"From Ishtar to Aphrodite: 3,200 Years of Cypriot Hellenism," Oct. 23, 2003-Jan. 3, 2004, at the Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022
Transformations always have a bit of magic in them. Now, New York museum-goers can study an exhibition detailing the cultural sea change in ancient Cyprus, an epoch filled with mystery and a complex series of twists and turns, at the Onassis Cultural Center in Midtown Manhattan.
The nude female form in many guises, animal images, an extensive array of pottery, metalwork, and stone carvings are all part of the story of "From Ishtar to Aphrodite: 3,200 Years of Cypriot Hellenism, Treasures from the Museums of Cyprus."
Most of the items date to between 1450 BC and the 1st century BC, a period during which Cyprus, the eastern-most island in the Mediterranean, was overrun by various invaders. Cyprus was a rich prize. It was not only strategically important, but the chief source of copper for the entire region.
Two nude female figures from 1450-1200 BC illustrate two of the many cultural currents flowing into Cyprus. Both are female fertility figures with bare breasts and incised pubic areas. They are adorned with jewelry. One, with pierced holes in her head, probably once wore earrings and is based on Syrian and Levantine prototypes that really go back to Mesopotamia's Great Mother Goddess.
A painted female figure refers to the Great Mother Goddess as worshipped by the Mycenaeans. When this group came to Cyprus, they brought with them remnants of the still older Crete-based Minoan civilization with its own rich cult devoted to the Great Goddess.
Both terracotta figures may refer to a distant, specifically Cypriot version of the Great Mother Goddess, a ubiquitous and all-powerful Neolithic symbol of regeneration. This chief deity of agricultural societies was gradually subsumed as merely one of many deities under a male sky god in the male-dominated, war-like and horse-based cultures that swept across Europe from the Volga basin. The transition in Cyprus was complicated by waves of conquerors.
What makes this show fascinating is both the excellence of the material and how well it illustrates the foreign influences that Cyprus absorbed. For example, a tiny silver pendant figure of a male protective deity standing on a deer was made between 1410 and 1300 BC, not that far in time from the two female figures. But this fellow is clearly Hittite, a people who ruled Anatolia and Syria between 1900 BC and 1200 BC.
A charming ivory duck, carved from a hippopotamus tooth, probably had its origins in the Levant. A miniature blue glass jar with looping threaded decoration was a luxury import from Egypt.
A cast and hammered sword dated to 1200-1100 BC exudes power and is a reminder of the introduction of new warfare techniques brought into Cyprus by a huge influx of new settlers, the first Greeks. Their entry marks the beginning of the island's Hellenization.
A female figurine of a goddess from 750-600 BC appears very different from the earlier pair of Great Mother Goddesses. This mold-made terracotta with painted decorations has plaited hair, lots of jewelry and a thin body covering. The goddess Astarte, a popular cult figurine introduced by the Phoenicians, made such goddess figurines popular. Is she the Phoenicians' Astarte? The Greeks' Aphrodite? Perhaps a bit of each.
By the time the Greeks dominated Cyprus, the Phoenicians, Assyrians and Persians had all held sway there. A late Hellenistic nude torso of Aphrodite from around 100 BC marks their ascendance. Although the Romans would arrive soon, this diverse show stops with the formerly almighty Great Goddess enthroned as this sensual goddess of love.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.