My Visit to the Art Institute of Chicago

On Thursday, at the invitation of my neighbor, I had the pleasure of visiting the Art Institute of Chicago. It opens until late on Thursdays. I had not had dinner and we were hungry, so we did not see the whole collection, but we may come back at some point. I want to see the African and Japanese collections: this time I focused on the Southeast Asian and Mediterranean collections, and the Medieval collection which reminded me of Game of Thrones, and included Christian art–mostly displays of suffering, unhappy human figures with saintly auras.

The above piece is a bronze of Lord Ganesha, who in recent years inspired the creation of a Hindu solstice festival known as Pancha Ganapati. They figured since Blacks have Kwanzaa, Jews have Hannukah, Christians have Christmas, Pagans have Yule, and Humanists and atheists have Humanlight, why not give Hindu children gifts and sweets while staying true to their own tradition?

There were many decorated fish plates with a sauce bowl embedded in the center, all Greek. This design makes a lot of sense. Typically fish in the Mediterranean was cooked in olive oil, and the drippings would have been great to soak bread in.

Here one can see a satyr in beautiful detail, which reminded me of the satyrs that helped educate and teach humans the arts and cultivation of grape, etc. in Revolt of the Angels. I love the freedom and innocence of the ancients. Later generations would have considered his erect phallus and his grin to be pornography or obscenity, but to the ancients the satyr was art, nature, playfulness and innocence.

Below we see a beautiful, heroic bust of Hercules, exuding manly confidence and wearing the head of the Nemean lion.

Below we see Aphrodite of Knidos. Or what remains of her. Many of the pieces in the museum were made around 2,000 years ago, and some (mainly the Egyptian ones) were much older.

Below is the bust of Marcus Aurelius Caesar, the Philosopher King known for having ruled Rome and for having written the Meditations. He was a Stoic. The bust has a very dignified presence.

Speaking of dignified: this bust of Athena, the Goddess of philosophy and wisdom, was missing its nose–like many other ancient pieces–but was still magnificent. Her helmet reminded me of the ape army from Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes movie.

Here is the piece that made my day: I was able to take a close-up picture of Antinous, the lover of the Spanish-born Roman Emperor Hadrian. He drowned in the Nile, was then deified by the Egyptian priests, and the emperor built him a holy city on the banks of the Nile. The emperor promoted the cult everywhere, and commissioned so many busts and sculptures of his likeness, that Antinous became one of the best preserved faces from antiquity.

The above bust is in the Egyptian style, with Antinous merged into the deity of Osiris. Below is another bust of Antinous, this one fully Greek as an ephebe, or youth. The hairstyle is typical of Antinous busts.

Trivia: Antinous makes an appearance towards the final scenes of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant novel American Gods: A Novel, fighting on the side of the old gods with an entourage of leather men. Neil Gaiman is one of the most brilliant fantasy writers of our generation. He’s responsible for the Lucifer Morningstar character that inspired the TV series Lucifer, for the Sandman mythos, and many other novels and stories. Throughout his work, we see time and again a depiction of the existential state of contemporary, urban American society juxtaposed with ancient mythical characters, which produces an interesting interaction. It has always seemed to me that Gaiman is seeking to use old myths to re-enchant the modern post-Christian world, which has lost so much of its meaning and myth.

If you’re interested in both Epicurean philosophy and in the history of art, you may enjoy the book The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece. Since Epicureans were a missionary philosophy but did not preach in the public eye, they had a passive model of recruitment that relied on strategically placed imagery and sculptures (although, in later times, Diogenes of Oenoanda built a Wall Inscription to recruit new Epicureans). An image speaks a thousand words. This resulted in an Epicurean style that sought to convey the desirable traits of a philosopher, a sage, and a healer through the media of sculpture, in the hopes that people would feel compelled by the presence of the sculpture to visit the Garden and inquire about the philosophy. The book also contains detailed analyses of ancient art pieces, and goes into detail about the psychology of conversion.

Further Reading:

The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece
American Gods: A Novel

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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