In 1976, the Farm Winery Act was enacted in New York State, inspiring a host of wine making pioneers to start wineries in the Finger Lakes region.  This wave of agriculture has led to increased economic development for the region as well as a renaissance in Western New York’s culinary arts and a boost to regional travel and tourism.

Vessel with Two Feet, Red clay, 1000-800 BCE, Northern Iran

Vessel with Two Feet, Red clay, 1000-800 BCE, Northern Iran

So when Wine and Spirit – Rituals, Remedies and Revelry opened at the Memorial Gallery on January 30, it seemed such a fitting exhibit for this region, I was anxious to see it.  The beautifully-curated show did not disappoint.

Wine and Spirit takes us on a guided tour of almost 8,000 years of wine, including the mystique it has held throughout civilization. We see  the diversity of the drink’s uses,  the vessels associated with it, as well as the art and sculpture that celebrated or denounced it, depending on popular attitude of the time.  

One of my favorite sections displays the vessels used in the storage, mixing and serving of wine throughout history.  One container on view was discovered in northwestern Iran and is datable to 5400-5000 BCE. This simple clay wine jar offers the earliest-known evidence of a fermented grape drink, and it corresponds with archeological evidence regarding biblical accounts of the great flood and of Noah having planted the first vineyard on the nearby Ararat mountains.

In this section it struck me that, not only can “cult of the grape” and how it was served, stored and imbibed be traced, but the works also clearly illustrate how artistic expression, culture and mores changed over time.  In Greece, there were six different names for the style of vessels used, and the Romans had over 300 types of wine vessels and utensils.  The exhibit contains many beautiful examples of these wine containers, including the humorous Vessel with Two Feet (1000-800 BCE), the delicately-painted

Red-figured Kylix with Symposium Scene, Greece, ca. 480 BCE

Red-figured Column Krater with Muffled Dancers (450-440 BCE) and the ornate Red-figured Kylix with Symposium Scene (Greek, ca. 480 BCE).

We learn how wine figures prominently into early religion. The Greek God of Wine, Dionysus, whose complex personality included a violent temperament as well as a penchant for dancing, bestowing riches and a reputation for being a lavish lover. This deity attracted a large following that spread across the ancient world.  In Rome, Dionysus became Bacchus – again associated with wine – and Roman authors expounded on his tales, turning the previously rugged, elder, masculine god into a more youthful and androgenous figure.

Wine also played an integral role, both metaphorically and spiritually, in Christianity.  Christ turns water into wine at his first miracle that took place at the wedding in Cana. Wine becomes the “blood of Christ” in rituals that take place during Christian worship across the world, symbolizing salvation through Christ’s transformation of bread and wine into body and blood at the Last Supper

The Last Supper by Niccolò di Tommaso

On view as part of the exhibit is one particularly vibrant and beautiful panel entitled The Last Supper by Niccolò di Tommaso (ca. 1365) that shows Christ dining among his disciples.  In another case, an ancient coffret is imbued with a print portraying the crucifixion of Christ where his blood is depicted as flowing into the chalice that would have been cosseted within the box.

The exhibit also clearly shows how secular attitude toward wine changed over time.  In early uses, it was accepted belief that wine encouraged fellowship and led to insights associated with the intellectual, artistic and spiritual realm. Wine, and even its over-indulgence, was an integral part of many gatherings. Several Greek Symposium vases show groups of men in discourse, while dining, drinking wine and even partaking in a variety of commonly-accepted erotic activities.

Still Life with Roemer and Pheasant by Pieter Claesz

Following John Calvin’s Reformation, particularly in 17th-century northern Europe, wine consumption became suspect, even censored.  Parody, wit and satire tended to find their way into images portraying drunkeness, gluttony, temptation and sexual debauchery that become associated with wine.  In an etching called “The Election” by William Hogarth (1755),  politicos, shown in various stages of revelry and over-indulgence, fall under severe but humor-filled artist’s scrutiny.

The exhibit also displays several exquisitely-painted allegorical still lifes, or vanitas, that depict the phrase memento mori, or the contemplation of mortality. Wine is portrayed as a central agent of temptations that must be renounced.

The exhibit also explores the therapeutic role of wine in medicine, wine being the liquid base into which plants were historically mixed to treat a variety of physical ailments. Wounded Zoave, a salt print photograph from 1856 by Roger Fenton, shows a soldier being given a drink from a wine bottle. 

Puzzle Jug with Philyra and Saturn in the Form of a Horse

Puzzle Jug with Philyra and Saturn in the Form of a Horse

Another of my favorite pieces, Puzzle Jug with Philyra and Saturn in the Form of a Horse demonstrates the wit and humor associated with wine, particularly during the Renaissance.  Puzzle jugs became popular during this period and the only way to partake of the wine without being covered in it was to solve the puzzle.  This particular piece has four flutes along the brim through which wine could flow as well as holes surrounding the entire bowl of the vase. I couldn’t help wonder if these puzzle jugs were the inspiration for the invention of today’s straw.

The exhibit closes with varied works by a handful of contemporary artists… Leonard Porter, Pablo Picasso, David Ligare, Arthur Bowan Davies and John Clem Clarke and other late 19th and early 20th century artists.   “Together these pictures remind us of the timelessness of wine in the Western imagination and its unique capacity to revive the human spirit.”
from the brochure for Wine and Spirit – Rituals, Remedies and Revelry)

You can indulge your visual and aesthetic senses at Wine and Spirit through April 10, 2011 at the Memorial Art Gallery, located  at 500 University Avenue, Rochester.  The museum is open Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m.–5 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m.–9 p.m. and is CLOSED Mondays, Tuesdays and major holidays.  Admission is  free to Members, University of Rochester students, and children 5 and under. General admission, $10; senior citizens, $6; college students with ID and children 6–18, $5. Half-price general admission Thursdays 5–9 p.m.

Please note:  The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, February 22 in celebration of the winter school break.

Memorial Art Gallery has adopted the following universally accepted year numbering system:
BCE, previously referred to as B.C., means “Before Common Era”
CE, previously referred to as A.D., means “Common Era”