2013 - Faces from the Past: The Human Image in the Ancient World
Curated by Eric Klingelhofer, Department of History
This display was unveiled on October 21, 2013
Currency expresses the ideals of the government that mints it and the society that uses it. Ancient coins typically carried the image of a divinity or of a ruler, sometimes on each side (obverse and reverse). Attributes and style of the image changed as society changed. Displayed here are coins from the Holmes collection that reveal more than a thousand years of western art and politics. The faces from the past come to you just as they appeared then, in purses and pouches, when exchanged for goods and services, or given with blessings at births, weddings, and funerals.
The Ancient World has left behind many images of gods and heroes, as well as mortals, both adults and children, all in innumerable attitudes and activities. The Holmes Collection shows various representations, from stiff Egyptian underworld guides and afterlife servants (ushabtis) to uninhibited Greco- Roman dancers. Each image tells us part of a story: one face among the many that made a civilization. Here we also find modern attempts to imitate the past, as occasional antiquarian interest became a booming tourist trade. When not enough interesting artifacts could be found, they were manufactured for the tourists. Such objects certainly convey the appearance of the past, while lacking its meaning.
The Holmes Collection has several artifacts that one would find in an upper-class woman’s home: instruments for cosmetic preparation and application, containers for unguents (oils) and perfumes, and of course a mirror. In Egypt and the Near East, and later in the Hellenistic Greek and Roman worlds, some upperclass men used cosmetics, perhaps in rituals but also as a social custom or fashion. Prostitutes of both sexes would use cosmetics and perfumes as part of their trade, as the Gospel story of Mary Magdalene may illustrate.