Art in the Year One

Article excerpt

In honor of the true beginning of the new millennium, the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers striking examples of world art from around a.d. 1, revealing the rich cultural variety and little-known interconnections active two thousand years ago.

The third millennium, as some might recall, actually began this year. Many museums mounted special exhibitions in 2000 to commemorate the calendric rite of passage, but some five years ago the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hit upon an idea to do something that others could not, given its own encyclopedic collection. "For the Met's celebration of the millennium, we decided to bring together art and objects from the major cultures that were flourishing around the year one," says Elizabeth Milleker, associate curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan.

"Originally, the idea was to do a show of Augustan Rome," recalls Milleker, "but we found that seven departments had art made in that period, so we expanded it from there." Indeed, The Year One: Art of the Ancient World East and West (on display through January 14, 2001) still begins with a display of the art and culture of Augustan Rome, but then spans beyond Europe to give us a taste of what life was like in Egypt, Iran, the Indian subcontinent, and East and Southeast Asia in the same period. Those cultures all had some contact with each other, but a pleasant surprise at the end of the show is the inclusion of art from the Americas.

Anno Domini

In 40 b.c. the poet Virgil wrote a prophecy of the coming golden age, heralded by a newborn child descended from on high:

"Ours is the crowning era foretold in prophecy:"

"Born of Time, a great new cycle of centuries"

"begins. Justice returns to earth, the Golden Age"

"returns, and its first-born comes down from heaven above."

Today we know that he was writing about four decades before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ child with whom we associate his prophecy. But Virgil himself was living in a different time frame altogether. In the Roman period, years were counted from the traditional founding of Rome and, under Augustus, from the first year he was consul. The idea to date time from anno domini (or a.d.), "in the year of our Lord"--supposedly the year in which Jesus Christ was born--was not introduced until 525. In a document prepared for Pope St. John I, Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, proposed the concept. However, the practice did not really take hold until the reign of Charlemagne in the eighth century.

Even more interesting is to realize that "b.c." (before Christ) is a much more recent invention; it dates from the seventeenth century. Today some people are trying to use the terms c.e. ("Common Era") and b.c.e. ("before the Common Era"), twentieth-century inventions made to escape the Christian connotations of a.d. and b.c.

In any case, anno domini dating is now world standard, and by universal consensus, we are now in the year 2001. Certain countries still keep track of their own method for year counting--the Japanese, for example, still count from the beginning of an emperor's reign, which puts them in year 13 of the Heisei calendar. At the same time, they acknowledge and commonly also use the Western standard of dating in public and private life.

To paint a picture of what life was like at the dawn of the Christian era, The Year One not only culls some 150 pieces of art and artifact from far-flung regions but tries to show connections between the cultures that produced them. The first connection is the territorial expansion of the Roman Empire under Augustus, the first Roman emperor, under whose reign (27 b.c. to a.d. 14) Rome's influence spread far and wide. Then there were the land and maritime trade routes. It is astonishing to think that the ancients had contact with one another over thousands of miles without the benefit of motorized vehicles, the telephone, or the Internet, but indeed the exchange of material goods-- such as silk from China, glass from Rome, and pepper from East India-- also provided exchange for culture, religion, and ideas. …