As part of its celebration of the new millennium, the Metropolitan Museum is presenting approximately 150 masterpieces from the permanent collections that were produced some two thousand years ago in the period just before and after the Year One. Spanning seven curatorial departments, these works range from Roman portraits to Celtic metalwork, from Egyptian sculpture to Han dynasty terracotta figurines, from Vietnamese Dongson drums to Calima face masks of hammered gold. Together, they reveal the rich diversity of—and intriguing interconnections among—the cultures that produced them.
The exhibition highlights the interconnections that existed between widely separated parts of the world. Some relationships were established through the extension of Roman power under the rule of Augustus, the first Roman emperor (27 B.C.–A.D.14). Others evolved through the overland and maritime trade routes that provided the East and West with tantalizing glimpses of each other and that also linked many Asian cultures in an unprecedented fashion. Artistic traditions and religious beliefs were exchanged along these global networks, as were luxury goods such as Roman glass, Chinese silk, and East Indian pepper. While the works from each culture are shown together, the exhibition is organized to give a sense of the geographical and cultural proximity of different regions.
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Roman art in the age of Augustus reached an extraordinary level of sophistication—both in the public sphere, as a new imperial iconography was developed and Rome itself was embellished with new buildings, and in the private realm, as wealth was poured into lavish private villas and opulent lifestyles. Portrait busts, bronze statues, elegant architectural decorations, and a selection of coins in the exhibition evoke official art. Panels from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase, examples of garden sculpture, silver, glass, and jewelry illustrate the refinements achieved for private patrons.
During this period the Celtic tribes dwelling in what is modern France as well as eastward to the Rhine were organized as Roman provinces, and Egypt fell to Rome with the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 B.C. Two recently acquired masterpieces of Celtic metalwork—a bronze sword and a silver and gold brooch set with carnelians—are among the highlights of the exhibition. Intriguing mixtures of traditional Egyptian iconography with Hellenistic and Roman styles mark the art of Roman Egypt, as is seen in the selection of statuettes, vessels, funerary masks, and jewelry on view. A magnificent black stone statue carved in the traditional Egyptian manner and likely representing Caesarion, eldest son of Cleopatra, is also featured.
At the same time, the Parthian Empire was an important bordering power to the Roman Empire and controlled much of the trade passing between the East and West. It stretched from the Euphrates River almost to the Indus, occupying modern Iran and Iraq, as well as portions of Syria and Turkey.
Ancient Gandhara (roughly present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) was at the westernmost end of the multiple trade routes that traversed the mostly inhospitable deserts, steppes, and mountains of the Asian heartland. Gandhara flourished during this period under the rule of the Kushan dynasty and the art produced there incorporated elements from both the west and the east. On view is an athlete's stone weight with a figure resembling the Greek hero Herakles in combat with the Nemean lion. The defined musculature and heavy drapery of a towering stone torso of a bodhisattva—one of the most remarkable works featured in the exhibition—can also be traced to Western idioms.
Han China (221 B.C.–A.D. 220) provided the military might behind the pax sinica that made the exchange of goods along the overland Silk Routes feasible. Under the rule of the martial emperor Han Wudi (141–87 B.C.), China expanded its reach not only to more distant parts of Central Asia but also to areas of Korea and Vietnam. Administration of this vast empire was in the hands of a scholar-elite educated in the works of Confucius and other classics. Members of this group, the aristocracy, and even wealthy merchants equipped lavish tombs for use in the afterlife. In addition to elegant bronze and lacquer vessels, such tombs contained terracotta sculptures of attendants and entertainers. Two figures playing the board game liubo and an elegant dancer captured in a moment of ethereal stillness exemplify the liveliness and sophistication of these sculptures that are known as mingqi, or spirit gods.
Relations between Korea and Japan and their interactions with the Chinese mainland are reflected in the introduction of the use of more refined clays, and in the occasional inclusion of ceramics in burials. A monumental ceremonial bronze bell from Japan known as a dotaku is featured in this part of the exhibition. The burial of such bells in isolated locations, though never in graves, is generally interpreted as a reference to their otherworldly powers and to the prestige of bronze regalia in Japan during the Yayoi period (4th century B.C.–3rd century A.D.).
Centuries-old traditions of bronze working also unite the various cultures of peninsular and island Southeast Asia. Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia are noted for their production of astonishing weapons, jewelry, and vessels often profusely decorated with spirals and other geometric patterns. Of these, the most famous are the Dongson drums, named after the site in northern Vietnam where they were first discovered. They have been found in an area ranging from southern China to Indonesia. Three examples are featured in the exhibition—two miniature drums from Vietnam and a beautifully cast full-sized tympanum of the Pejeng type from Indonesia. Equally stunning is the immense vessel in the form of an axe decorated with subtle designs in the shapes of horns, diamonds, and stars. Like the kettle drums, this magnificent object was a ceremonial piece. Most likely produced in one part of Southeast Asia and used in another, it symbolized the relationship between a local chief and another ruler in the region.
While there were no known contacts between the Americas and the rest of the world at this time, the exhibition presents a selection of powerful works that were created in the Americas during this period. The Maya—who inhabited a region that today includes southern Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras—produced ceramic vessels of great simplicity and beauty. Calima face masks featured in the exhibition date to the 1st century B.C. and are among the earliest gold masks known from pre-Columbian America. Found in modern Colombia, these hammered gold masks made to honor the dead have naturalistic facial features rendered in considerable depth. Also on view is an extraordinary ceramic figure more than two feet high representing a crouching old man with an expressive and baggy-eyed face from the Tolita culture on the Pacific coast of South America in modern Ecuador. The Nasca in southern Peru made carefully surfaced ceramic vessels of many bright colors toward the end of the 1st millennium B.C. The exhibition features a large ceramic drum decorated with a rotund seated figure that has killer whales outlining its eyes.