Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings brings together nearly 60 elaborate vessels of animal shape from collections in the United States and Europe. While the songs, speeches, and prayers that enlivened ancient feasts are now largely lost to us, these vessels have survived, offering a glimpse into the rich symbolism and communal practices that found expression at these gatherings. Taking animal-shaped vessels as performative props in the multifaceted world of feasting, the exhibition not only introduces the social and ceremonial functions of these ritual occasions, but also highlights the essential and universal role played by food and drink—and by the highly imaginative containers used to enjoy these refreshments.
The exhibition includes vessels in the shape of standing or reclining animals, animal-headed cups and beakers, drinking horns, and animated pitchers. Various creatures, real and imagined, give these objects their shapes: powerful bulls and rams, majestic lions and mythical griffins, wild boars and goats, deer and gazelles, graceful birds, and braying donkeys, among others. Assembling such a range of vessels for the first time, the exhibition presents a cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary examination of how they spanned geography and time, across three continents and over three millennia. The international menagerie of drinking and pouring vessels vividly illustrates not just how shapes and artistic forms crossed borders, but how ideas as well were exchanged among cultures—tangible evidence of close contact and the intermingling of traditions.
Beyond their role in ritual and ceremonial drinking, animal-shaped vessels functioned variously as diplomatic gifts and tribute, the spoils of war, offerings to deities and the dead, and exotic objects of trade; they also were prized and emulated as symbols of status and prestige. Each object in the exhibition is a compelling animal study in itself, with a wealth of information embedded in its material, shape, and decoration. Many were made of rare or innovative materials—including gold, silver, bronze, glass, faience, and horn—and at the hands of skilled artists. They conveyed important information about their liquid contents and the nature of a gathering, but were also markers of social stature, identity, etiquette, and shared values.
Most of the objects in the exhibition belong to a tradition of animal-shaped drinking and pouring vessels that persisted in the Near East and the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age in the third and second millennia BCE to the advent of Islam in the seventh century; this tradition eventually extended all the way to China, via the Silk Road. Select animal-shaped vessels from other cultures and periods—including East Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America—provide further points of comparison. In addition to the vessels, the exhibition features several related objects (paintings and sculpture) with ancient and modern representations of feasts. More than 20 domestic and international institutions have generously lent objects to the exhibition, including the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford University), the British Museum (London), the Louvre (Paris), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), and the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston).
The exhibition, curated by Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art and head of the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at the Harvard Art Museums, is accompanied by a full catalogue edited by Ebbinghaus.
An online digital feature hosted on the museums’ website at hvrd.art/animals provides visitors with expanded multimedia content on the history of feasting and drinking practices in the ancient world, as well as further details on the material history of these one-of-a-kind vessels.
Crucial support for the Animal-Shaped Vessels project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. In addition, the Harvard Art Museums are deeply grateful to the anonymous donor of a gift in memory of Melvin R. Seiden and to Malcolm H. Wiener (Harvard A.B. ’57, J.D. ’63) and Michael and Helen Lehmann for enabling us to mount this exhibition and to pursue the related research. This work was also made possible in part by the following endowed funds: the David M. Robinson Fund; the Andrew W. Mellon Publication Funds, including the Henry P. McIlhenny Fund; and the M. Victor Leventritt Fund, which brings outstanding scholars of the history and theory of art to the Harvard and Greater Boston communities through the generosity of the wife, children, and friends of the late M. Victor Leventritt, Harvard Class of 1935.
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Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition and its related book and programming do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.