THE MYSTERY OF MITHRAS: EXPLORING THE HEART OF A ROMAN CULT
There is much that remains unknown about the cult of the god Mithras, worshipped by a secretive fraternal order in more than 150 known sanctuaries across the Roman world. His origins lie in India and Iran, with the earliest evidence dating back to the 2nd millennium BC. With a name believed to derive from a word meaning ‘contract’ or ‘agreement’, Mithras was a power to be invoked in peace treaties in the ancient Near East. He was later adopted by the Romans, and, between the 1st and 4th centuries AD, Mithraea in Rome, London, Scotland, Spain, Germany, Syria, and many other places provided dark and hidden surroundings for sacrifices and banquets.
This exhibition – part of an international project – draws on recent research to consider questions such as why the cult of Mithras was exclusively male, why it was shrouded in secrecy, and why it had so much appeal. Visitors are taken on an initiate’s journey into a reconstructed life-size sanctuary. While the goings-on in such spaces were deliberately obscured, these sites have yielded remarkable sculptures illustrating aspects of the Mithraic myths. Particularly important were the god’s birth from a rock and his killing of a bull to regenerate the cosmos. Reliefs depicting these scenes are on view, as are vast statues, altars, figurines, inscriptions, and small amulets, brought together from museums across Europe.
The Mystery of Mithras is organised in partnership with the Musée Saint-Raymond in Toulouse, France (where it will be on view from 14 May to 30 October 2022) and Frankfurt Archaeological Museum in Germany (19 November 2022 to 15 April 2023). While the exhibitions all three venues share a core group of objects, each highlights Mithraism in different provinces of Roman Europe.
Musée royal de Mariemont
Until 17 April 2022
Paintings on Stone: Science and the Sacred 1530-1800
Saint Louis, Missouri, USA
When we think of great paintings of art history, it is perhaps oil on canvas or panel that springs to mind, but for a number of artists a rich variety of stones provided spectacular supports for exquisite works of art. One such artist was Cavaliere d’Arpino, who painted a mythological scene of Perseus, son of Zeus and Danaë, rescuing the princess Andromeda from a sea-monster on a small piece of luxurious lapis lazuli towards the end of 16th century, a work acquired by the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2000.
The practice of painting on stone – including marble, slate, amethyst, porphyry, alabaster, travertine, and obsidian – was developed in Rome by the artist Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) and grew in popularity across the 1530s and ’40s. Based on research by curator Judith Mann since the acquisition of Perseus Rescuing Andromeda, the exhibition Paintings on Stone puts this overlooked element of Renaissance and Baroque art in the spotlight, and charts its evolution and use in portraits, mythological scenes, and religious compositions across Europe up until the early 18th century. Early examples see artists completely covering their stony surfaces, but by the end of the 16th century, as seen in d’Arpino’s work, painters were instead harnessing the visual qualities of a wider range of unusual materials, leaving portions exposed to incorporate flecks and variations into their compositions. Deep lapis lazuli serves as the sky or water, lined jasper lends itself to the waves of the sea, and markings of alabaster form voluminous heavenly clouds.
Also on view in the exhibition, displayed for the first time, is the museum’s recently acquired and conserved 1570s painting on stone by Jacopo Bassano, Lamentation by Candlelight.
Saint Louis Art Museum
20 February to 15 May 2022
Freud and China
The office in the north London home of famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is crammed with ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman artefacts. Figurines crowd the desk at which he once worked. While Freud’s engagement with the Graeco-Roman world – the myths of Oedipus and Electra, for example – is well known, less familiar are his connections to China, including later on in life his collecting of Chinese art, some of which stood at the very centre of his desk. This exhibition explores the Chinese objects in Freud’s collection, as well as his ideas about the Chinese language and the impact of his work in China. A highlight is the jade and gold brooch he gave to his daughter Anna (a detail is shown below).
Freud Museum, London
Until 26 June 2022
As an architect and a teacher, Sir John Soane assembled an extensive collection of models of buildings, casts of decorations, and drawings (amounting to an impressive 30,000 sheets) to serve as reference material and inspiration for his office and students. A selection of these fragile and rarely displayed works are now going on view at his former home. As well as drawings from the offices of Georgian architects including Soane himself, Robert Adam, and George Dance the Younger, the exhibition features beautiful Indian and Persian miniatures, a 1512 illuminated Book of Hours, and a view of the Colosseum by Hieronymus Cock (c.1550).
Running alongside the exhibition of drawings is Dear Friend, I Can No Longer Hear Your Voice, a short film by artist Anne-Marie Creamer that recreates the bedchamber of Eliza, the wife of Soane, which he preserved for 19 years after her death.
