Since antiquity, religious worship has engaged the senses. “Sights and Sounds of Ancient Ritual,” an exhibit that opens Friday at the Yale University Art Gallery, focuses on how the peoples of antiquity integrated both sight and sound into their religious practices.
The exhibit’s curator is Carolyn Laferrière, a postdoctoral associate with the Yale Program for the Study of Ancient and Premodern Cultures and Societies, known as Archaia.The exhibit grew out of Laferrière’s interest in the ways the ancient Greeks depicted music and its relationship to the gods, yet later expanded to include ceremonial artifacts from other civilizations. Laferrière hopes that “Sights and Sounds” will give museum visitors insight into the similarities between rituals of different cultures through time.
“There’s such an interesting mix of things that are in my field, which is the same as Carolyn’s, and completely outside of the things that I know a fair amount about. So I can appreciate them on different levels,” said Susan Matheson, the YUAG’s Molly and Walter Bareiss curator of ancient art who also served as an advisor for the project. “But what’s nice about the exhibition is it uses the sights and sounds of ritual to kind of link all of it.”
The show features religious artifacts from ancient societies ranging from 1500 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E. Laferrière said that the exhibit provides an opportunity to showcase the diversity of the YUAG’s collection. Each piece in the exhibit is in the YUAG or the Peabody Museum collection.
Objects on display include two Chinese ceramic tomb statues of dancing girls and a Babylonian tablet instructing readers on which tones represent certain gods. The exhibit also features pages of psalms sung during medieval Catholic masses.
In addition to revealing similarities between religious worship across cultures, the exhibition also emphasizes the functionality of the objects it presents. Both Laferrière and Martin mentioned the importance of portraying the objects as both aesthetic and functional.
“I think it’s important that visitors understand or are confronted with these objects as not just beautiful works of art, which they definitely are — they’re all stunning and they should be in a gallery. But they also had a ritual function: there’s so much more to their story than simply being on display in a quiet gallery,” Laferrière said.
A blue-green sistrum, a type of Egyptian percussion instrument, figures prominently in the exhibit. The sistrum depicts the head of the Hathor, the goddess of love and music. Laferrière organized the flow of the exhibition around this object.
The first section of the exhibit focuses on depictions of the divine: the illustration of the head of Hathor drawn on the sistrum. In this section, Laferrière wanted to explore how different civilizations represented the supernatural through vibrant colors.The section also illustrates the connection between the gods and music.
The second section deals with rituals and the objects that worshippers used during such ceremonies. Finally, the last section explores funerary rituals and the importance of music and dance in preserving the memory of the dead.
The exhibit will also feature a section titled “Seeing Blue,” which was curated by Daphne Martin ’19, the YUAG’s Betsy and Frank H. Goodyear, Jr., B.A. 1966, intern. This section features objects that represent the different uses of blue as a sacred color in religious art. “Seeing Blue” includes a statue called “Mourning Siren,” painted in Egyptian blue, one of the world’s oldest pigments. The statue will be displayed along with a digitally reconstructed image of what the coloring may have looked like in the past.
“Color in antiquity was perceived in a different way than we perceive color now. And you can really take it for granted. Your desktop screen can have any color that you want it to have,” Martin said. “But for the people in the past, the only things that were blue were the sky and the sea. So then to be able to harvest it, if you will, and put it on an object that was sacred and valuable is really interesting.”
Laferrière also noted that she hopes visitors will be “drawn into these objects’ stories, their afterlives and start to better understand the sensory responses that these objects could have evoked in the ancient worshipper who once used them or made them.”
“Sights and Sounds” will remain on view until March 3, 2019. Along with the exhibit, the gallery will host several supplementary events, including talks by both Laferrière and Martin and a performance of traditional music on reconstructed ancient instruments by UK-based musicians Barnaby Brown and Stef Conner.
Amber Braker | firstname.lastname@example.org .