CHICAGO — Amazing treasures from almost 2,000 years ago show a time where Christianity briefly thrived alongside ancient gods and goddesses.
"Of Gods and Glamour: Late Roman and Early Byzantine Treasures from the British Museum" is on display through August at the Art Institute of Chicago, which already boasts thousands of treasures from those eras.
The first thing you see in the exhibit is an undoubted treasure: a sparkling silver accessories box possibly given to wealthy Romans Projecta and Secundus for their wedding about 350 years after Christ.
"The Projecta Casket" shows a mix of cultures, at a period when the Romans first tried to eradicate Christianity, then institutionalized Christianity, then tried to rid itself of pagan Gods who had been worshipped for a millennium in the area.
Christina Nielsen, a curator in the Art Institute's Ancient and Byzantine Art department who also teaches at the University of Chicago, notes that two belief systems seemed to be peacefully coexisting in the box.
Prominent is a portrait of Venus, the hedonistic love goddess of Rome and Greece (where she was called Aphrodite).
Also prominent, around the rim, is the Latin inscription SECVNDE ET PROIECTA VIVATIS IN CHRISTO ("Secundus and Projecta, may you live in Christ").
Neilsen said the silver treasure might have been a wedding present.
It shows Projecta in her bathhouse, with her servants holding mirrors that might have been stored in the casket.
Dated by the British Museum at about 380 A.D., the casket shows that the Emperor Constantine's conversion of Rome to Christianity had a few bumps along the Roman road.
In Constantine's time, he humbly named a city in what is now Turkey is his honor.
Constantinople replaced Rome as the imperial capital, other nations sacked Rome in the 5th century, Christianity became the official imperial religion, and Greek eclipsed Latin as the official administrative language, according to the British Museum notes.
Also dazzling are a great variety of gold coins from both the Western empire and the Eastern empire, which show the gradual rise of Christian worship as Jesus himself begins to appear on the coins, called solidi.
Nielsen also points out as a highlight the Lycurgus Cup, a rare glass (jewelry) objet d'art to survive vandals and the literal Vandals to come to our time with only minor chips.
The cup appears green in reflected light but turns a brilliant red when light is transmitted through it, thanks to the addition of gold and silver particles to the molten glass, the British Museum notes.
In the Art Institute's permanent collection of Ancient and Byzantine Art are works spanning nearly 4,000 years from ancient Near Eastern, Byzantine, Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman cultures.
One of Nielsen's favorites that mirrors the Projecta Casket is a contemporary marble bust of a woman that is beautiful without the use of precious metals or stones.
If you go
What: "Of Gods and Glamour: Late Roman and Early Byzantine Treasures from the British Museum"
When: Through Aug. 25
Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 11 S. Michigan Ave.
Hours: Open daily 10:30 to 5 p.m.; Thursday until 8 p.m.
Tickets: $23 general admission; discounts available for residents, seniors and students; children under 14 get in free
More information: 312-443-3600; http://www.artic.edu