A new gallery space gives a historic collection a fresh look.
On December 8, The Newark Museum in Newark, N.J., opened “Art of The Ancient Mediterranean: Egypt, Greece and Rome,” its relocated and reinstalled ancient-art gallery. The move was prompted by the renovation of the museum’s front entrance, which had been closed to the public for 20 years before reopening last month. A portion of the viewing space that housed the Ancient Mediterranean collection for 28 years is now allocated for the new ADA-accessible entrance lobby, and the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman works have found a home in the museum’s South Gallery.
The collection’s new real estate is about as prime as it gets, positioning the works as the starting point of the museum’s permanent galleries and a springboard for the understand of Western art history. What’s more, the Ancient Mediterranean collection is now parallel to the Arts of Global Africa Permanent Collection, which has relocated to the museum’s first floor. The proximity of the two collections helps acknowledge a point that is often disregarded by museums and the art-historical canon: that the art of ancient Egypt is just as important to the history of African Art as it is to that of the ancient Mediterranean.
Ulysses Grant Dietz, Interim Co-Director, Chief Curator and Curator of Decorative Arts at the museum, points out that the new Mediterranean gallery opens with a passage from Plato’s Phaedo, reading: “I believe that the earth is very large and that we who dwell between the Pillars of Hercules and the river Phasis live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs about a pond, and that many other people live in many other such regions.” The geographical area Socrates mentions (the Pillars of Hercules are the promontories marking the entrance to the straight of Gibraltar and the River Phasis is the modern day Rioni River in Western Georgia), though he notes it was just a slice of the ancient world, was immensely fertile ground for trade, thought, war, architecture, art and craft, with the waters of the Mediterranean and Northern Africa feeding the rise of civilization and culture. Says Dietz, “This period, and what the gallery showcases, is really an early version of globalization, an iteration with all of these cultures—Egypt, the Etruscans, the Cypriots, the Greeks, and then finally Rome.”
Though the museum’s classical collection comprises over 4,500 objects dating from 3000 BCE to 600 CE, the new gallery’s focus is on the pieces that factored into daily routines. “The gallery isn’t just full of sculptures and tomb objects, though there are some there,” says Dietz. “Objects from everyday life—ceramics, glass, silver, jewelry, and metalwork—are what we’re highlighting.” The curator is quick to point out that a piece that is featured prominently in the gallery, a 6th century BCE Attic red-figure amphora depicting one of the labors of Hercules, was conceived as an object of practical use. “We don’t have painting from the Greek world, and very little sculpture survives, so the pottery is seen as art,” says Dietz. “But even though this pot represents mythology, heroism, and the warrior, its function was to serve wine to the men at a symposium as they reclined on their couches, got increasingly hammered, and discussed philosophy.”
The museum’s classical collection is an integral part of its early history. Mrs. Samuel Clark gave the institution a large group of objects representing everyday life in the ancient world in 1924. Shortly thereafter, Louis Bamberger, the Newark department store magnate and the benefactor of the museum’s Jarvis Hunt-designed building (the newly refurbished front entrance will be renamed “the Bamberger Entrance” in his honor) began buying Cypriot pieces that were being de-accessioned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cesnola Collection. In fact, his first purchase, a votive head from Cyrpus, circa 700–680 BCE, which he gifted to the museum in 1928, is a highlight of the new gallery.
In 1950, the Newark Museum received a colossal gift from Eugene Schaefer, a chemist and collector from Bergen County, N.J., of some 2,000 objects, two-thirds of which are glass. As a result, Newark has one of the most important ancient glass collections in the country; it showcases the history of glass and glassmaking technology from Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Islamic world from 1500 BCE through 1400 CE.
One standout of the Schaefer glass collection is the mold-blown glass Ennion Cup (circa 40–50 CE), from Sidon, Lebanon, under the Roman Empire. It represents a major achievement in glass-making, when artisans working within the area of Jerusalem at the end of the 1st century BCE realized that glass could be inflated at the end of a tube—thus discovering glass blowing. Ennion, perhaps the most proficient of all glassmakers in the art of self-branding, incorporated his name into the designs of his cups and vessels, making him one of the few Roman glassmakers we know by name. The Schaefer gift catalyzed many additions to the museum’s glass collection over the course of decades. One fine example in the gallery, a Roman glass skyphos (circa 0–50 CE), was purchased in 1975. Here in deep blue glass, the skyphos shape was developed by the Greeks in the Geometric Period as a two-handled wine cup, often, as with this example, on a low flanged base. A related shape, the kylix—a shallower two-handled cup with a longer stem (like a champagne coupe with training wheels)—can be seen in the gallery in the Greek black-figure pottery style. The Kylix Drinking Cup with Horseman, made in Athens circa 525 BCE, features a rider on horseback on its exterior, with Greek lettering.
Speaking of lettering, the hieroglyphic detail on another standout, the Coffin Lid of Henet-Mer, is astoundingly bold and detailed. Made in Thebes, Egypt during the 21st Dynasty (1075–945 BCE) of sycamore fig wood, gesso, and paint, the lid reveals that Henet-Mer (“Mistress of Love”) was married, a singer, and a priestess of Amon-Ra, the Egyptian sun god.
An item more suited for the lives of the living, an Egyptian mirror, can also be found in the gallery. From the Middle Kingdom, 13th Dynasty (1783–1715 BCE), the piece is wrought of bronze and gracefully carved wood. A pair of ivory clappers from the 12th Dynasty (1981–1802 BCE) are also on view. This curious set of objects, carved in the shape of human hands and arms up to the elbows, at first resembles an elegant alternative to the inflatable, percussive sticks we often use at sports games. Instead, the clappers were proper percussion instruments beaten to keep time during dances or musical performances.
By Sarah E. Fensom