In the Fine Arts Museum of Havana an exhibition on oil culture
That imprint was meticulously caught by a team of curators from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Fine Arts Museum) (MNBA in Spanish) who made up the exhibition Oil culture in Antiquity, in which people might appreciate the importance it has had not just for feeding but also for the making of perfumes and cosmetics, the funerary and religious rites, the lighting of houses and even in sports competition.
To assist then to the exhibition becomes then an educational encounter with ancient and attractive cultures such as the Egyptian, Sumerian, Greco-roman; a space that is presented as a visual encyclopaedia for our curious eyes, whose illustrators could meet Achilles or see how they placed the uppermost block of the pyramids.
Among the pieces stands out the well preserved black-figure pottery that placed in the center of the room, recovers its trophy value and becomes the center of every sight. With the same admiration –and even with some envy- must it have been observed in ancient Greece, held in the strong arms of the winning athlete, not precisely by the beautiful decoration that perpetuated the competitive specialty in which the athlete had won, but because the container was filled with the oil extracted from the five sacred trees of Athena, the loving patron saint of the city.
The product of the olives was so important for the life of the Greeks that when the Goddess –according to the mythology- granted them the first one, they did not hesitate to build her temples all around, including the Parthenon, and to celebrate in her name every four years these games called panathena.
During sports training people could see young men greasing their naked body with olive oil and taking it off, after the exercises with an instrument with which they would eliminate the layer of dirt from the skin. This instrument also appears in the exhibition accompanied by a sponge and a small dish that contained the oil; a perfect triad invented by the Greeks in order not to elude, since they had no soap, their personal hygiene.
The ancient black-figure pottery is undoubtedly one of the most attractive pieces of the exhibition. In those ancient times beauty standards saw shiny skin as something good, something that has been recovered in our times by actors and supermodels from the star system to sell sensuality of muscle and sweat. However, in ancient times, shiny skin was seen as one of the highest expressions of being clean and it was common to show smeared beards or to receive the guests by washing their feet of the dust of the road and greasing them finally with the soft liquid.
Women enjoyed a whole make up set made up by lotions, ointments and creams made of course from natural oils; and they held it so highly that many kept it as part of their marriage dowry. That is why, also from ancient times, perfume has been kept in small bottles, of which people might be able to appreciate a beautiful selection of small bottles made out of alabaster, clay and blown glass in the Universal Art Building.
Oil was also used as an odoriferous in the Egiptian pyramids, where despite the great efforts of the embalmers to prevent the decomposition of their kings, the real smell should have not been to attractive. This may be very clearly perceived in a funerary relieve that represents two women with huge oil cones on their heads to scent the environment while they offered libations.
Yet another one of the great benefits of oil was undoubtedly, the illumination of houses, using simple lamps with a closed spout to place the wick and a huge belly to store the fuel. In the collection seen in the Fine Arts there are different copies, even though they maintain the primary design that reminds us of the wonder of Aladdin; there are also some small clay pieces and another one that stands on its feet, which was made out of metal.
There were many uses given to the wonderful liquid by the ancient people, it was even used as a balm for the wounds by its well known medicine virtues. It was also told that the heroic Jason, leader of the Argonauts, could only get the much wanted golden fleece if he greased the horns of two bulls with bronze feet that threw fire through their mouth; while King Solomon gave the monarch from Tirus, every year in pay for the services offered by their men, twenty thousand oil batos, being a bato more or less thirty litres.
The oil culture of Antiquity, which may be seen until June 14 does not overlooks related themes such as the olive growth, the different types of oils that were exploited in every region and the plants from which it was extracted.
These are all elements that come together, including cruets, small amphora and different recipients in order to make us part of a latent culture, even though it is far away in time; which makes us thinking about something as slippery as oil.