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Culture news
Ancient Greek art on show at the Hermitage
07.20.2004 12:12

greek_gold Any mention of the Hermitage without doubt evokes the image of the State Hermitage, that ensemble of six buildings along the embankment of the River Neva in the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia, where the most wonderful collections of art have found a home.

But for the Dutch, and the people of Amsterdam in particular, the Hermitage now means Amsterdam: The Amsterdam Hermitage project, whose first phase covers 600 square meters, was opened early this year in the center of Amsterdam.

Amstelhof, a cluster of quaint old buildings in Amsterdam that was originally a 17th century old peoples home, will be a fully fledged Hermitage with a total exhibition floor space of 4,000 square meters -- which will be in full use by the end of 2007.

The first part of the Amsterdam Hermitage was inaugurated by an exhibition of Greek jewelry in honor of this Olympic year.

One hundred pieces of fine Greek gold jewelry from the treasure rooms of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg were flown to Amsterdam and are on show until Aug. 24.

The jewelry comprises bracelets, earrings, necklaces and spectacular golden wreaths dating back to the period between the 6th and the 2nd century BC, all related to the rich culture of funeral rituals in the various Greek colonies, that Russian archaeologists found during excavations in the 19th and 20th centuries in the present-day Crimea.

These treasures reveal how Greek craftsmen, who came along with Greek settlers in search of new land, had already made their marks during that period.

The first large colony, Pantikapeion, was founded in the 6th century and was quickly followed by more. These "Pontic" cities became so powerful that in the 5th century they founded their own kingdom, which experienced a golden age in the 4th century BC.

After the decline of Greek civilization, the Pontic area was occupied by a succession of rulers and peoples. Its annexation into the Russian empire allowed the investigations of burial mounds there.

Like in China and many other countries, the Greeks perceived death as a journey into the hereafter. While certainly less spectacular than the 8000 Xi'an warriors and horses found next to the tomb of the first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, the jewelry discovered during the excavation of burial chambers in these Greek colonies does articulate, like the Xi'an Warriors, the beliefs and behavior that shaped society in this particular corner of the world.

For the Greeks, like many other people, jewelry was an inseparable part of life. Not only did it accentuate the beauty of the wearer, it also made clear the wearer's social status.

The oldest burial mounds are those of Olbia (6th-5th century BC) and the Seven Brothers mound (5th century), where a spectacular gold drinking horn was found.

While the funeral chambers were filled with essential and useful artifacts for the journey into the hereafter, and life in that realm, personal jewelry such as earrings, chains, plaques and laurel wreaths adorned the bodies themselves.

In the case of wealthier Greeks who were buried in mounds or tumuli, the burial chambers were stuffed with gold objects and large jewels. Meanwhile, in the burial mound of the Seven Brothers, the skeletons of no less than thirteen horses lay next to the deceased

At the Greek Gold exhibition in Amsterdam, the jewelry is grouped by site based on its chronology, thus providing the spectators with a ready insight into the variety of Greek craftsmanship found in the various burial mounds.

Chains consisting of gold lotuses, rosettes and depictions of the river god Achelos were found in the burial mounds at Nymphaion and Pantikapeion.

Chains, for which the Greeks had seven different names, were worn tightly round the neck. Besides these chains, there are rings from Pantikapeion with images of Penelope and of a Persian, as well as two impressive gold bracelets with lion's heads.

One of the most famous treasures of the Hermitage, a twisted gold necklace with two Scythian riders, was found at the Kul Oba burial mound (4th century BC). From the same mound came an example of Greek jewelry for the ear in which the details, such as tiny images and filigree, can barely be seen by the naked eye.

In this exhibition, they can be viewed with a magnifying glass.

Another highlight comes from the Kekuvatsky mound (4th century BC): a gold laurel wreath of olive branches with olives. The wreath was placed on the skull of the deceased. In Greece, laurel wreaths were used in processions, as prizes for all kinds of competitions and to decorate the images of the gods.

Another famous site from the 4th century BC is the Great Bliznitza burial mound, which is represented in this exhibition by, amongst other objects, an imposing pendant with a relief of a Nereid (one of the daughters of the sea god Nereus) on a sea horse.

The transition from Greek to Roman art is illustrated by late Hellenistic jewelry, and several terra cotta and silver vases, on which Greek women and men can be seen wearing similar jewelry.

The exhibition provides evidence of the superb Greek craftsmanship in the ancient colonies around the Black Sea. At the same time, it opens our eyes to their historical and geographical significance.

Greek Gold from the Treasure Chambers of the Hermitage Until Aug. 29, 2004

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