MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife

Underworld

Funerary Vessel with Dionysos in the Underworld (detail), South Italian, made in Apulia, 350–325 BC, terracotta. Red-figure volute krater attributed to the Darius Painter. Toledo Museum of Art. Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, Florence Scott Libbey, and the Egypt Exploration Society, by exchange, 1994.19

Brilliant exhibition at the Getty Villa: Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife

The Underworld was a shadowy prospect for most ancient Greeks, characterized primarily by the absence of life’s pleasures. Perpetual torment awaited only the most exceptional sinners, while just a select few—heroes related to the Olympian gods—enjoyed an eternal paradise. Yet as this exhibition explores, individuals did seek ways to secure a blessed afterlife. Initiation in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual festival in Greece, promised good fortune in both this world and the next. Outside of mainstream religious practice, devotion to the mythical singer Orpheus and the god Dionysos also offered paths to achieving a better lot after death.

Some of the richest evidence for ancient beliefs about the afterlife comes from southern Italy, particularly indigenous sites in Apulia and the Greek settlement of Taras (present-day Taranto). Monumental funerary vessels are painted with elaborate depictions of Hades’s realm, and rare gold plaques that were buried with the dead bear directions for where to go in the Underworld. These works, alongside funerary offerings, grave monuments, and representations of everlasting banquets, convey some of the ways in which the hereafter was imagined in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

Filed under: art exhibition, classical art, Getty Villa

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