had a prominent role in religious life and was regarded as essential to the stability and prosperity of the community.

This and much more can be learned from the Walters Art Gallery's splendid new exhibit, "Pandora's Box: Women in Classical Greece."

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance or the beauty of this show -- at once a landmark in the study of ancient Greece and a gathering of some of the greatest works of Greek art.

Its 138 objects, mainly painted vases and stone sculptures, come from 54 public and private collections in 14 countries. Some have never been seen in this country. Some pieces have never before left Greece. There are works in the collections of former Iron Curtain countries -- Russia, Poland, the former East Germany -- which would have been difficult, if not impossible, to borrow before the recent political changes.

It's safe to say that this show could not have been done 10 or even five years ago.

But more important, this show never would have been done until recently.

Traditionally, Greek art has been looked at in terms of style, notes Ellen Reeder, Walters curator of ancient art. And Greek history has been studied primarily in political and military terms -- the domains of men.

More recently, however, there has been an increased interest in studying societies in terms of anthropology, sociology and psychology. The Walters' show is trailblazing both because its subject is women and because it examines ancient works of art from more than an aesthetic point of view. It explores what the works tell us of how the social structure worked, what everyday life was like, how people related to one another, and what problems they had to deal with.

And while much in ancient Greece was different from our time, some of the issues addressed are timeless -- because, says Reeder, "these works are speaking to innate conflicts of the human condition."

Divided into four sections, the show first deals with the Greek ideal of woman. She was, Reeder writes in the catalog, "beautiful, with a beautiful voice, sexy, intelligent (necessary to run a household well), tall, industrious, well-born, and fertile. She was also virtuous, modest, passive, submissive, silent, and invisible." (The male ideal , Reeder points out, was equally impossible to live up to: "handsome, athletic, intelligent, cultured, well-born " etc.)

Woman as bride

A woman's wedding was the most important occasion of her life. Scenes of the ceremony are depicted on a group of tall vases, called loutrophoroi, which held water for the bridal bath. (No fewer than half a dozen of these vases have been assembled for this show, out of perhaps 25 known in the world.) They show the bride's unveiling, when she could look into the eyes of her husband for the first time; the groom grasping her wrist and lifting her into the bridal chariot, symbolic acts of abduction that indicate her value to her new family; and her arrival at her husband's house, where she would be met by his mother bearing torches.

The wife's ability in spinning and weaving and in managing the household were important, but above all she was supposed to bear children. The woman's role as mother is beautifully reflected in a grave relief of about 420 B.C., showing a maidservant holding a baby girl out to her mother. It is especially poignant because it marks the grave of the mother, whose child will never see her again.

Woman as mother

Woman was so closely associated with motherhood that she was regarded, like Mother Earth, as a vessel to contain and produce life. Therefore she was often depicted, in domestic scenes, in association with vessels such as baskets or boxes, and even as a vessel. A major part of the show dealing with this metaphor begins with a pair of vases made in the shape of a woman's head.

Although the two vases were found in the same tomb in the 19th century, one went to St. Petersburg and one to Berlin. They have never been exhibited together before. In fact, having secured the loan of the St. Petersburg head, Reeder says she wasn't going to ask for the other, but the Berlin museum director insisted on lending it so he could see them together.

Woman as vessel

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