What happens after we die? Various religions tend to rely on a certain moral equation: If you are good in this world, the next world will be kind to you; but if you are bad in this world, you can expect torment for eternity.
Things were not nearly so cut and dried in the 4th century B.C., when the Greeks were trying to understand the fate of humans after they shuffled off this mortal coil. There was no heaven or hell, only a place called the Underworld, ruled by Hades and his wife, Persephone.
The very worst sinners suffered a tortured fate, while the rest of the dead just had to figure out how to get along in this rather dark and uninspiring realm. If you were really well-connected — to a god, for example — then you might be able to expect a truly extravagant afterlife.
So goes the story in “Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife,” an exhibit on view at the Getty Villa in Malibu through March 18. Featuring more than 30 objects from the ancient world, the exhibit examines a pivotal point in Greek history when people were beginning to wonder about ways they could improve their lot in the next life.
There are no hard-and-fast answers to that question, says exhibit curator David Saunders, who is also associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
“I would love for a time machine to go back,” Saunders says. “Talking about the ancient world is always difficult, given how scarce our literary resources are. And the afterlife is so bound up with anxieties and fears, so we don’t have concrete examples of how people felt.”
But we do have art. The exhibit is centered on a monumental funerary vessel — or krater — that dates to the middle of the 4th century B.C. and was found in fragments in 1847. The Getty just finished a two-year process of conservation that helped correct some of the restoration mistakes made in the 19th century.
The krater was found in Altamura in southeastern Italy, which was inhabited in ancient times by the Apulians, who buried their dead with a variety of pottery and earthly goods in addition to these elaborate vessels. This is one of the largest that Saunders knows of, and is almost 6 feet tall. It would have been made for an important member of society.
The Apulians were deeply entwined with Greek culture, and their funerary vases were often decorated with scenes from Greek myth and drama.
The krater from Altamura, says Saunders, “is almost like a movie poster of who’s who down in Hades.”
It is decorated with more than 20 mythological figures, including Hades and Persephone, the musician Orpheus, the hero Herakles, the messenger god Hermes, and Sisyphus, who is famous for being made to roll a massive boulder up a steep hill for eternity.
These images are telling for the way the characters are depicted, as well as for who exactly is shown. They provide a lens into the thinking about the Underworld during that period of history.
“It’s a tour de force of potting and painting,” Saunders says of the krater. “A really high-end high status grave good.”
These burial offerings were intended to help the deceased navigate the afterlife. They symbolized how people were beginning to formulate elaborate plans for how to improve their chances of happiness in eternity. Of particular interest in this context are a series of rare gold tablets engraved with detailed descriptions about how to navigate the otherworldly realm.
“These gold tablets are hugely interesting,” Saunders says of the small, wafer-thin leaves of gold. “They have written inscriptions guiding people where to go and what to do in the Underworld — a sort of manual; in these descriptions, the deceased has to take the right path to the underworld and drink of this spring and not of this spring.”
These tablets also would have been buried with important and connected people who were traveling in esoteric circles of people actively contemplating the perils and possibilities of the next life.
Orpheus emerges as a central figure in the imagery of the time — so much so that an entire section of the exhibit is devoted to him. The Underworld was not considered to be a place you could ever leave, yet Orpheus did just that when he traveled there to retrieve his wife, Eurydice. The quest did not turn out well for Orpheus, but he returned from the Underworld, nonetheless, as a hero of the afterlife.
“He was the kind of person to provide that instruction as to where to go and what to do,” Saunders says of the Greek fascination with Orpheus. “In this show, I don’t have all the answers, but there’s a lot of really exciting research going on. This exhibition is a great opportunity to bring some of the key evidence together and talk about interesting details.”
“Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife”
Where: The Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades
When: Through March 18
Price: Free; a timed-entry ticket is required; parking is $15 per car, $10 after 3 p.m.
Info: (310) 440-7300 or getty.edu/visit/villa/