January 29 , 2007
by allison germaneso dixon
Though not an art historian or an archaeologist, Carl Holladay, professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, describes biblical artifacts with the eloquence of a born curator. One such piece he describes with particular zeal, a Greek inscription in stone from the Temple that forbids non-Jews from proceeding past the balustrade that surrounds the Temple’s inner court.
The inscription is one of more than 100 artifacts from the renowned Israel Museum in Jerusalem that will be on view in a landmark Michael C. Carlos Museum exhibition, “Cradle of Christianity: Jewish and Christian Treasures from the Holy Land,” from June 16 through Oct. 14. The exhibit traces the shared roots of Judaism and Christianity through significant artifacts and ancient texts from the time of Jesus Christ through the seventh century.
“There are only two such inscriptions in existence and one of them will be right here at Emory,” Holladay said. “I’m teaching a graduate seminar in the fall — The Jewish World in the Time of the Second Temple Period — which will be strongly shaped by this exhibition. Student access to these artifacts is unbelievable.”
Like Candler theologians before him, Holladay is eager to share physical evidence of life in biblical times. “I have always understood and appreciated that part of Emory’s tradition and how important the material world is in terms of what we do — interpreting texts and teaching,” Holladay said. “Through artifacts we can see things we can’t fully experience just by reading texts.”
He believes the exhibition holds great opportunities for exploration by non-specialists as well, and will connect with people in the Emory community, Atlanta and the Southeast.
“Religious traditions that streamed out of Palestine and the surrounding region have dramatically shaped our culture — the sheer cultural importance of these religions makes it imperative for people to be informed about what these buildings, artifacts and symbols meant,” he said. “And aesthetically, there’s a sheer fascination with the objects themselves. These are stunning artifacts people travel across the world to see.”
In the art world, artifacts of such stature are dubbed “pilgrimage pieces” and continue to contribute to Emory’s vision as a destination university. In keeping with that goal, the Carlos Museum’s curators have been working to acquire the highest quality works for its permanent collections. Recent successes include a national-headline-grabbing Roman sculpture of Aphrodite that once belonged to Napoleon’s art minister and an oversized marble head of a female Greek deity.
Begun in the 1920s with former Emory professor William Arthur Shelton’s expeditions and expanded with the purchase of a group of objects from a Niagara Falls museum in 1999, the Museum has formed a remarkable collection of ancient Egyptian coffins, which are among its most popular attractions. The collection is strengthened by the gift of a very rare coffin of the early New Kingdom (ca. 1500 BC). Few coffins such as this one have survived from antiquity; there are probably less than a dozen to be found worldwide. As the tombs of the New Kingdom were often quite prominent in the landscape and richly provisioned with burial gifts, they were frequently robbed and the coffins in them destroyed.
Purchased this past November, two outstanding engravings by the Renaissance painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer are the most recent additions to the Museum’s works on paper collection, Adam and Eve (1504) and The Virgin with Swaddled Child (1520). In the collection of sub-Saharan African art, the museum has been fortunate to receive several gifts of major pieces that will fuel discovery on African culture and beliefs, including an Itrokwu society mask in the form of an elephant (called “king of mask spirits” by its owners) from the Idoma in Nigeria and a striking brass processional cross used in Christian rituals in Ethiopia in the late 18th century. Museum designers are hard at work creating a new presentation of these works in renovated galleries to open Nov. 20.