Ancient works rediscovered at new Art Institute galleries
An ancient Roman cameo depicting the emperor Claudius as the God Jupiter (detail) is among the artifacts in "Of Gods and Glamour" at the Art Institute of Chicago. | Photo by Erika Dufour
Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and
The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan
Open daily 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday until 8 p.m.
General admission: $12-$18; free kids under 14, free to Illinois residents the first and second Wednesday of every month
(312) 443-3600; artic.edu
Updated: November 23, 2012 7:12AM
Some 125 years ago, the Art Institute of Chicago commenced its collections by amassing ancient art and displaying it right inside the front entrance.
When Karen Manchester began her job as a curator at the museum in 2001, ancient art had fallen out of favor. “It couldn’t get any closer to the back door,” Manchester says.
But a few years ago, a donation of $10 million changed all that: Turn shabby McKinlock Court into the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries, stated the gift from the Jaharises. And not with trendy modern paintings or contemporary installations, but with Greek, Roman and Byzantine art spanning 330 to 1453 A.D. (think marble slabs carved into idealized figures, mosaics featuring animals or pottery painted with the likeness of gods and goddesses).
“Our heads were reeling,” says Manchester.
The display space expanded from the short, back hall flanking the courtyard to the entire 13,707-square-foot McKinlock Court. Manchester’s curatorial team amassed 561 objects to fill it, interspersing the museum’s small collection of quality fragments with borrowed works owned by collectors from the Chicago area and as far away as London and Sao Paulo, Brazil. The new wing opened to the public on Nov. 11.
For Manchester, the biggest boon came when the British Museum serendipitously shut down its late antique and early Byzantine wing for restoration. The Art Institute worked out a deal to borrow 51 of the most important works to create “Late Roman and Early Byzantine Treasures from the British Museum,” a display that runs through Aug. 25, 2013, and launched in correlation with the Jaharis Galleries wing opening.
The British Museum loans allowed the Art Institute to accomplish an amazing feat: The Jaharis wing will feature the entire spectrum of ancient art, beginning with ancient Egypt’s influence on Greece, through the explosion of the Roman Empire and into Byzantine art. “This is the only time in art history that we’ll be able to present the chronological sequence,” Manchester says.
One of the most spectacular objects inside the dark, dramatically lit display is the intricately carved glass Lycurgus Cup, said Christina Nielsen, assistant curator for Late Antique, Early Christian, and Byzantine Art. It features small properties of gold and silver, which turn it green in transmitted light and red in direct light.
“Someone very wealthy would’ve used it at a dinner party,” Nielsen says. “As they drank the wine from their glass they could’ve held it up to a candle and amazed their friends. It’s dinner theater, really.”
To show off the chalice, the museum hired a local lighting technician to create a timed beam of light that emphasizes the change in colors.
Additional works include the loaned Bust of Athena, made during the Roman period. Manchester discovered that back in the 19th century, the Art Institute owned a cast of the sculpture, placed over the front door of the Michigan Avenue entrance as a way to advertise the museum’s holdings. Now that the Jaharis Galleries are complete, works like this will have their day in the sun again.~.