BOSTON – When the Museum of Fine Arts acquired an ancient Greek drinking cup painted with the image of a man relieving himself, it was considered too inappropriate to display.

Nearly 110 years later, the cup, made in Athens around 500 B.C., is one of the most intimate, and definitely the bawdiest, item in the museum’s new Gallery of Daily Life in Ancient Greece.

“You see this (the squatting man) when you finish your wine and you might wonder why this is appropriate,” said Christine Kondoleon, the museum’s senior curator of Greek and Roman art. “It’s a message to moderate your drinking and would be seen as sort of funny.”

Other painted ceramics show people mourning a loved one, sending a son off to war, nursing a baby, fighting, competing and playing games. Together, the 250 objects signal the fundamental connection among human beings, even those separated by 2,500 years.

Kondoleon said she tried to bring out the meaning of the images Greeks painted on drinking cups, oil flasks, water and storage jars, pitchers and bowls. She also chose many terra cotta and bronze figurines engaged in a variety of activities. The pieces, which date from the 9th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D., seem remarkably undamaged by time.

“We selected works with the hope that they would give visitors a relatable view into ancient Greek society and culture,” Kondoleon said. “And that they would raise questions for visitors.”

To that end, the display cases are organized by theme: family, livelihood, athletics, war and remembrance.

In a display expected to appeal to children and school groups, there’s a spinning top, tiny dice and a figurine of two girls playing knucklebones, similar to today’s jacks. Painted on pitchers, children play with birds and dogs.

Along with raising children, women were primarily responsible for spinning and weaving the wool used for clothing. On an oil flask, an elegantly dressed and bejeweled woman pulls a long skein of wool from her basket, in preparation for spinning. The weaving process is depicted in stone loom weights and a graphic.

Unlike males, females were always depicted clothed, and one section shows three styles of dress that reflected different statuses. Another features mirrors, perfume vessels and other beautification aids.

Males were athletes, but music also was part of their training. On vessels, young athletes receive a music lesson and jump to the music of a flute player.

As host to the first Olympic games, Athens had many athletes who were honored as embodiments of excellence. On view is a statuette discus thrower and a 15-pound stone disc, one of only three to survive from antiquity.

Other figurines – many created to accompany the dead in their graves – show Greeks at work: a barber, a shoemaker, a baker, a cheese-maker, a farmer and a fisherman. A display of fishing hooks and net-repair tools reveals their similarity to those used today, and fish were often painted onto ceramics.

Some of the most revealing items depict scenes: on a two-handled jar from about 500 B.C., a cobbler fits a shoe for a young female who stands on a table while a white-bearded man leans on his cane and gestures.

A bridal procession scene completely covers a large water vessel for the prenuptial bath. On a touch screen, visitors can see enlargements of each figure and try to guess the roles of each member of the the bridal party.

Along with celebration, there was suffering. The ancient Greeks were at war almost constantly, and it’s estimated that one-third of the men in Athens died from battle and plague between 430 and 426 B.C. Helmets, swords and shields are displayed, as well as figurines on horseback and vessels painted with poignant departure and combat scenes.

As in other cultures, burial and remembrance of the dead were profound responsibilities. There were many rituals for honoring the deceased and easing passage of the soul.

A water jar for ritual baths for the deceased depicts women tearing at their hair. Other gestures of mourning can be seen in a female statuette and a funeral plaque, on which women raise both hands to their heads. In the painting on the plaque, the body lies wrapped in a black blanket on a couch attended by women in black garments. Three flying birds signify good passage, and a mythological winged creature laments the dead.

This new permanent ancient Greece gallery – created out of a storage area – complements the Gallery of Wine, Poets and Performance, which opened in 2014. It also provides a context for the adjacent gallery of Ancient Coins, which features 500 coins and highlights their role in trade, art and portraiture.

The Gallery of Daily Life in Ancient Greece is a culmination of an 18-month project by Museum of Fine Arts’ conservators to evaluate, research and restore objects in the ancient Greece collection, for which the museum is renowned.

If you go …

WHAT: The Gallery of Daily Life in Ancient Greece

WHEN: Ongoing

WHERE: The Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston

ADMISSION: $25 for adults, $23 for students, free for ages 17 and younger; voluntary contribution after 4 p.m. Wednesdays

INFO: 617-267-9300; mfa.org

Jody Feinberg is at jfeinberg@ledger.com. Follow her on Twitter @JodyF_Ledger.



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