Saturday, 6 January 2018

Cusop History Society - Imagining the Divine

About half of us had brought a packed lunch, while the other members of the party went off to find a café. So those of us who stayed in the Museum had about half an hour to dash round the main exhibition halls. My eye was caught by the Greek and Roman statues - there's a lovely one of Diana to which the owner in around 1600 added a small dog.
And then I noticed the exhibition on Minoan Crete.
They have the throne from Knossos! I've seen pictures of that throne, with its distinctive curved back, for years (I studied Minoan Crete and Ancient Greece as part of my archaeology degree) - and there it was, almost close enough to touch! Next to it was one of the huge storage jars from the store rooms beneath the palace at Knossos, and the whole room was full of ceramics, with a portrait of Sir Arthur Evans on one side. In the background of the painting is a fresco of a young boy holding a long, narrow cup - and in the niche next to the picture, there is the same type of cup.
Further up the museum there's a large bronze figure, probably Zeus hurling a thunderbolt, though whatever he was about to throw has been lost - I recognised it immediately. It was all very exciting! Nearby was a display of gorgeously ornamented musical instruments - I think I walked straight past a Stradivarius!

At 2pm we gathered in the exhibition gift shop, and were led into the special exhibition Imagining the Divine, where Denise led us through a selection of important pieces (and some of her favourites) to explain the theme of the exhibition. It's about the way that different religions used art to show their beliefs, and how that art was influenced across different cultures and religions. For instance, the head of Jupiter in sculpture is a man with a flowing beard - which became the inspiration for Christian depictions of God the Father. Nearby is a statue of the Good Shepherd - not Jesus, but Apollo three hundred years before Jesus, with a ram slung across his shoulders.
Off in the Buddhist area, we found that the Buddha forbade any depictions of himself, and for 500 years there were no statues apart from things like his footprints, or the wheel symbol. Then Buddhists started to want to make statues - but what had the Buddha looked like? Nobody knew - but there were Jain statues of seated figures with curled hair and serene expressions that seemed to fit the bill, and that's what they adopted.
There was a picture of one of the giant sculptures of the Buddha in Afghanistan on the wall, and Denise told us that, when the Taliban blew up the figures, it was not quite the disaster it appeared. When the sculptures were made, they were intended to be seen by travellers coming up the pass (here's the importance of trade routes again), and the stone was augmented with plasterwork, and finally gilded so that the statues shone. After a thousand years of neglect, they were in pretty poor shape, and the explosions actually made it possible for archaeologists to study the way the statues had originally been put together.
Another really famous piece, in the exhibition, is the Chi Rho mosaic from Hinton St Mary - it's in many books about Roman Britain, and is supposed to be the first portrait of Christ in the British Isles - or is it? "Christ" means "the anointed one", and there was an emperor (I forget the name she gave) who used the Chi Rho symbol on his coinage, and also had a cleft chin like the portrait. So were the owners of the villa just showing their loyalty to the Emperor?
We also learned how to tell the end of each verse in the Koran (there's a circle surrounded by dots to look for) while looking at some of the most beautiful manuscripts - one was written on indigo paper, in gold.
The other religions covered in the exhibition were Judaism, and the depiction of Vishnu in Hinduism, again showing the cross-fertilisation of ideas from one religion and culture to another.
At the end of the exhibition we came to the British Isles - and I got ridiculously excited again over the slab with Pictish symbols carved on it, and the ogam incised on the edge of another slab from Wales.
I'm only scratching the surface here of the objects on display - it really was a fascinating afternoon - and the exhibition will be on until 18th February, and costs £10 to get in.

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