Terra-cotta figure of a "Ithyphallic offering bearer" Northern Iran (Marlik) Late Bronze Age 2nd millennium
"Acts of Faith: Idols of Ancient Cultures," Nov. 12, 1998-Jan. 20, 1999, at the Safani Gallery, 980 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10021.
One of 1998's most exciting gallery exhibitions spans more than 5,000 years and dozens of cultures. Each of the approximately 75 objects on view in "Acts of Faith: Idols of Ancient Culture," at the Safani Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York, packs a tremendous esthetic wallop despite being of diminutive size. The whole show would all fit in a couple of tote bags, except for a few stone altars.
While the Cycladic white marble standing figures (from the 3rd millennium) are probably the most familiar, the exhibition includes a range of impressive Greek material. Among the selection is a baked clay torso of a voluptuous goddess from northern Greece dating from the Neolithic period (6000-5000 BC), one of two of this type in the show, and a standing terra-cotta phi-shaped idol decorated with vertical sinuous lines of red paint from Mycenae (1300-1200 BC).
Another very early work on display is a terra-cotta double-headed idol from the Vinca culture of Yugoslavia, only about four inches tall, but hypnotic. The most recent item, dating from about 500 BC, is an extremely modern-looking bronze figure with wavy outstretched arms found in Italy.
In between come idols both schematic, like several white stone "Eye Idols" from Mesopotamia (4th millennium) and detailed, like an elaborately coiffed nude Syro-Hittite goddess (200-1500 BC). Idols of both sexes appear, like the cheerful "Ithyphallic Offering Bearer," who seems to be singing from northern Iran (late 2nd millennium) and the hieratic "White Stone Idol of a Nude Female" (3rd millennium) from Sardinia.
The pieces are presented without labels, so visitors can appreciate them esthetically first. A checklist is available to help identify these captivating traces of the sacred from many different cultures of the eastern Mediterranean.
What better way to celebrate a season of religious significance than to recall the many deities that man has worshipped?
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.