The Getty Villa Museum– Glass and Gold and Jewels

Sometimes when you are looking at ancient object d’arte that are so finely crafted you wonder—- when did we lose all that artistic skill?  When did it start to disappear?    The gold objects are from Alexandria from the 3rd century B.C. or so.  How about a solid gold laurel wreath?   They don’t give those away to the winners at the Olympics anymore.   This is actually a funerary wreath from about 300 B.C. The ancients had considerably more reverence for the dead than we do.  Can you imagine anyone today emptying their bank account so they could bury Uncle Bob in a solid gold tuxedo?   I don’t think so.

Glass objects are often signs of high culture, and it is worth reminding ourselves that high culture only shows up when: 1) there is a rather settled culture that is at peace and can develop over a long period of time; 2) there are people willing to pay the price to artists to perform their artistic work; 3) there are communities of artists sharing their skills.  You can have all the math and science high schools in the world, and end up with a pretty drab artless culture— are you listening educators in America?  Stop canceling all the music and art classes in our schools.  They are as needed for the soul work of our society as any other subject.  On the righr you will see a blown glass fish.  Or how about a solid gold drinking cup? (First century A.D. Roman).  I particularly love the blue glass bowl from the first century B.C. (Greek or Roman). Drinking horns are always interesting, and here we have a silver one in the shape of a bull’s head (Greek, about 100 B.C.).   Ornate glass vials for perfumes or even larger ones for flowers were very popular as well.  Check out the handle of what used to be attached to a pouring vessel, with the mythological image of a hybrid human combined with a serpent (Greek 100 B.C.).  Large drinking cups with animal images (stages, cats of some kind) on the end were called trytons  (this one is from Parthia, maybe 50 B.C.).  Hand lamps also gave opportunities for artistic display such as this hand lamp with the image of a deity molded into it. The ancients, unlike many overly pragmatic moderns did not require all their artistic expressions to be functional— that is serve as drinking cups or pouring jars or ointment holders or water carriers and the like.   They believed that art both expresses and enriches the soul, and was worth all the time, money, and effort to create them.   A culture without a soul has no culture, so to speak.   And this brings up an important point.   Without wealth, which is to say, without money that goes beyond what is sufficient to feed, cloth, and shelter a person,  there would be little or no high art— either in antiquity or in modernity.

Think for a moment about the Getty Museum.  Most of us would never see any of these art objects from the Greek and Roman world if there were not millionaires like J. Paul Getty who paid incredible prices for such objects, protected them, and then put them on permanent public display.    If you are inherently opposed to anyone being wealthy you are also inherently opposed to the creation and preservation of culture, not to mention being opposed to philanthrophy as well.     But my main point is this— artists have always needed sponsors, patrons, a paying public to make a living, and most of them don’t make much of a living.  At 19 I decided that a classical musician’s life was not for me.   Not for me, all the endless travel and unstable relationships and inability to really have a good home life.  Artists of all kinds pay a huge price to create and share what God has gifted them to do.  It is time for the church to go back to being a major patron of the arts, and not just a sponsor of junk buildings that look like warehouses and become obsolete in less than a lifetime, and are acoustic disasters for musicians.   As public schools and other institutions such as the government keep cutting the arts, the church needs to pick up the slack with music, dance, the visual arts etc.  We need to be sponsoring Christian artists of all kinds, and as Andy Crouch puts it— ‘make culture’.  One of the real problems with narrow minded Christianity is not only does it fail to teach our children to think it also does not encourage them to be creative and express themselves in numerous creative ways.   This is a mistake because creativity is an important part of being and expressing being in the image of God, the greatest artist of all.


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