ROM exhibit light on Christianity

  • February 22, 2008

{mosimage}In the spiritual and intellectual adventure that has brought humankind to the present moment, no place has played a more influential role than the Middle East.

Westerners, especially Christians, owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Greece and Rome; but the deepest roots of our religion and culture lie in the crescent of land between Iran and the eastern Mediterranean. Agriculture was invented there. The first cities arose there, and from one of these urban civilizations, about 2,000 BC, Abraham emerged and fathered the Israelites. The Middle East was the setting of Israel’s wanderings, of the life of Jesus, of the beginnings of the church — and, a few centuries later, the rise of Islam and its sweeping conquest of the region.

No single display of historical artifacts could do justice to the immensely creative cultures of this small area. But the Royal Ontario Museum’s new Wirth Gallery of the Middle East, which opened in mid-February, offers the public an intriguing sampler of the ROM’s treasures from western Asia.

Named after Toronto investment counsellor and ROM patron Alfred G. Wirth, the 376-square-metre gallery holds 1,000 objects made throughout the tenure of humankind in the Middle East. Possibly the earliest is a stone hand-axe, found on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, that could have been made as long ago as 1.65 million BC. One of the most recent artifacts is an elaborately decorated Torah case created in 1907 in Iraq.

These things, and all in between, are presented in themed groups, including “Arms and Armour,” a fascinating section on “Documents and Writing,” and, inevitably, “Ancient Spirituality and Religion.” In the last-named category, we meet the gods of the most ancient Middle Eastern people: the water-deity Enki, from the city of Ur (c. 2,200 BC), whose worship Abraham might have witnessed; and an earthenware sculpture (Syrian, 4,000-3,000 BC) of the mysterious Great Mother, whose cult seems to belong to the earliest glimmerings of religious faith in the region. (The step taken by Abraham from his old polytheistic culture, which was saturated with adoration of the Great Mother, to the new worship of one, highly masculine God is among the most revolutionary moves in the history of religion.)

Occasionally an artifact in this display recalls something we know from Holy Scripture. The splendid glazed brick wall-relief of a striding lion is an old ROM favourite, and here again stands out: It is one of many lions that once adorned a ceremonial hall in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, around 600 BC — a ruler who destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem and carried off many Israelites (including the prophet Daniel). Indeed, Daniel might have laid eyes on this very ceramic relief, when standing before the king and interpreting his strange dreams.

But by and large, the ROM’s display contains relatively few illustrations of ancient Jewish rituals and beliefs, and even fewer artifacts from the life of the Christian community — even from the centuries when Christianity was the dominant religion of the Middle East. In what appears to be a nod to the contemporary status-quo in the region, the holdings in the Wirth Gallery are heavily weighted instead toward Islamic culture and history. Many of these Islamic artifacts are breathtakingly beautiful — especially the ceramics and examples of the development of Arabic writing. Yet we miss Byzantium — one of many empires that lost its bid to control the Middle East over the centuries, but not to be ignored for that reason.

While I appreciate what’s in the Wirth Gallery and the way the information is laid out — though some maps would be very welcome — I can’t recommend a visit on one of those days when you want to spend time, alone and undisturbed, with some beauty of the past. Daniel Libeskind’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, where the Wirth Gallery is located, is pierced top to bottom by a large hole called the Spirit House. The ROM, for some reason, has seen fit to insert a non-stop sound installation into the Spirit House that blasts right into the Wirth Gallery. It’s deafening at the worst of times and very annoying at the best. Time was when the ROM was a place of contemplation. Alas, it’s one no longer.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.