Their second theme is preservation, and their urging of museums to guard, doc and contextualize weak work carries particular weight at a time when questions across the restitution of cultural property are within the air. Ought to objects be returned even when the return would possibly place them in peril? The difficulty is ethically many-sided and emotionally sophisticated, however a minimum of one response feels clear trying across the present: You possibly can’t assist however really feel aid that what’s right here is safely right here.
And there are magnetic issues. One is a tiny Babylonian Venus, her nude physique carved from milky alabaster, her eyes set with rubies, a gold crescent moon in her hair. A tomb aid of a younger Palmyrene lady named Bat’a is one other; traces of unique paint intensify her riveted, direct-address gaze. And there’s a fabulous life-size carving of an eagle from Petra. Probably conceived as a protector of the lifeless, it stands alert, wind-tousled and spread-winged, as if braced for a storm.
And a singular piece that ends the present, a late-third-century Sardonyx cameo, marks the beginning of a brand new Center East historical past. 20 years or so earlier than the cameo was carved, the Sasanian Empire rose to energy in what’s now Iran. Its first ruler, Ardashir I, vanquished the Parthians. His son, Shapur I, triumphed over the Roman military and, shockingly, captured its emperor Valerian.
That is the occasion etched within the cameo, which, like a lot artwork within the present, sends complicated political and ideological messages echoing backwards and forwards by time. The cameo kind itself was one anciently related to the celebration of Greco-Roman imperial rule, however right here, tailored to be used as Sasanian propaganda, it advertises the ignoble defeat of that rule. And though the occasion depicted is grim — Valerian died in captivity — the thing that information it’s a factor of bizarre magnificence, with colours darkish as the ocean, vibrant because the sky.
The World Between Empires: Artwork and Id within the Historic Center East
March 18 by June 23 on the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.