Relief of a mushhushshu dragon, 604–562 BCE, Babylon.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
A set of new collection presentations at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), NYC, USA, is currently examining aspects of cultural inter-connectedness at three prominent locations within the museum, where major paths through the galleries intersect. Crossroads addresses broad themes that have inspired artists in multiple cultures throughout history: Piety and Power, Mythical Beasts and Empires and Emporia, through some 40 objects drawn mainly from The Met’s collection. Coinciding with it’s 150th anniversary year, the installations opened on Mar. 6.
“The works of art in Crossroads reveal fascinating links embedded within the world’s sometimes complex histories,” said Max Hollein, Director of The Met. “By examining two intriguing aspects of art-making that occur across time and around the globe — the transmitting of ideas and motifs between societies, and the simultaneous exploration of fundamental concepts by artists working in distant civilisations — these displays illuminate moments of connection and exchange that interlace our collective cultural heritage.”
In Crossroads: Piety and Power, twelve works of art from Asia, the Americas, Africa and Europe — ranging from monumental sculpture commissioned by elite patrons to devotional images produced for pious worshippers — are displayed in four thematically related groupings in the Medieval Sculpture Hall, which is centrally located at the very core of the museum. Created between the 4th and 15th centuries, the objects reveal how several pre-modern cultures used the visual arts to express concepts of power and piety. The installation explores the use of works of art to identify centres of political and spiritual power, express concepts of rule and community, visualise the holy, and serve as sacred gifts.
Drawn from disparate places — some of which interacted through trade, diplomacy and war — the objects are a potent illustration of the ways different cultures employed raw materials, specialised knowledge and artistic talent to produce evocative works of art. Crossroads: Mythical Beasts, is displayed at the Gallery for the Art of the Ancient Near East, Cyprus and the Islamic World. Four objects from the ancient Middle East, ancient Cyprus and the Islamic world illustrate the widespread interaction among distant peoples in antiquity, their shared fascination with creatures of myth and legend, and artistic transformations that occurred within different cultural contexts.
Among the creatures depicted in this section is the mushhushshu, sphinx, griffin and dragon. The form of the mushhushshu — a Babylonian gatekeeper dragon that combines features of several ferocious and powerful animals — evolved from an earlier Sumerian serpent god. The sphinx — a mythological creature that is part lion, part human — originated in Egypt and has been known throughout the eastern Mediterranean since about 2000 BCE. Later, it became popular in the Middle East and Asia.
In the Cypriot example, heavily influenced by Greek sculpture, sphinxes are depicted as beautiful females. The fantastic form of the griffin — combining elements of both the lion and the eagle — was known in the Sasanian Empire before being adapted for use in the decorative arts of early Islamic Iran to convey power and authority. Dragon imagery that originated in China — where the creature was considered beneficent — inspired Islamic artists, for whom it was a fearsome animal that they depicted sometimes interlaced as an apotropaic motif. To emphasise the centrality of Cyprus as a crossroads in antiquity, an additional five objects in the adjacent Cypriot galleries of the Greek and Roman Art Department are highlighted, serving as eloquent examples of interconnection among Egypt, the Middle East and Greece.
At Crossroads: Empires and Emporia, more than two dozen objects in various media represent the sustained centuries-long contact linking Asia, Europe and America, beginning with the arrival of Portuguese merchants in Japan and China in the 16th century, the conquest of the Philippines by Spain and the establishment of a transpacific trade route between Manila and Acapulco. The Manila Galleon trade connected China and Spain via Mexico for nearly 250 years, facilitating the exchange of Spanish American silver for luxury goods and other commodities from Asia. A postscript considers the arrival of the first merchants from the United States in Canton (Guangzhou) in the 1780s.
The display features luxury goods made in Asia specifically for the Western market and items made in Mexico in imitation of Asian goods. Christian images appeared on textiles, porcelains and devotional items made in China and the Philippines, while Mexican silver coins — the currency of transpacific trade — are copied on objects made in China. The initiative is made possible by The Giorgi Family Foundation and Barbara A Wolfe. Corporate sponsorship is provided by Citi. Throughout 2020, The Met is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding with a range of exhibitions, programmes and public events. Highlights of the year include the opening of the newly renovated and reimagined galleries devoted to British decorative arts and design; the exhibition Making The Met, 1870–2020, on view Mar. 30 – Aug. 2; the display of new gifts throughout the Museum; a three-day-long celebration in June and a story-collecting initiative.
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