The Tombs of Paestum – Exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau Berlin

Martin-Gropius-Bau Berlin

Painting for Eternity.
The Tombs of Paestum
Exhibition > 28 September 2008

The Berliner Festspiele in cooperation with the Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg.

The paintings of classical antiquity remain one of the most fascinating and
mysterious subjects in the history of European art. At Paestum, south of Pompeii,
with the Lucanian tombs a treasure trove was preserved, which is now being
presented for the first time in an exhibition.

Mounting of the Exhibition
© Bucerius Kunst Forum
Photo: Ulrich Perrey

The Martin-Gropius-Bau dedicates an exhibition to these rare examples of ancient tomb art. Around 45 painted tomb slabs of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Paestum will be shown at the exhibition in Berlin, including seven complete tombs.

The extremely heavy slabs will be reassembled for the exhibition into three-dimensional tombs for the first time since their discovery, allowing the paintings to be seen in their original context. Visitors have the unique opportunity to look into the tombs and receive a sense of their composition and size. Simultaneously, the life of a long-vanished culture unfolds, depicting battle scenes, sports events and competitions as well as the burial rites of the Lucani, an Italian tribe which lived in the former Greek colony of Paestum around 400 B.C.. Exhibiting the tombs in their entirety gives insight into the way the paintings were developed:

Following the death, the slabs, plastered in limestone, were lowered into the earth and painted by the artists in the narrow tomb cavity within just a few hours. The burial probably took place on the same day and the tombs were then sealed. Thus the pictures in the tombs were removed from the sight of the living, destined to accompany the deceased in the afterlife.

One can see mounted men returning home to be greeted by women with a welcoming drink, as well as the laying out of the body surrounded by mourners, musicians and scenes of sacrifice. Observed by judges, the funeral games depicted can be violent and even bloody, portraying javelin competitions, chariot races around a victory column or boxing matches held to the sound of flutes. Genre-like scenes such as stag and panther hunts are also pictured. In addition to mythical beasts such as sphinxes and griffins, mythical figures of water nymphs riding seahorses appear – a reference to the isle of the blessed. The rooster as a symbol of fertility and pomegranates as symbols of eternal life give insight into the Lucani’s world of imagery.

Tomb of the Skewbald
Men’s Tomb
around 340 B.C., 65 x 153 cm
© Bucerius Kunst Forum
Photo: Christoph Irrgang, Hamburg

Tomb of the Great Dead (Detail)
Wohl Women’s Tomb
around 320 B.C., 81 x 220 cm
© Bucerius Kunst Forum
Photo: Christoph Irrgang, Hamburg

Vase of Aphrodite
Paestanic red figured, painted over
Aphrodite Painter, height 91.5 cm
© Bucerius Kunst Forum
Photo: Christoph Irrgang, Hamburg

In addition to the decorative paintings in the burial chambers, the dead were also given numerous burial objects to see them on their way. Valuable vases, armaments and other objects which have been found in the respective tombs complement the exhibition and complete our insight into the civilization, life and death of a long vanished age. Visitors to the exhibition enter a necropolis that gives impressive evidence for how the Lucani honoured their dead.

The second part of the exhibition is dedicated to depictions of the ancient temples of Paestum in the visual arts between 1750 and 1850. A concentrated selection of around 55 paintings, etchings, drawings, watercolors and architectural treatises depict the many-faceted views of Paestum, which has become a part of Europe’s cultural heritage since the mid 18th century.

Poseidon Temple
Giovanni Battista Piranesi
The Poseidon Temple from the Northeastern Direction with the Basilica
preparatory drawing, 50.2 x 69.3 cm
© John Soane’s Museum, London

Hera Temple in Paestum
Leo von Klenze (1784–1864)
The Older Hera Temple in Paestum [Basilica], 1859
oil on canvas, 83.5 x 64 cm
labelled at b.r.: Leo von Klenze 59
Private ownership, Cologne

The spectrum stretches from the classical vedute of Antonio Joli to the fascinating etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, including his important preparatory drawings, a selection that will be seen for the first time in Germany. It incorporates impressions recorded by the German-Roman Jakob Philipp Hackert; Goethe’s artistic mentor, Christoph Heinrich Kniep and the French Romantic Hubert Robert in their paintings, followed by the precise architectural surveys published by Friedrich von Gärtner, Leo von Klenze, Thomas Major and Saint-Non in their travel journals, published etchings and architectural treatises.

Painting for Eternity The Tombs of Paestum, Publications of the Bucerius Kunst Forum, Edited by Ortrud Westheider and Michael Philipp, Hirmer Verlag Munich,
approx. 224 pages with 150 color images, Berlin 2008
Edition of the exhibtion: VP € 23,00 / ISBN 978-3-7774-4275-4 / German
Edition of the bookshop: VP € 34,90 / ISBN 978-3-7774-3745-3 / German

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