Friday, March 14, 2008

Minoan Exhibit On Display at the Onassis Culture Center

I wish I could get to New York this summer and see this fascinating exhibit of Minoan artifacts at the Onassis Culture Center. The Minoan civilization has intrigued me all my life and I'm always excited to see Minoan art. I hope to visit Crete in the next few years and see the ruins in person. A friend of mine pointed out that much of the sites you visit in Crete are mostly reproductions but I can't help but long to see them anyway. I found this Late Minoan 1B (ca. 1450 BCE) carved chlorite bull's head with gilded horns from Zakros exquisite!

"An important new exhibition, From the Land of the Labyrinth: Minoan Crete, 3000-1100 B.C., has just opened at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York. It brings more than 280 artifacts from Crete--from a miniature gold double-ax to a four-foot-tall storage jar, from wall paintings to carbonized figs--most of which have never been shown abroad before and some being displayed for the first time ever. On loan from the archaeological museums of Herakleion, Khania, Rethymnon, Haghios Nikolaos, Ierapetra, Siteia, and Kissamos in Crete, the artifacts are arranged in 11 thematic sections intended "to reveal aspects of daily life in the Minoan civilization--including social structure, communications, bureaucratic organization, religion and technology--during the third and second millennia B.C." The first solely Minoan exhibition in the United States, From the Land of the Labyrinth is a great overview of the civilization and its achievements.

Some of the small terracotta figurines on display have a seemingly playful character, such as double-headed (push me, pull you) bull and a rather large dung beetle. But the bull is a votive offering from Vrysinas, a mountaintop sanctuary, and many two-headed bulls were found there. (The exhibition catalog notes that by adding a second head, the donor of the votive might have emphasized the importance of the request being made to the divinity.) The beetle, from the open-air sanctuary of Piskokephalo, is another votive and recalls the Egyptian scarab.

Two of the most intriguing finds on display are sistra, Egyptian rattles, found at excavations on Crete. One, made of bronze and found at Mochlos, is dated about 1450. The other is one of six terracotta ones that accompanied burials in a cave at Hagios Charalampos that are substantially earlier, ca. 2100-1700 B.C. The exhibition catalog notes that "the sistra constitute undeniable evidence for a strong relationship between Crete and Egypt and of the influences exerted by Egypt on Minoan civilization." Other reminders of links between the Minoans and Egypt in the exhibition include the beetle votive figurine already mentioned and a scarab of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III from Kastelli, Khania.

A highlight is the well-preserved boars' tusk helmet from Armenoi, only the second such helmet found in Crete. Shown alongside it are two miniature representations of men wearing boars' tusk helmets. Both of these (one of hippo ivory and one of bone) would have been attached to a furnishing of some sort. All three date within 1375-1250 B.C. In an adjacent case is a large Late Minoan II (1450-1400 B.C.) jar on which boars' tusk helmets are used as the chief decorative motif. So, we have the full range of actual object, use of the object as a decorative plaque, and reduction of it to a motif that perhaps conveyed a sense of prestige.