Sir John Soane’s Museum, London
9 March to 5 June 2022
David R Abram: Ancient Sites from the Air
A bird’s-eye view can offer the chance to see new details of ancient monuments and understand the structure of their earthworks and their place in the landscape. This exhibition features photographs that were taken using flying cameras and telescopic poles, then stitched together to form large-format composites. It offers a breathtaking tour of prehistoric sites around Britain, particularly those of the Salisbury area, but also encompassing, for example, an Iron Age crannog in a Scottish lake. David R Abram’s images – which will appear in a book due to be published in autumn 2022 – conjure up the majesty of these monuments and their surroundings. The rather celestial Normanton Gold (Stonehenge, 2019) is shown below.
Salisbury Museum, Salisbury
Until 15 May 2022
Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche
When the Aztec Empire fell to the conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1521, a young enslaved Indigenous woman became indelibly implicated in the action. La Malinche served as Cortés’ interpreter and intermediary, and was also the mother of his first-born son. She has been viewed variously as a traitor, a survivor, and the symbolic mother of modern Mexico. This exhibition uses art from the 16th century onwards to explore her complex legacy and her role in conversations about women’s relationships to power structures, Indigeneity, and national identity. After its run in Denver, the exhibition will travel to the Albuquerque Museum, New Mexico (11 June to 4 September 2022) and the San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas (14 October 2022 to 8 January 2023).
Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado
Until 8 May 2022
By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500–1800
The accomplished work of 17 women artists is celebrated in this exhibition, co-organised by the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, where it was previously on view. With self-portraits, still lifes, religious compositions, and scenes from ancient history featuring female protagonists, these exceptional pieces – including paintings and prints – showcase their skills, creativity, and business acumen, and also offer a chance to consider the role of women in the male-dominated Italian art world of the 16th-18th centuries.
As well as Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1654), the exhibition features court artist Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532-1625) and the Bolognese painter and printmaker Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665), whose 1664 oil-on-canvas Portia Wounding Her Thigh is shown above.
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
Until 29 May 2022
Mixpantli: Space, Time, and the Indigenous Origins of Mexico
Challenging narratives of conquest, this exhibition draws together pre-Columbian and early colonial works from Mexico to set them in conversation and explore the creative resilience of Indigenous artists. Mixpantli, meaning ‘banner of clouds’, was the name given by Nahua scribes and painters to the first omen of the conquest. Their worldview was central in shaping modern Mexico, as the exhibition sets out to show. More than 30 pieces – encompassing works on paper, Olmec jade, and sculpture, such as the Mexica basalt representation of the god Xiuhtecuhtli (1250-1521) shown on the right – help put the Aztec Empire and its 1521 conquest into context. Artefacts illustrate aspects of the cyclical creation, destruction, and re-creation of the cosmos in the Mesoamerican world view, and explore the role of emperor Moctezuma, betrayed and assassinated by the Spanish and depicted as Christ-like, in merging Mesoamerican and Euro-Christian cosmologies.
A companion show, Mixpantli: Contemporary Echoes, is also on view at LACMA until 12 June, featuring seven works by contemporary artists and mapmakers who have drawn on Indigenous cartographic and artistic histories.
LACMA, Los Angeles, California
Until 1 May 2022
Shell and Resin: Korean Mother-of-Pearl and Lacquer
Lacquer, a resin from a family of trees found across southern China, Korea and Japan, and mainland South-east Asia, hardens when exposed to oxygen and humidity, giving the objects it has been applied to a glossy sheen and also a protective layer. In Korea, as this exhibition highlights, lacquer has a long history of being combined with gleaming mother-of-pearl, taken from the inside of some molluscs. Surveying the evolution of this art form in Korea, the displays include early examples such as a rare 12th-century trefoil box from the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) with elaborate mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell inlays depicting chrysanthemums (shown below), a lacquered wood palanquin, and a group of five vividly coloured vessels by contemporary artist Chung Haecho (given to the Met by the Republic of Korea in September 2021). They also draw in comparative examples of lacquerware and of mother-of-pearl from elsewhere in Asia.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Until 5 July 2022
Power and gold – Vikings in the east
A recently unearthed hoard of large gold medallions (such as the one pictured below) from Vindelev in Denmark is going on display in a new exhibition that examines the period preceding the Viking Age, when power was gradually being centralised, and how cultural encounters and alliances helped secure the positions of Viking kings. The hoard at Vindelev was buried in the 6th century AD, during a turbulent time with dramatic societal changes and a series of natural disasters. It has been suggested that a wealthy and powerful chieftain at Vindelev, just a few kilometres from the later royal seat of Harald Bluetooth at Jelling, perhaps committed his treasure to the earth, giving it up to higher powers in the hope of reconciliation. As well as discoveries from Denmark, finds from Poland are on view in the exhibition, organised by Vejle Museums and Moesgaard Museum, and draw on the latest research to shed light on Harald Bluetooth’s eastern connections. It was from close alliances with rulers in what is now Poland that this 10th-century king drew great strength.
