“From Ishtar to Aphrodite: 3200 Years of Cypriot Hellenism,” an exhibition presenting art and artifacts from the island of Cyprus spanning the late Bronze Age (circa 1400 BC) to the end of the Hellenistic period (circa 100 BC), has opened at the Onassis Cultural Center.
Most of the 85 works in the exhibition – including sculptures and artifacts of household objects, in terra-cotta, copper and marble – have never left Cyprus, making this presentation a rare opportunity to view never-before-seen treasures. The exhibition focuses on the historical process of the Hellenization of Cyprus. In addition to those works traveling to the United States for the first time, four pieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cesnola Collection of Cypriot antiquities will be included. The exhibition will run until January 3.
The signature piece featured in “From Ishtar to Aphrodite” is a large torso of the Goddess Aphrodite, excavated in Cyprus in 1956 and leaving the island for the first time. Pulled from the seabed at Nea Paphos, Cyprus, the sculpture was named “Aphrodite Anadyomene,” literally, “Aphrodite emerging from the sea.” The statue, missing the head, arms and lower legs of the goddess, is made from marble imported from the Aegean archipelago; centuries of seawater have weathered the surface of the marble, giving the sculpture its distinctive shine.
The figure’s raised right arm probably used to hold the end of her long hair, and rivet holes in her hips suggest that a drapery once covered part of the legs. Although fragmentary, this work reflects the sculptural tradition created by Praxiteles, the most famous of the Attic sculptors, as can be seen in the Aphrodite’s narrow shoulders and long, broad hips.
Most archaeologists agree that the deity Aphrodite originated as Ishtar, the goddess of sexuality from the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia. Her legend eventually wove its way westward into Syria and Palestine, where she was known as Astarte, and into Cyprus, where she acquired the attributes of the goddess of love. In Greek mythology, Cyprus is considered the birthplace of Aphrodite – in the poems of Homer she is referred to as “the lady of Kypros (Cyprus).” Tracing an Eastern symbol in the origins of Aphrodite, so quintessentially Greek, symbolizes Cyprus’s role as the easternmost bastion of Hellenism and the island’s ability to assimilate the numerous cultural influences to which it was exposed over the centuries.
Greeks first settled in Cyprus during the Twelfth Century BC, in the period that followed the collapse of the Mycenean palace economy. The Myceneans, who had long traded with the Eastern Mediterranean, headed east. The establishment of Aegean Greeks in Cyprus was a late Bronze Age precolonization exodus that took place long before the first organized expeditions of Greek colonization began.
The style of Cypriot art evolved as new ethnic groups brought their influences to the island; sculptural styles, representations of deities and humans and religious beliefs from Greek inhabitants coalesced as Cyprus was repeatedly conquered and resettled. As the early Bronze Age began (circa 2400 BC), people from the east arrived on the island. While earlier sculptural representations of the human form had focused on pregnancy and childbirth, Cypriots now turned to flat, plank-shaped terra-cotta images of females with incised facial features and geometric decoration, many with pierced ears, headdresses and necklaces. This led into the increasing naturalism of the middle Bronze Age. With the late Bronze Age arrival of peoples from the Greek mainland, sculptures began to show Aegean seals of impression and represent gods and goddesses with all of their Greek attributes.
“From Ishtar to Aphrodite: Cypriot Art” was organized by Dr Sophocles Hadjisavvas, director of the Cyprus department of antiquities.
The Onassis Cultural Center is at the Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-486-4448 or www.onassisusa.org.