From ruins, beauty survives

Antioch exhibition, now at the BMA, teaches that life goes on despite great calamities.


September 16, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Perhaps the only really important lesson art can teach us is that life goes on, despite the catastrophes that befall it. Civilizations arise and fall and their glittering cities crumble into dust, yet in their ruins we detect a tragic beauty that encourages us to press on: ancient death begets new life.

The medieval world lived in an eternity of spirit, but when it rediscovered its classical past, the stasis was broken and a new world struggled into being. We are the heirs of that centuries-old rebirth, and also of the ancient world whose ruins inspired it.

Of the four great cities of the ancient world -- Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch -- Antioch, situated in what is today southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border, may have been the most like our own. It was a prosperous, cosmopolitan, consumer metropolis devoted to trade and the arts, whose colorful, diverse citizenry -- Romans, Greeks, Jews, Syrians, Turks and Persians -- was drawn from every corner of the ancient world.

"Indeed, if a man had the idea of traveling all over earth with a concern not to see how the cities looked but to learn their individual ways ... Antioch would save him journeying," wrote the fourth-century rhetorician Libanios. "If he sits in our market-place, he will sample every city; there will be so many people from each place with whom he can talk."

Brilliant, brief life

Antioch was founded in 300 B.C. by Seleukos I, one of the victorious generals who had served under Alexander the Great. By the early Christian era, it had become the capital of the Roman province of Syria on the empire's eastern edge and was famed for its mild climate, its abundant, healing waters and the exotic and luxurious goods that filled its markets. It was a city of grand buildings and broad avenues, and of sophisticated people who knew how to enjoy life to the full.

"How could they ever give up their marvelous way of life, the range of their daily pleasures, their brilliant theatre which consummated a union between Art and the erotic proclivities of the flesh?" wrote one historian. "... They had the satisfaction of living the notorious life of Antioch, delectable, in absolute good taste."

Yet Antioch is no more. A massive conflagration consumed the city in 525 A.D.; two earthquakes, in 526 and 528, reduced its beautiful buildings to rubble; in 540 it was overrun by Persian invaders; and in 560 its population was decimated by an outbreak of bubonic plague.

By the time Arab armies conquered the city in 638, Antioch's former prosperity was shattered, its glorious culture in ruins.

This is the story revealed in "Antioch: The Lost Ancient City," which opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art and runs through Dec. 30. The show presents some 160 objects excavated from the ancient city during archaeological digs in the 1930s, including magnificent mosaic tile floors from public and private buildings, religious and ceremonial objects, sculptures, vessels, coins and domestic utensils.

It's impossible to completely re-create the texture of life of a bygone era, of course, and these fragments of Antioch's once flourishing polity can only hint at the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by its inhabitants. But the show's curators have done their best to convey a sense of who the Antiocheans were and why they considered their city so unique.

Through the exhibition

The exhibition opens with a display of statuary representing the tyches, or patron goddesses, of the ancient world's four great cities. Antioch's tyche, fashioned from gilt silver, sits with her legs crossed under a voluminous mantle, while at her feet swims a male figure symbolizing the river Orontes, which connected the city to the Mediterranean seaport of Seleucia Pieria, 15 miles to the south.

The goddesses beckon visitors into the first gallery of the exhibition, a colonnaded chamber in which are presented objects associated with the daily life of the city -- commemorative portrait busts, coins, small sculptures and jewelry as well as a wonderfully evocative mosaic of a funerary banquet that depicts the sumptuous clothing and furnishings enjoyed by the city's wealthy elite.

The next gallery celebrates the city's entertainments. Here one finds a ceremonial helmet worn by professional gladiators as well as tokens of gentler combat, such as a lovely mosaic-tile backgammon board and relief sculptures of people playing various games of skill and chance.

Antiocheans were a practical people, but they weren't above resorting to magic to ward off evil or to delve into matters of the heart. Professional magicians were employed to cast spells and perform elaborate rituals on behalf of clients, including the creation of "curse tablets" -- small sheets of lead engraved with imprecations against rivals -- that were rolled up and tossed into the city's drains to accomplish their purpose. A section of the gallery devoted to magic contains a half-dozen or so such messages recovered from the city's ruins and displayed in glass cases.

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