I like visiting museums. From the Ancient Greek “Mouseion” – a place or temple dedicated to the muses (patron divinities of the arts in Greek Mythology), a building for the study and preservation of the arts. It’s not a place for old stuff, as many might feel. It is a place to feel inspired, renovated, transcended. Whenever I travel I take the opportunity to visit as many museums as possible. To me, visiting a museum is a chance to get in touch with the culture of a place in a more intimate way. A lot of people share the same interest and include museums as part of their sightseeing escapades. However, when we are back from our vacation, we seem to take for granted our local museums. How many of us can tell they have visited all the museums their city has to offer? Or, at least the main ones, thoroughly?
When I was taking an Art History class a few years ago, one of our assignments was to go to a local museum and choose a piece from the period we were studying and write about it. I was rather apprehensive since I wasn’t sure that I would find something that would fit the requirements of my assignment. I have to admit that I was underestimating the extent of our museums’ collections. Not only did I find the piece I was looking for but I also found out our museum had much more to offer than I had imagined.
The Lion-Shaped Rhyton: Libations and ancient offerings
The piece I chose for my description was the Lion-Shaped Rhyton from the collection of The Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. This piece was found in Anatolia, a region comprising most of Turkey today. It is dated around 1860 – 1780 B.C., falling into the Assyrian Colonial Period during the Bronze Age where commerce formed a network of trading routes connecting the city-states. This object struck me in a pleasing way at first glance. Not only did I like it, but it was also different from other objects of the same period. Even though the description said it was a lion, I couldn’t actually see the resemblance. To me, it looked like a dog. Were there dogs in Anatolia 3800 years ago? Perhaps it is indeed a lion cub.
The material used is terracotta which is basically clay, and can be seen in various other objects like vases and statues. This Lion-Shaped Rhyton is a very attractive piece. I was surprised by its well-preserved condition. There are some cracks which were obviously repaired, but its overall appearance is intact, giving us a solid idea of what I looked like when it was made. The lion is painted in what seems to be a type of harness covering all its body, including a molded muzzle. The harness straps are painted in brick red with hard black outlines suggesting the idea that this animal might be serving a purpose, and therefore needs to have its animal instincts under control. It stands on its feet and its paws show clearly distinguishable carvings. The body of the animal can be seen in all areas not covered by the intricate network of the harness. It is painted in what seems to be mustard or tan and it has thin lines on its legs and its side hinting a soft fur. The vertical and horizontal brick red stripes with strong black outlines offer a striking contrast with the color of the body itself. Although the Lion-Shapped Rhyton is a small piece (it is 7” ⅝ in height), it has symmetrical proportions which renders balance and harmony to the figure. The lion’s posture imbues the object with imposing power and magnanimity. The menacing face of the lion with its open jaw showing sharp white teeth and large bulging eyes adds to its majestic and dominant demeanor, well-suited to the purpose it has. There is this peculiar protrusion on the back of the lion in the form of a cup. I didn’t know what a rhyton was until I saw this piece, but the data on the object’s tag calls it “a libation vessel”, and that I knew from classic Greek tragedies. Libation is basically the act of pouring a liquid (wine, water, oil) as an offering to a deity or a god. Therefore, our lion cub must have been part of religious ceremonies or rituals where a priest or priestess would pour liquid into a cup, give it as an offering, and maybe drink from it or pour it on the ground afterwards. The image of the lion is presumably being used as a symbol of overriding power, protectiveness and uncontrollable strength. These are qualities that benefit a creature invoked to take on the role of a cupbearer for a priest. It is interesting and tempting to note and speculate a variety of creative details that will enhance the definition of the object as a rhyton or libation vessel. Any visit to a museum offers the opportunity to immerse oneself in a world of stories and different cultures. You can have any kind of experience you like. Your visit doesn’t have to be necessarily academic. You can set the mood. If you are like me, you will previously go over the museum’s permanent collection and temporary exhibits on its website to get acquainted with the works you will find there, it surely adds to the excitement. A lot of people say they feel quite overwhelmed when visiting a large museum and they don’t know how to approach it. Well, unless you are, as a dedicated art history enthusiast, willing to spend six to 8 hours in a museum, you shouldn’t let the extensive art collection of these museums bring you down. Each person is different, and there will sure be a specific section of that museum that will hold your interest.
Do some research before you go to a museum. Don’t try to see everything. Concentrate on the areas you selected, maybe the highlights at first if you don’t have much time.
A lot of people find it easy to go into one room and pick one painting, for example, and then taking some time to look at it without any pre-conceived, academic notions. Just looking at the painting and observing it for what it is. It is telling a story. What can you tell from what you see in the painting? What’s your reaction to the way the elements in the painting were organized, color, subject material, methods of representation chosen by the artist and so on. Can you spend time enough that you can create your own story about the painting based on what you see?
Going deeper – Enhancing your experience
If you wish to go further, you can look up the data about the painting either on the museum catalog or the information plaque on the side of that particular painting and see if the description might open new perspectives and meanings to your initial observations. An audio guide might be a great asset to help with specific works as you explore the numerous rooms in a museum. Again, you don’t have to listen to every single work. You can hit play for the ones that draw your attention. The experience one has with art is both academic but, above all, very personal. It’s like savoring wine. You need to find the wine that fits your palate and explore the similarities and nuances as you find new ones. It’s an opportunity to learn something about you and let yourself be taken by the vision of a particular artist. Art is not something perceived from some distant realm or pedestal that only has an appeal to those stilted highbrow individuals that come up with complicated jargon to explain something that the artist was not even thinking about at the moment of creation. Art is about having the sensibility to be open to look at things with a fresh mind and unclouded eyes. It’s about having the joy in discovering new things, experiencing the different perspectives the world has to offer. In the end we are touched with something new and feel ourselves transformed by a new way of thinking. Next time you are at a museum, try and see the works from that perspective. Take your time to explore what you want. There are no formulas or codes of conduct. Choose one, two or three works, and if you leave the museum with at least one work that touched you deeply that in itself is a most splendid experience.