Published: February 17, 2004
The Onassis Cultural Center is presenting “Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past,” the first exhibition to examine the lives of children and the attitudes about childhood in ancient Greece.
Unique to the exhibition’s presentation at the Onassis Cultural Center is the special section “Striving for Excellence: Ancient Greek Childhood and the Olympic Spirit.” Together, “Coming of Age” and “Striving for Excellence” featuring more than 80 objects on loan from major American and European collections that explore the life of Greek children, including family life, play and schooling, religious rituals, and the role of children in Greek mythology through painted vases, sculptures, grave monuments, ancient toys and other artifacts.
The objects in “Coming of Age” range primarily from the Classical to the Hellenistic periods and are separated into two sections, one focusing on the life of boys and one on girls. The exhibition will be on view until April 15.
“Striving for Excellence” focuses on the importance of athletics to the development of Greek boys. Then as now, sport was seen as a fundamental component to the successful development of a youth’s character. Athletic competitions played a major role in the frequent religious festivals conducted throughout Greece, including the festival of Zeus at Olympia, known to us now as the Olympic Games.
Several of the amphorae in “Striving for Excellence” were once filled with olive oil – the equivalent of a cash prize – and given to the winner at similar games that took place in Athens. Other objects depict young athletes with their paidotribes, or trainers, with whom they prepared intensively for a month before the competition. “Striving for Excellence” features 12 works of art, 10 on loan from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and two from the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.
“Coming of Age” examines the lives of boys and girls at each significant phase from birth to adulthood. Depictions of childbirth in ancient Greece are extremely rare – most births pictured were the fantastical ones of the gods and goddesses.
During early childhood, Greek boys and girls were raised together in the gynaikeion, the woman’s quarter of the house. All members of the household, including their mother, nurses and female slaves, were responsible for their upbringing. Several of the objects in the exhibition show children of each gender at play together, using balls, tops or rollers.
Unusual examples of girls’ dolls are on view, including three articulated dolls with movable legs and arms and another older bell-shaped example from Boiotia – displayed in the athletics section – that served as the inspiration for the Olympic mascot for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Other games represented include juggling and balancing a stick while moving.
After early childhood, the genders were separated and prepared for their distinct societal roles. At age six or seven, Greek boys began their schooling. Featured in “Coming of Age” are several examples of schoolwork, including writing exercises on an ostrakon (pot sherd), a wooden board or tablet, and a papyrus fragment, as well as an ink pot in the shape of a ball and a bronze stylus that was used to write on wax tablets. Meanwhile, girls remained home to learn the skills necessary to running a household. A late Archaic terra-cotta piece depicts a young girl leaning over a pot as an older, seated woman gestures with a raised hand.
The exhibition presents artifacts dealing with adolescence, in which it becomes clear that the length of childhood differed depending on the child’s gender. At age 18, boys became citizens, acquiring voting rights and civic obligations. Though young men often left their families at this point, most did not marry until later in life, usually in their late 30s. Girls, on the other hand, were usually married around 14 or 15, transitioning directly from adolescence into adulthood and acquiring the domestic role as woman of the house.
It was not uncommon for a child in ancient Greece to die young, either in childbirth or while still a toddler. On the stele of Melisto, a commemorative stone included in the exhibition, a young girl about the age of six is depicted along with her favorite toy and pets, a tribute from her loving parents. Another grave memorial shows parents with their children and a nurse – the father rests his hand on his daughter’s shoulder, a rare scene in Greek art of fatherly affection for female offspring.
Along with artifacts of household life and depictions of real families and children, “Coming of Age” also focuses on representations of mythical figures, including gods and goddesses, during their childhood.
After its presentation at the Onassis Cultural Center, “Coming of Age” will travel to the Cincinnati Art Museum for the summer of 2004 and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for the fall. The exhibition debuted in New Hampshire at the Hood Museum of Art.
The Onassis Cultural Center is located in the Olympic Tower (645 Fifth Avenue – entrance on 51st and 52nd streets). For information, www.onassisusa.org or 212-486-4448.
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