'Year One': a tour de force of beauty

Exhibition transports visitors to a surprisingly sophisticated world of art 2,000 years ago

A granite crocodile from Egypt, its snout raised as if sniffing for Captain Hook, is an apt emblem of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 14.

The show, "The Year One: Art of the Ancient World East and West," includes 150 works produced 2,000 years ago at the dawn of our calendar. It illustrates the ebb and flow of civilizations, as well as their enduring legacy.

Touring the galleries, which bring together works in diverse mediums from Rome, Egypt, Asia, and the Americas, is like entering a time capsule. It transports us to the debut of the first millennium to provide lessons in both history and art.

First, the exhibition detonates the notion that modern art is appreciably more sophisticated in craft or aesthetics than many of these ancient objects. Bronzes from Southeast Asia are standouts in craft. On one beautifully worked bracelet from Thailand, two dragonflies alight gracefully, tails uplifted. A gilded silver rhyton, or drinking vessel, from the Parthian Empire (the present Iran-Iraq area) terminates with a feline figure, its mouth open in a fang-baring howl.

Not only animals but representations of people are as vivid as if created yesterday. A ceramic figure from Ecuador is as expressive as a jester. The old man, with bags under his eyes, hunches forward with a gap-toothed grin, arrested in a cackling laugh. A terra-cotta plaque from India portrays a jolly family scene, in which a woman inclines toward her husband as he fondly touches her hair.

In style, the works fall into two camps: realistic and stylized. In republican Rome, where individualism was valued, craggy realism prevails. Portrait busts present scowling figures with wrinkles worn like badges of honor. After Augustus ushered in the Roman Empire, idealized formality dominated. Statues of the emperor portray a serene, stable image, more godlike than human.

Within the Roman Empire, principle and practice diverged. While officially promoting piety and sobriety, affluent Romans actually wallowed in lush, personal indulgence. Murals from the seaside villa of Augustus' friend, Agrippa, husband of the emperor's daughter, are sophisticated and refined. The villa, which was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius, was uncovered in 1903 during excavations for a railroad.

The artifacts prove our predecessors lived high on the hog. Even Eurasian nomads, according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, "live in luxury and wear gold on their persons." Parthian gold is a tour de force of workmanship. The nomads' horses wore elaborate gold trappings for the reins, bits, and cheekpieces.

Looking through this window on ancient life, we see a world where artistic and philosophical influences traveled the Silk Route and Spice Road linking the Mediterranean to the Far East. The influence that permeated most deeply was Greek, especially Greek art from its classic period 400 years before the Year 1.

The Romans brought back booty, including art and artisans, from their eastern provinces. They were so bowled over by Greek accomplishments that the Hellenistic style of swirling drapery and dynamic poses for statues swept stiff Roman sculpture off the pedestal.

Carried by traders and military men, Greek influence came to affect Egyptian and Middle Eastern art as well. One stone torso of a Bodhisattva (a Buddhist deity) has a body like a Greco-Roman statue, with clinging, fluid drapery. But his dress and schematic musculature are local and stylized, expressing the rigid hierarchy of the Kushan kingdom. The area, in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, was the nexus of trade routes. This one piece is a multicultural extravaganza, a triumph of cross-fertilization.

A viewer gets the impression that links between far-flung peoples were firmly established, even before the Internet.

A common element found in many cultures was mortuary customs that required burial of "spirit goods" with the deceased - models of essential items for the afterlife. What's interesting is the choice of what was essential for the journey into eternity. We know Egyptian pharaohs wanted to be entombed with virtually their entire chattel. Chinese nobility seemed to desire entertainment, judging from the earthenware figures of board-game players and an exquisite court dancer. In South America, adornment was a priority. A gold funerary mask, brilliantly sunlike, was found in a grave in Colombia.

As primitive as we think societies were 2,000 years ago, these objects from vanished eras bring them vividly back to life. The relics show how humans - past and present - are pretty much the same everywhere. Antiquity meets ubiquity.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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