The centerpiece of the show at the Onassis Cultural Center museum in midtown Manhattan is a large and very beautiful torso of Aphrodite in white marble discovered, appropriately enough, in a seabed off Cyprus in 1956 and never before exhibited outside the island. Although headless and armless, it distinctly reflects the sculptural style of Praxiteles, the most famous of ancient Greek sculptors.
Through some 85 works on display ranging from the Bronze Age to the end of Greek dominance around 100 B.C., the exhibition tells the story of the Hellenization of Cyprus, a Mediterranean commercial crossroads and rich source of copper that not only absorbed the art of neighboring cultures but passed these foreign influences on to other cultures. Aphrodite is an example of this cross-pollination.
The goddess is generally believed by scholars to have originated as a fertility deity in the Middle East, known as Inanna in Sumeria, Ishtar in Babylonia and Assyria, and Astarte in Syria and Palestine. When her cult reached Cyprus about 1400 B.C. she took on the attributes of a love goddess, and Greeks who were colonizing Cyprus gave her the name Aphrodite and took her back to Greece.
Also on display are stylized female figurines in ceramic and bronze dating back to 1450 B.C., before the arrival of the Greeks. They are reminiscent of the abstract female nude sculptures from the nearby Cycladic island except that they are wearing bikinis and are all clutching their breasts.
There was an amalgam of cultures in Cyprus but gradually the Greek culture became supreme," said Sophocles Hadjisavvas, director of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, at a news preview of the show. "It was a long process, but Cyprus became a main outpost of Hellenism and there is yet much to be discovered about this era."
Hadjisavvas said there have been no foreign archaeological missions to Cyprus, an island divided between Cypriots and Turks, since 1974, although there have been what he described as "illegal" excavations by Turkish archaeologists and "occasional but not systematic" tomb looting. He said all of the exhibit displays, mostly from Cypriot collections, were from "legal" sources.
In addition to statues, both sculpted and molded, silver coins and bronze weaponry, the displays include artifacts in terracotta, copper, and marble, including household articles such as burnished pottery bottles, flasks, and storage vessels, bronze jugs, and examples of wine containers in the form of Phoenician lidded amphoras and Greek mixing kraters and kantharos cups for drinking.
Of particular interest are miniature terra cottas such as a 5th century B.C. chariot with red painted decorations carrying two passengers that appear to be a man and his wife drawn by three horses, and finely wrought gold jewelry, particularly a pair of spiral earrings. A larger terra cotta portrays Hercules, known to the Greeks as Heracles, in a humanistic portrayal of the hero rather than the usual idealized one.
There is also a Greek strigil, an elegantly curved bronze instrument for scraping the skin clean that is often portrayed in vase paintings of athletes. It is a reminder that for all their knowledge and inventiveness, the ancient Greeks never developed soap.
The show, titled "Ishtar to Aphrodite," leaves New York Saturday to travel to Athens were it will be an important part of the cultural program being organized for the 2004 Olympic Games.