Colorful Ancient Statues at the Metropolitan Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a fascinating new exhibit featuring reconstructions of some ancient works of art that show how they might have originally looked when they were still painted in bright colors. Sadly, I’m on the wrong side of the Atlantic now to go and check it out myself, but there’s an excellent online gallery of examples. Here’s a comparison of one original sculpture with its reconstruction to give you an idea of how amazing the work is.

Sphinx finial, original and reconstruction via Metropolitan Museum of Art (Originally Athens, currently Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; c. 530 BCE; marble. Reconstruction by Vinzenz Brinkmann)

It’s always wonderful to get a chance to glimpse what the ancient world may have looked like when it wasn’t yet ancient.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

The Unspoken Messages of an Unswept Floor

This floor mosaic comes from the dining room of a Roman house. The central parts of the floor have been lost, but the edges of the room were decorated to look like the untidy remains of a banquet. We can identify leaves, fish and poultry bones, nut shells, bits of fruit, and the shells of a wide variety of shellfish. This may seem like an odd choice for home decoration, but mosaics in this style were popular in well-to-do Greek and Roman households. To contemporary guests, mosaics like this sent a number of messages about the people who dined on them.

On one level, this mosaic simply reflected the reality of the room it was in. Diners at an ancient banquet could toss their refuse on the floor with abandon because they were not the ones who had to clean it up. The widespread use of enslaved labor for domestic service meant that the rich could lob greasy chicken bones and half-eaten olives around the place without caring about the time and effort involved in cleaning up afterward. In that sense, this mosaic identified the owners of this house as the sorts of people who had other people to do the cleaning up after them.

On the other hand, the evident abandon with which the detritus is strewn around the room is deceptive. The individual pieces are precisely placed so that there the space between them is relatively even. Larger items are spread out with smaller ones between them. They are positioned in loose diagonal lines with a subtle aesthetic regularity; similar objects repeat to help unify the image, but are spaced out and given different orientations to avoid any sense of pattern. This mosaic is an extremely fine one made of very small tesserae in many different shades that must have taken a substantial amount of work by a skilled mosaic artist and a team of workers. The details of this Roman mosaic also imitate a famous Greek predecessor created by the mosaic artist Sosos of Pergamum. The effect was meant to project wealth and power: only the very rich could afford to put so much care into looking so careless.

The choice of food to show in this mosaic is also significant. Meat had a religious, even moral, significance in Greek and Roman culture. Large land animals like cattle, sheep, and pigs were typically eaten as part of a communal religious sacrifice, and religious custom dictated how they could be cooked and served as well as who should partake in the feast. Fish, shellfish, and poultry were not constrained by similar rules and could be eaten when, how, and in any company one liked. As such, this sort of food was associated with indulgence, even decadence. To say that a fellow Greek or Roman dined on fish had a sting of moral judgment akin to declaring that someone today enjoys champagne and caviar. The variety of fish bones, chicken claws, and shells in this mosaic makes a statement that this room is not one for solemn sacrificial meals but a place where the diners can indulge in their favorite delicacies free of any religious scruples or moral condemnation.

A great deal of meaning is packed into a mosaic of an untidy floor. These were messages that the original guests in this dining room would have implicitly understood in same way that we today grasp the status-signaling meaning of a four-car garage or a water view.

Image: Detail of unswept floor mosaic, photograph by Yann Forget via Wikimedia (currently Gregorian Profano Museum, Vatican; early 2nd c. CE; glass tessera mosaic; by Heraclitus, copied from work by Sosos of Pergamum)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Fine Art as a Three-in-One Quilt

Check out this mind-blowing quilt simultaneously copying three fine arts pieces, namely Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, and Edvard Munch’s The Scream:

Tumblr Good Stuff Flora Joy Quilt1
Tumblr Good Stuff Flora Joy Quilt2
Tumblr Good Stuff Flora Joy Quilt3

Even the intricate gold frame is sewn!

This astounding piece is called “Sleep, Play, Scream” and it was made by Flora Joy. She was deservedly awarded for her innovative trispective technique.

Any time I come across someone, typically an older white man (seriously, dudes, you’ve got to do better), sneering at sewing or other textile work, I can’t but shake my head. Poor twits, showing what they emphatically don’t know jack shit about.

Images via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

The Couple that Eats Together Stays Together

This terra cotta Etruscan sarcophagus depicts a couple reclining on a dining couch together. Etruscans adopted a great deal of cultural influences from the Greek world (including, for instance, the style of dining while lying on a couch), but one sharp difference from the Greeks was while in the Greek world dinner parties were exclusively male affairs, Etruscan women and men dined together.

This couple looks particularly happy and loving, smiling and holding one another affectionately. Of course, art is not always a reflection of life; just because a couple wanted to be depicted as a happy family in their funeral portrait doesn’t necessarily mean they were happy together in life, but it’s certainly nice to imagine that they were, and the very fact that they wanted to be perceived as a loving, intimate couple tells us something about the values of their culture.

Image: Sarcophagus of the spouses, photograph by Sailko via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0) (found Caere, currently National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia, Rome; c. 530-520 BCE; terra cotta)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Visual Inspiration: Traditional Textile Patterns and Colors on Outdoor Stairs

In Lima, Peru, artist Xomatoc and local residents painted a number of stairs with colors and combinations more typically associated with traditional South American blankets and other textiles.