Utzon Hall, Vejle Art Museum, Vejle
7 April to 23 October 2022
From Afar: Travelling Materials and Objects
The sixth exhibition at the Louvre’s Petite Galerie – a space devoted to artistic and cultural education for all – focuses on long-distance journeys of precious materials and objects across continents over time. The exhibition considers the far-reaching trade routes of the ancient world that supplied coveted materials like carnelian, ivory, and lapis lazuli, used, for example, for the exquisite small frog bead discovered in the Sumerian city of Eshnunna, Iraq (pictured below). Dating back to 2900-2340 BC, this amulet representing an aquatic animal is linked to the god of water and wisdom, Enki. Live animals were also brought from afar, sometimes as political gifts and sometimes ending up in royal menageries in Europe. These imports enabled a range of people, including artists, to see creatures like ostriches, giraffes, elephants, and rhinoceroses, some of which were recorded in paintings.
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Until 4 July 2022
Face to Face: Visor of a Roman horseman
In 1908, the remarkable mask of a Roman cavalry helmet was discovered in Conflans-en-Jarnisy in France. Just a few years ago, in 2019, this 1st-century AD visor depicting a youthful face was acquired by the French state with the support from the La Marck Foundation under the Fondation de Luxembourg for the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale. The results of research since the acquisition, carried out with the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France (C2RMF), are explained in this exhibition, which presents the restored visor, compares the now-lost grave goods that were once buried with it to those of other tombs, and looks at laboratory analysis and how imaging can bring out details like the crown of leaves around the visor’s curling locks.
Musée D’archéologie Nationale, Saint-Germain-En-Laye
Until 9 May 2022
Illustrious Guests: Treasures from the Kunstkammer Würth
Some works of art from the Würth Collection have been on display at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin since 2006. Now – for the second instalment of a four-part exhibition series at different SMB institutions – objects from the collection join those of the Kunstgewerbemuseum and the Bode Museum to delve into the world of the Kunstkammer. These cabinets of curiosity, filled with small items like goblets, miniature sculptures, and boxes of precious stones, were popular among the elite in the 16th and 17th centuries, a chance to show off one’s erudition and diverse range of interests, as well as gifts received from esteemed figures. Many were disbanded, but the Würth Collection has been working to assemble its own version of a Kunstkammer. Among the works featured are a 17th-century alabaster sculpture by Leonhard Kern, depicting subjects from classical mythology, and an ornate c.1610 figurine Diana on a Stag, by Paulus Ättinger, with silver (partly gilded), diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and pearls, all used to create an intricate image of the divine huntress and her stag, with dogs, monkeys, a frog, and other animals.
Until 10 July 2022
Hippos: The Horse in Ancient Athens
Horses played an important role in ancient Greek society. Essential for warfare and racing, these creatures were highly regarded and featured both in ancient Greek literature and art. Marble reliefs, Attic vase-paintings, tokens from the agora, a horse-shaped toy from a child’s burial, and more bear witness to the relationship between Athenians of all ages and horses. On view for the first time is a well-preserved horse skeleton from the Phaleron cemetery on the outskirts of Athens, while another highlight is a spectacular life-size Hellenistic bronze horse head, on loan from Florence’s archaeological museum for its first display in Greece.
American School of Classical Studies, Athens
Until 30 April 2022
Colours of the Romans: Mosaics from the Capitoline Collections
This exhibition showcasing the variety of mosaics produced in Rome between 1st century BC and the 4th century AD (as previously featured in Minerva) has been extended both in terms of its duration and its content. Six new mosaics from the Capitoline Collections went on view late last year in their first presentation to the public. Two of the mosaics, dating from the 3rd to 4th centuries AD, feature large tiles of luxurious polychrome marbles and other stone, including basalt and red porphyry, that underscores the consideration high-end mosaicists put into their costly craft and associated materials. Some of the other mosaics come from tombs, such as a monochrome example featuring cupids with sprawling acanthus, discovered during the construction of a church near Trastevere station in 1936.
Centrale Montemartini, Rome
Until 15 June 2022
animalistic! Animals and hybrid creatures in Antiquity
Ancient myths feature many hybrid creatures, among them centaurs, sphinxes, griffins, and chimeras. This exhibition looks at attitudes towards these fantastical beasts and the animal world at large, as represented by spectacular objects created by a number of different ancient cultures. Among them are a bronze axe adorned with a lion’s head and boars’ heads from Luristan (Iran) in the late 2nd millennium BC and a striking c.650 BC clay vessel in the form of the gorgon Medusa possibly from Taranto in Italy (shown below).
The Animalistic! exhibition is part of a wider event across four museums in Basel, each with their own animal-related offering. An exhibition at the Museum der Kulturen Basel delves into themes like pets and the use of animals in transport, work, food, war (until 20 November 2022), the Pharmaziemuseum der Universität Basel looks at animals in the history of pharmacy (until 4 June 2022), and the Historisches Museum Basel investigates the relationship between animals and music (until 25 June 2023).
Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, Basel
Until 19 June 2022