If you’re longing for a taste of warm, sunny Crete, its amazing history and archaeology, but your reality at the moment is wintry Athens – not to worry! The Museum of Cycladic Art’s newest temporary exhibition, “Crete, Emerging Cities: Aptera – Eleutherna – Knossos” (through April 30, 2019), offers a “virtual” experience that will whet your appetite for a visit to the Big Island itself.
With many artifacts never shown to the public before gathered from both Cretan and Athenian archaeological museums and storerooms, as well as rare books, maps and watercolors from the Benaki Museum and Gennadius Library, Emerging Cities is a landmark, collaborative, richly diachronic presentation – a tribute to its organizers and its fascinating subject.
Lost Cities of the Minoans
From the start of the L-shaped MCA exhibition, one begins to appreciate the depth of Crete’s history and legacy. On the floor beneath our feet is a medieval map of the island, a reminder of the mythical, ancient land discovered by travelers in the Middle Ages and the early modern era. A wall-sized aerial photo of Crete, medieval books and maps and detailed information panels aptly introduce the exhibition, which focuses on three of Crete’s most important ancient cities and archaeological sites.
These are Aptera, equipped with twin harbors (Kisamos, Minoa) and considered historic Crete’s most active commercial center; Eleutherna, a mysterious city lost after antiquity until its rediscovery in the late 18th and early 19th century; and Knossos, the main palace and beating heart of prehistoric Minoan Crete.
These cities – their settings, infrastructure, customs and people – are showcased though an engaging, multimedia experience featuring videos, photographs, statues and a diverse array of other objects, some revealing poignant individual stories within the broad scope of ancient daily life and death they evoke.
In the two Aptera galleries, one finds striking artifacts: from a Late Bronze Age wine krater to a fragment of an inscribed treaty, silver pins, golden jewelry, limestone molds for lead sling bullets and several of the intriguing sling bullets themselves. Occupied in Minoan times, but refounded in the 8th century BC, Aptera became famous for its skilled archers, who roamed the Aegean as pirates and mercenaries. The city’s divine patrons were Apollo and Artemis, seen here in fine marble and bronze statues. Dionysus, Asclepius, Hygieia and Isis were also favorite deities.
A thematic display of grave markers and burial gifts includes an intact, perforated censer with its lid, once used to disburse sacred smoke in funerary ceremonies; a pair of sculpted portraits of a husband and wife, almost like-like in their appearance and somber expressions; and terracotta figurines of Eros as well as women and children.
Four watercolors of Aptera, Knossos and Mount Psiloritis by Edward Leare (1864) recall the romantic outlook of 19th century painters and other travelers in Greece.
The atmosphere of the next gallery, dedicated to Eleutherna, is subtly enhanced by a recording of soft, enchanting music – played by Yiorgos Kaloudis on a four-string Cretan lyre, accompanied by a cello – which wafts through the space.
The floors in this and the other main rooms further depict the Cretan landscape – this time in wall-to-wall “Google-Earth” images of the archaeological sites themselves. Visitors strolling among the displays can almost feel like they are treading on Cretan ground. A video screen takes us right into the Greco-Roman ruins of Eleutherna, including the Orthi Petra cemetery, a major feature of the city and a focus of excavation.
Notable artifacts here include a sculpted akroterion (roof decoration) in the form of an armed, shield-bearing warrior – which once adorned an Archaic heroon (a shrine dedicated to a hero), perhaps the earliest-known Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; a lively Hellenistic bronze lamp depicting Dionysus riding a prancing panther; intricately carved ivory plaques from the late Roman era, one showing a semi-nude woman with billowing drapery behind; a clay beehive for honey production; and a set of rarely seen “spacer pins,” used in constructing wall flues in Roman hypocaust baths.
Impressive, too, are two gleaming, gold-like bronze replicas of large shallow basins decorated in relief with animals, musicians and female dancers.
Turning into the Knossos galleries, more remarkable objects in marble, gold, glass and clay – large and small, from both prehistoric and historic times – meet the eye. Time and again in this exhibition, one has to pause and appreciate the unusual artifacts selected for display, from humble, utilitarian oil lamps, a heavy lead ash urn (kalpe) and spiral-carved lintel blocks, to a stunning bronze sword, inlaid with a gold and silver griffin spreading its wings, and a series of marble or terracotta portrait busts, including a wild-haired, luxuriously bearded Zeus.
Exquisitely crafted blue-glass perfume bottles, possibly swans, were once almost certainly cherished items in a Roman lady’s boudoir, while a plain ceramic cup from late antiquity looks exactly like a modern-day coffee mug. Particularly strange are several “fetish stones” from Late Bronze Age Knossos, consisting of smooth but knobby, almost human or animal-shaped stones that likely came from one of Crete’s high-mountain sacred caves.
Not to be missed at the end of the exhibition is a reminder of the Minoans’ timeless legacy: two juxtaposed bulls’ heads: one Minoan, the other by Pablo Picasso.