From sphinxes to saints: exploring the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The new galleries at the MFA, Boston, cover more than 2,000 years of art. We take a look at a some of the highlights from the ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine worlds.

At the end of last year, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – the city known as ‘the Athens of America’ – opened a renovated suite of five galleries devoted to the art of Greece, Rome, and Byzantium. Lucia Marchini spoke to curators Christine Kondoleon, Laure Marest, and Phoebe Segal to find out about how they are using technology and even modern art to help visitors see ancient artefacts in a new light.

Saints Christopher, Augustine, John the Baptist, Stephen, Nicholas, and Sebastian accompany a central image of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child in this vast, 3m-wide polyptych altarpiece (below). With graceful tempera paintings and resplendent gilding, the early 15th-century work was a glorious backdrop for the high altar of the abbey church of Santo Stefano near Monopoli, in southern Italy.

Image: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Monopoli altarpiece shows a mingling of different traditions. The arrangement of a larger central panel with the Virgin and Child, flanked by full-length saints, is in keeping with Venetian painting, as are the more relaxed, sideways poses of Augustine (second from the left) and Stephen (next to the Madonna on the right), while the elongated bodies and the frontal poses of the other figures reflect late Byzantine style. The painter is thought to have trained in Venetian-controlled Crete and travelled to southern Italy to create the altarpiece.

Recent conservation has seen the warped wood treated and the panels set in a new gilded frame based on exported Venetian altarpieces, ready for the new Byzantine Empire gallery. Stephen and John have been repositioned, with John now immediately to the left of the Virgin and Stephen in John’s former spot.

In 1921, the joint Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition unearthed this elaborate Athenian rhyton (drinking horn) far from Greece, in a pyramid at Meroë, in what is now Sudan (below).

Image: Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition/photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Signed by the Athenian potter Sotades, it combines a painted ceramic figure of an Amazon riding a horse with a red-figure vessel emerging behind the warrior’s back. Painted on the cup are four figures in combat, including a Persian rider overpowering a Greek soldier.

Like the Byzantine altarpiece in southern Italy, it reflects far-reaching cultural influences. Not only was this object, which dates from around 440 BC, found in the 4th-century BC tomb of a royal child of the Kushite kingdom, but it also borrows from Persian culture. The very form of the vessel is inspired by elaborate Persian rhytons made for the elite, which end in the head of an animal such as a lion, ram, or griffin.

The workshop of Sotades produced a large number of vessels like this for export. With its depiction of Persian military might, it is thought to have been commissioned as a diplomatic gift by a local official seeking to secure Persian favour.

Image: gift of the Archaeological Institute of America/photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Finds made by another Boston institution are on display. This architrave relief (above) was unearthed during the Archaeological Institute of America’s excavations at the site of Assos (Behramkale in Turkey) in 1881. It depicts the Greek hero Heracles on the left using his bow (and poisoned arrows) to fight off centaurs, who flee to the right with their human forelegs bounding. Behind Heracles on the far left is the front part of his host, the centaur Pholos, one hand raised in alarm and the other holding a wine-cup. The intoxicating and irresistible aroma of this wine – a prized vintage opened especially for Heracles – is the reason the three centaurs started attacking.

Dating from 550-525 BC, this carving and another in the Early Greek Art gallery (which shows two sphinxes) come from the Temple of Athena at Assos. This is the earliest Doric temple in the eastern Aegean, where the local Ionic style dominated, and it was adorned with two bands of sculptural decoration. The higher band, consisting of triglyphs and metopes, is in the Doric tradition, while the lower band – where the Heracles and sphinx blocks come from – is an Ionic-style frieze. Yet, rather than the more usual continuous composition found on Ionic friezes, the Temple of Athena features a series of individual motifs, perhaps a compromise as the Ionic traditions were adapted to suit a Doric scheme from mainland Greece.

Image: Henry Lillie Pierce Fund/photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This bronze statuette of the goddess Artemis (left), made in Greece around 530-520 BC, carries an intriguing inscription that tells us that it was dedicated by Chimaridas to ‘Daidaleia’. The bow in her left hand signifies that this is the divine huntress Artemis, but Daidaleia, meaning ‘skilled’ or ‘cunning’, is not one of her epithets. Instead, it probably refers to the crafty Athena.

The statuette is taken as an example to explore some questions of provenance in the Gods and Goddesses gallery, in text that was developed with colleagues from the Archaeological Institute of America, as part of the Table of Voices programme, which brings in voices from beyond the museum. The style of the goddess’ sleeveless Laconian peplos, the pendant around her neck, and the lettering of the inscription suggest that she was made by an artisan from around Sparta, yet the object is said to have been found at Mazi, near Olympia, some 150km away, in 1897.

Without more information, it is unclear whether the finished object was taken to Mazi from Laconia or whether the artist had moved from Sparta and made the statuette locally around Mazi, and even which goddess was originally meant to be honoured by the offering.

Judging by the great realism of his remarkable 1st-century BC bust in the Roman Portraiture gallery, the man shown below is somewhat advanced in years. His flesh sags slightly, lines appear around his eyes and mouth and across his forehead, and a mole and scar are also visible. This is a ‘warts and all’ portrait, typical of the Republican period, while the positioning of the head, which is turned slightly to one side, and the eyes looking upward draw from earlier models from Hellenistic Greece.

Image: museum purchase with funds donated by contribution/photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This intensely life-like portrait was made from inexpensive and easy-to-work terracotta, using a mould taken from the face of the living portrait-sitter. The clay would have been pressed into this mould to perfectly capture the details of the face and its skin texture. Parts were added to complete the shape, and other parts (like the eyes and eyebrows) were reworked by hand. Although it is possible that the terracotta head is the final result of a more affordable commission, it may be a model used in the process of creating a flashier bronze or marble piece.

Back in the Byzantine gallery, there are some ceramics of a different variety to those popular red- and black-figure pots of Greek antiquity. The potters responsible for the bowl shown below and others like it decorated their vessels with the sgraffito (‘scratch’ technique). The dark clay surface of the bowl was covered with white slip, and then the image was incised or scratched into the clay before it was glazed, in this case with a yellow-brown glaze.

Image: gift of Harold W Bell/photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This 13th-century AD example features, like the architrave blocks at Assos, a mythical sphinx. Such fantastical creatures were popular motifs for sgraffito bowls. In this stylised, sinuous depiction of the sphinx, it is shown running with its forearm raised in motion. The bowl was uncovered during 1910-1914 excavations of a building (called ‘Church M’) within the Hellenistic Temple of Artemis at Sardis, Turkey, which was an important city in antiquity and in the 13th century.

Image: Bartlett Collection–museum purchase with funds from the Francis Bartlett Donation of 1912/photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Another more mature figure is this 1.8m-tall statue of a priestess (left). Although parts are now missing, she is posed as if sprinkling incense into a flame on the small altar beside her. She is sculpted in costly Parian marble, with the effects of aging visible in her face: this is the dignified image of a Roman grande dame of AD 125-130.

The sculpture was found at a luxurious vaulted tomb near Pozzuoli, in southern Italy, and is thought – due to her clothing and hairstyle – to show a retired Vestal Virgin. These priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, were guardians of a sacred flame in Rome. After 30 years of service, they were able to retire and marry.

Two adult burials were found in the tomb, one wrapped in gold-threaded cloth and accompanied by a wealth of grave goods such as cameo earrings, amber spoons, and a tortoiseshell and amber fan.