Colossal Jeremy Flores Xomatoc Striped Staircase

This project was a part of the Pinta Lima Bicentenario. Xomatoc’s project was only one of public art installations painted around the municipality to celebrate each participating neighborhood’s history and cultural memory.

Municipalidad de Lima Bicentenario Painting
Colossal Jeremy Flores Xomatoc Diamond-Pattern Staircase

The length of the stairs, the vibrant colors, and the large enough scale of these patterns make them really eyecatching. And, good grief, the degree of the slopes! (I grew up essentially on a flood plain, which is why mountains look so drastic to me.) The stairs definitely will be visible a long way.

Found via Colossal.

Images: Striped and diamond-patterned stairs by Jeremy Flores via Colossal. Painting in progress via Municipalidad de Lima.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Bringing Color Back to Ancient Statues with Light

Here are a few interesting pictures from the Pergamon Panorama in Berlin where colored lights are used to show a few different variations on what marble ancient statues might have looked like in their original colors. A very neat idea and some great photography from Twitterer @BelovedOfOizys!

An ancient Greek marble statue of a draped woman
An ancient Greek marble statue of a draped woman with blue light showing on the clothing
An ancient Greek marble statue of a draped woman with magenta light showing on the clothing

Images: Statuary from Pergamon with colored lights, photographs by @BelovedOfOizys via Twitter

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Hand- and Footprints in Tibet Potentially the Earliest Prehistoric Art Found

Potentially the earliest stone age art consists of hand- and footprints on stone, and was found in investigations between 2018 and 2020.

From the September 2021 Science Bulletin abstract covering the find:

“At Quesang on the Tibetan Plateau we report a series of hand and foot impressions that appear to have been intentionally placed on the surface of a unit of soft travertine. The travertine was deposited by water from a hot spring which is now inactive and as the travertine lithified it preserved the traces. On the basis of the sizes of the hand and foot traces we suggest that two track-makers were involved and were likely children. We interpret this event as a deliberate artistic act that created a work of parietal art. The travertine unit on which the traces were imprinted dates to between ∼169 and 226 ka BP.”

Below is a contour map from the article, showing the prints on the rock surface:

Science Bulletin Sept 2021 Zhang et al Earliest Parietal Art Contour

Fascinating. I’m sure there are still many open questions, like intentionality (if such a thing is even possible for prints left hundreds of thousands of years ago) and the identity of the creator(s). (The discovery team posits they may have been children, potentially at play.)

It’s just… Do these prints remind anyone else of of how Gollum moves?

Found via Colossal.

Image via Zhang, David D., et al. “Earliest parietal art: Hominin hand and foot traces from the middle Pleistocene of Tibet.” Science Bulletin September 10, 2021

Placing Heaven in a Bowl

Bowl enameled in green and purple with intricate metalwork
Modern minakari bowl, photograph by Interesting009 via Wikimedia

This gorgeous bowl is an example of a style of enamel work known as minakari (also spelled meenakari or mina-kari), which literally means “to place heaven into an object.”

The style was developed in Persia under the Safavid kingdom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries CE. Artists of that time took enameling techniques from Europe and China and used them to create works whose intricate designs and vivid colors drew on the rich legacy of Persian and Islamic art.

Minakari works are still being produced today, especially in and around the city of Isfahan. “Placing heaven in an object” seems like a good enough description to me.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Even Heroes Take Time Off

Heroes don’t spend all their time being heroic. They need time off, too. That was the idea behind this beautiful vase by the ancient Athenian painter Exekias.

On one side, we see Achilles and Ajax, two of the great Greek warriors of the Trojan War, putting aside most of their armor for a while and playing a board game. Achilles is winning, as Exekias lets us know because he has given us the score: beneath Achilles’ head is the word “four,” beneath Ajax’s, “three.” According to literary tradition, Achilles’ tent was at one end of the Greek line, Ajax’s at the other, so this was not just a casual pick-up game; one or the other of the heroes must have crossed the entire Greek camp so they could play.

Amphora, Achilles and Ajax playing a game, photograph by Daderot via Wikimedia (Athens, currently Vatican Museums; c. 540-530 BCE; black-figure pottery; by Exekias)

On the other side of the vase, the twin heroes Castor and Pollux return home. They are welcomed by their parents, Tyndareus and Leda. On the left, Pollux leans down to greet a dog who jumps up, excited to see him.

Amphora, Castor and Pollux return home, photograph by M. Tiveros via Classical Art Research Centre (Athens, currently Vatican Museums; c. 540-530 BCE; black-figure pottery; by Exekias)

Exekias was an innovative artist. He was one of the first vase painters to show mythic heroes not in the midst of action but at ease, among the familiar surroundings of everyday life.

If you’ve been feeling the weight of the past year, take some inspiration from heroes: play a game, say hello to family, play with a pet. If it’s good enough for Achilles, Ajax, Castor and Pollux, it’s good enough for you, too.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Medieval Huntresses

Here are some ladies enjoying a good stag hunt, from an illumination in a copy of “The Letter of Othea to Hector” by Christine de Pizan. The image represents the mythical huntresses of the goddess Diana, as imagined by a medieval artist. We see one lady driving game by beating the bushes and another taking aim with her bow while two more blow the hunting horn and manage the dogs.

Hunting scene from the “Letter of Othea to Hector” via Wikimedia (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; 1407-1409; paint on parchment; by the Master of the Letter of Othea)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.