Arts art exhibit review

Fine wine in a faience lion

Harvard Art Museums present exhibition on animal-shaped drinking vessels

8659 animal shaped vessels
Deer head rhyton depicting griffins attacking a bull, probably Black Sea area, c. 350 BCE.

Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings
Curated by Susanne Ebbinghaus
On display until Jan. 6, 2019
Harvard Art Museums
32 Quincy St, Cambridge

Crack open any run-of-the-mill epic, like The Aeneid or The Odyssey, and you’ll notice that when it comes time for the heroes to take their sup, it is rarely a modest repast of bread, cheese, and olives eaten on the go, but invariably a feast fit for kings with concomitant revelling that would make Dionysus smile in a self-congratulatory manner. Apart from stimulating the gastric juices, examining the feasting tradition can reveal much about the cultural practices and beliefs of the people partaking.

For time periods from which extant written records are few, the drinking and serving vessels themselves can serve in an illuminatory capacity. Assembling an exhibition dedicated to such artifacts, as Susanne Ebbinghaus has done at the Harvard Art Museums, provides an unparalleled opportunity for cross-cultural and cross-temporal analysis of the tradition of animal-shaped vessels that persisted over three millennia, from Greece to China. It was fascinating to be able to compare the various depictions of the ram, for example, across different cultures, to see the different materials artisans used to make rhytons, and to observe the wild and domestic animals favored by different cultures, even while the time period and material remained the same.

There is a wealth of information embodied in each vessel, from the delicately wrought silver wild cat partially gilded with gold (Parthian), to the brilliant blue faience lion from the Achaemenid period (Egyptian), to the swarthy griffin rendered in terracotta (Greek). Their shapes give insight into how their contents would have been imbibed; their subject matters suggest who might have owned them or when and why they would have been used; and their styles reflect the contemporary standards of craftsmanship.

Taken as a whole, we get a glimpse into the values, beliefs, and traditions of ancient civilizations as well as how ideas spread through an increasingly globalized trade network. For example, one can see tangible evidence of the migration of the rhyton from the Near East to China in the form of a duck-shaped rhyton, which the Chinese crafted in ceramic and placed in Tang dynasty tombs. In this way, they adopted the vessel as their own, transforming what previously might have been a bull or a griffin into an animal symbolic in their own culture and assigning the vessel a spiritual significance.

The experience of examining these objects is deeply enriched by the detailed and insightful descriptions that accompany each vessel, providing context for its origin and purpose as well as the symbolic and mythological subtext of the animal(s) and scenes depicted. And as surely as “all art is at once surface and symbol,” you can bet that when there are animal-shaped somethings involved, symbolism is going to be important. Take, for example, the Rhyton with the forepart of a zebu bull. On its own, it is a beautiful piece of art, but the item’s accompanying commentary provides further insight into the “multiethnic and cosmopolitan character of the Parthian Empire” that is reflected in the coupling of the bull, the traditional Iranian symbol of kingship, with traditionally Greek decorative elements and style. In addition to the printed captions, there are excellent digital features online with further commentary.

If you’re intrigued by an exhibit which includes a drinking vessel that transfigures the partaker into a braying donkey, Professor Kimberly Patton will be giving a lecture at the museum on the context and meanings of the objects in the exhibition on Tuesday, Oct. 2.

Update 10/10/18: A previous version of this article had instances of "Harvard Art Museums" incorrectly written as "Harvard Art Museum."