The action cinema of the ancient world

11 July 2012

Powerful ancient masterpieces, detailed paintings on Greek ceramic vessels, and much more are on offer in the Original and Cast Collections of the Classical Archaeology division at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Not only teaching staff but also students are involved with the collections. They jointly develop design concepts and organize exhibitions.

Light filters into the basement of the Philosophicum building and outlines emerge from the gloom. Over there is the dark Athena Lemnia. She once graced the Acropolis in Athens. She was a gift from citizens who were preparing to settle on the island of Lemnos. She is surrounded by bright figures: naked youths, goddesses in heavily pleated robes, and warriors. Opposite her stands Julius Caesar, coolly surveying the room. He heads a long line of Roman emperors. And in the background stands a large panel from the famed Pergamon altar. Dr. Patrick Schollmeyer points to it: "This was the action cinema of ancient times."

Schollmeyer is responsible for the Original and Cast Collections at the Classical Archaeology division at JGU. His main research focuses on ancient sculpture as well as Greek and Roman iconography and this becomes apparent when he talks about the treasures in the collection. It is easy to forget that this basement only contains casts – we'll be turning to the originals later.

The Hellenes and the wow effect

"Here we can see the goddess Athena rushing in to kill the Titan. Athena clutches him and pulls him upward." The Titan appears to be in agony and it is difficult to ignore the expression on his face. "In the moment he is torn from the Earth, he becomes mortal." Gaia, Mother Earth, is also shown together with the serpent that is busy finishing off the now mortal Titan. "The Hellenistic concept of art was very emotional, filled with extreme pathos and expressive energy."

This was all presented to the citizens of Pergamon in Asia Minor in vivid colors. The high relief was painted and was quite unlike the uniformly white cast. So there is one thing Schollmeyer is convinced of: "When the altar had been completed it must have evoked a wow effect." It was an absolute deluge of images, just like an action movie.

Odyssey of a collection

When the citizens of Mainz founded the "Sculptural Arts Society" in 1871, they intended to bring casts of the Ancient Greek and Roman masterpieces along with copies of works such as Michelangelo's Moses to their city. They collected 250 pieces. At first the collection was displayed in the Electoral Palace, later it wandered from place to place before finally landing in the city library. Quite a bit was destroyed in World War II. At the end of the sixties the casts found a home at JGU.

Here they are used for teaching purposes, something that is important to Schollmeyer. He repeatedly talks of student involvement. "They designed the color concept for this room." The dark red of the walls contrasts starkly with the white of the imperial busts, while light gray pedestals blend modestly into the background.

The Greeks didn't grimace

Schollmeyer stops beside a kouros, a naked youth. He seems indifferent and serene. In contrast with the Hellenistic concept, people in the early classical period, at least the Greeks, did not want to see faces distorted with emotion. Even in the midst of combat they remain calm, only their non-Greek opponents appear tense.

"Have you seen enough?" asks Schollmeyer. Yes, at least for the moment. He switches off the light. The emperors, goddesses, and Titans once again disappear into the darkness of the basement. We now take the elevator to the third floor to view the originals.

Messalina in Roman and Italian

The exhibition is called "First Ladies", and students organized it. It is open until July 20. Clearly structured text panels are placed opposite selected coins and busts of Roman empresses and contrast with Italian comic books and video cassettes from the 1970's. The movie Messalina offers eroticism dressed in skimpy historical attire. However, its imagery seems far more outdated than the much older busts.

Schollmeyer introduces four students and an intern. They keep the exhibition up and running. "Without them all this would not be possible." The exhibit is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and special tours can also be provided on request. "We want to get more school classes involved with our exhibitions in future," says Schollmeyer. In addition, the space will be refurbished during the break period – in cooperation with the students.

Highly insured on its way to New York

The approximately 400 pieces in the collection of originals are currently taking a back seat to the "First Ladies". Greek ceramic vessels, pieces in terracotta, bronze, and stone jostle for room in the display cases. The identifying labels and their extremely short explanations are old and were produced using a typewriter.

After putting on white gloves, Schollmeyer pulls out an Attic drinking bowl. Fine black figures decorate the flat vessel. A rider on a proud stallion can be seen. "This piece has already traveled to New York, it was insured for up to EUR 1 million." The bowl has been dated to 540 BC. They even know who the artist was. The black-figure decorations stem from the hand of the so-called Amasis painter.

Tours, exhibits, teaching projects

Schollmeyer has more to show: the fine workmanship of a bronze handle on a drinking vessel from the 6th century BC and a prize amphora, made as a kind of trophy to be awarded to a winner in the Panathenaic Games held in honor of Athena.

"Have you seen enough?" asks Schollmeyer again. Not really, there is still so much to see.

But luckily the Classical Archaeology collections are regularly on display. There are guided tours, exhibitions, and unique teaching projects where students learn how to display the pieces for the public. Most other university collections can only dream of being so active.

The School of Vision

"You shouldn't underestimate the aura of an original object," says Schollmeyer. He is not only talking about the treasures he has just presented. He pauses once again before saying goodbye: "A 'School of Vision' will be created here soon." This will take the form of a room with a glass wall so that all the highlights of all the university's collections can be put on display. The Friends of Mainz University are giving EUR 250,000 to support the project.

"It will be like a shop window", says Schollmeyer happily. This will mean that the collections will finally attract the attention of passers-by on this central artery of the campus, opening a new chapter in their eventful history.