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Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds & Sicily: culture and conquest

British Museum

London, May 2016

Colossal statue of god Hapy, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (SCA 281). Height 5.4 metres, depth 90 centimetres, weight 6 tonnes. Early Ptolemaic period, 4th century BC. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation

Colossal statue of god Hapy, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (SCA 281). Height 5.4 metres, depth 90 centimetres, weight 6 tonnes. Early Ptolemaic period, 4th century BC. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation

These two superb exhibitions, now on show at the British Museum, gave rise to learning, wonder and insight – quite unlike the prissy concurrent RAI conference on climate change, which I also briefly visited. That conference was blessedly quarantined in the basement, where it belonged.

The take home-message common to both exhibitions, an important one in light of the upcoming EU referendum, is that there is no such creature as a mono-culture. That beast simply does not exist.

Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds took as its subject Thonis-Heracleion (named in part after the Greek god Heracles) and Canopus, two Egyptian cities submerged under the Mediterranean. Through myriad magnificent recovered artifacts, not least colossal sculptures, we learnt how Egypt was changed by Greek and later Roman conquerors and how Greece and Rome were transformed in their turn. One tablet showed Alexander the Great as a Pharaoh. The exhibition ended with an account of the cult of Antinous, Hadrian’s lover beautiful lover, who drowned in the Nile, but it could well have continued on. Egypt’s greatest contribution to European culture lies perhaps in the notion of divine kingship, a notion which found its most potent expression in the figure of Charlemagne, leading to the birth of an empire that lasted a thousand years.

Statue of Arsinoe, Canopus, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (SCA 208). Cut in hard, dark stone, this feminine body has a startlingly sculptural quality. Complete, it must have been slightly larger than life-size. The statue is certainly one of the queens of the Ptolemaic dynasty (likely Arsinoe II) dressed as the goddess Isis, as confirmed by the knot that joins the ends of the shawl the woman wears, which was representative of the queens during this time period. The statue was found at the site of Canopus. ©Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation - Photo: Christoph Gerigk

Statue of Arsinoe, Canopus, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (SCA 208). Cut in hard, dark stone, this feminine body has a startlingly sculptural quality. Complete, it must have been slightly larger than life-size. The statue is certainly one of the queens of the Ptolemaic dynasty (likely Arsinoe II) dressed as the goddess Isis, as confirmed by the knot that joins the ends of the shawl the woman wears, which was representative of the queens during this time period. The statue was found at the site of Canopus. ©Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation – Photo: Christoph Gerigk

Whilst BP’s sponsorship of Sunken cities is to be welcomed (contra Greenpeace), the contrived analogy in the introductory blurb (BP excavates for oil in the world’s oceans and seas as Franck Goddio and his team excavated in the Mediterranaen to rescue these treasures of the ancient world) is wholly self-serving.

Sicily: culture and conquest took a long look at the largest island in the Mediterranean, an island successively settled by Greeks and Romans, Arabs and Normans, and others before and since. An island yet also part of the main – a magnet, in fact – by no means isolated.

Byzantine mosaic showing the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race. Kept at Museo Diocesano di Palermo, originally from Palermo Cathedral, c.1130-1180 AD. Copyright: Museo Diocesano di Palermo

Byzantine mosaic showing the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race. Kept at Museo Diocesano di Palermo, originally from Palermo Cathedral, c.1130-1180 AD. Copyright: Museo Diocesano di Palermo

There is a breathtaking Byzantine mosaic of the Madonna in this exhibition (above), amidst much else. My eye was also taken by an ivory casket with a mesh of Muslim motifs and Christian iconography (incidentally there is a very similar casket on display at the minute in one of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Europe galleries) and the curious object below, a tombstone in four languages (Latin, Greek, Arabic and an Arabic-Hebrew hybrid):

A tombstone in four languages, Marble, Palermo, Sicily, 1149 AD. Soprintendenza di Palermo © Regione Siciliana

A tombstone in four languages, Marble, Palermo, Sicily, 1149 AD. Soprintendenza di Palermo © Regione Siciliana

We ended in the reign of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily. As a polymath, Frederick was ideally suited to rule over Sicily’s richly diverse culture. During his reign it must have seemed as though the island of Sicily stood at the centre of the world.

Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds is on show until 27 November 2016, while Sicily: culture and conquest, runs until 14 August 2016. Both are highly recommended. Further details can be found at the British Museum website, here.

 

 

 

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