Juno — 13 feet, 13,000 pounds — has stood vigil on her second-floor perch at the Museum of Fine Arts since she was craned in through the roof in 2012. Rescued from a private back garden in Brookline, she assumed her rightful place in the public eye, the very largest classical sculpture anywhere in the country.
But her arrival here was hardly a homecoming. Positioned, carefully, in the only spot in the building that could take her weight, Juno found herself surrounded by Egyptian art from the old kingdom. Remarkable stuff, sure — 4,500-year-old busts from the reign of kings Khufu and Khafra, a ruddy ribcage-up sculpture of Prince Ankhhaf, just as ancient. But Juno, queen of the Roman gods and a relative youth at nearly 2,000, was a misfit. There she stood for a half-dozen years before the entire wing of the museum shut down in 2019 for a long-planned do-over. So last month, when it finally reopened, Juno hadn’t come home so much as home had finally come to her.
She hadn’t moved an inch, of course, but the gallery she’s long occupied has traded its old mustard walls for sky-blue. A 6-foot clerestory cut into ceiling high above invites natural light. And most important are her new gallery-mates: Hercules and Athena and Apollo and Zeus, Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, her natural kin.
“We call this room ‘Mount Olympus,’” said Christine Kondoleon, the MFA’s chair of the Art of Ancient Greece and Rome, half-joking. The metaphor works: After a long climb, she and her team of curators had finally reached the summit. Kondoleon arrived at the MFA in 2001 with a plan to reinvigorate the galleries housing the museum’s languishing Greek and Roman collections, of which “Mount Olympus” is only one (there are six more, four complete and two still to open).
All were in on-and-off states of partial closure for decades as the museum shuffled priorities everywhere else. It would take until 2012, and the discovery of Juno in Brookline, for the real planning to begin. Finally, in 2019, the entire wing closed, and the actual work started.
So nearly 21 years later, Kondoleon can be forgiven a moment of satisfaction and a critical look back. “The goal of my tenure has been to reawaken this sleeping giant,” she said. Juno, the misfit, was the catalyst. “Everything in that gallery was very strange, very confusing for the visitor. It was a makeshift solution. But it was denigrating to the objects. We have to enrich and present them in a way that shows we respect them. If we don’t, how can we expect the viewer to?”
This is no longer a problem. On a recent morning, Kondoleon and I walked the expanse of the museum’s refurbished wing, with visitors seeing the old spaces entirely anew. Juno’s gallery brimmed with show-stopping wonders: a marble bust of Zeus from the fourth century BCE, absent his nose, in the foreground; a full-body Roman bronze of Hercules from the first century BCE, his weary arm outstretched, swathed in a lion skin; Venus, Roman, second-century CE and missing her head, draped in folds of fabric so delicate and clingy that you’d swear they’d be wet to the touch. Beyond, the classical world from Greece to Rome unfolded in a chain of voluminous galleries chock-full of singular wonders as well as everyday things — more than 1,500 objects all told.
For the years it had been shuttered, the wing was like a ghost limb affixed to a vibrant and ever-changing institution. Having arrived in Boston not long before the closure, I was seeing these spaces for the very first time — a vast 15,000-square-foot swath of the building that I barely knew to exist.
Downstairs, a gallery of the museum’s remarkable holdings of Pyramid-age Egyptian art — many of them Juno’s companions on her arrival — opened last March, giving one of the museum’s foundational collections an airy, contemporary do-over. The renovation of the museum’s Greek and Roman galleries is much in the same vein. The largest space, devoted to Early Greek culture, is connected by a grand staircase to the Egyptian galleries which, until just a few weeks ago, led up to a walled-off landing. Now, everything is connected — in the museum as in the ancient world.
Juno’s room, meant to evoke a temple, is paralleled by a corridor display of Roman portraiture with dozens of sculptures of historic figures and everyday folks alike: a terrific, burly marble bust of Hadrian, from 130 CE, his square-jawed resolve framed by thick curls. A haunting full-figure marble of a priestess, enveloped in the folds of her flowing habit. An impish young boy, from 50 CE, missing his nose — common in antiquity; with marble, the nose is the first to go — glares devilishly at the viewer. In a glass case, a rare terra-cotta bust of an older man from the first century BCE is perfectly intact, as though made last week and not 2,000 years ago. The droop of his jowls and the sullen turn of his mouth make him look like someone’s grumpy uncle that you ran into at the supermarket. People are still people, despite thousands of years in between.
That’s at least part of the point of the new galleries, with contemporary art inserted here and there to make the link. (A cluster of works by Cy Twombly, spare and magnetic, occupies a generous space in the Early Greek Art galleries, the artist having been deeply inspired by classical motifs.) The galleries also have fundamental historical lessons to teach, which they do with a light touch, letting the objects speak for themselves.
Juno’s room gives way to an interlude of the Byzantine empire, its rise presided over by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Constantine had ended the Roman persecution of Christians, embracing the faith as legitimate and helping it to spread as far as Egypt and beyond. The gallery here, with its dark walls and golden disc suspended from the ceiling, is meant to evoke early Christian churches, which enjoyed their first building boom during Constantine’s rule.
At the heart of the room is a ravishing product of that vision: the towering Monopoli altarpiece, framing 15th-century panel paintings of the Virgin and Child, Saints Christopher, Augustine, John the Baptist, Stephen, Nicholas, and Sebastian in shimmering gold. Here, a quibble: A tall vitrine, with Byzantine devotional objects dangling, obscures what would otherwise be a jaw-dropping moment on entry, of a clear view of the altarpiece. (The jaw still drops, but only halfway until you get up close.)
A problem of too much remarkable material is a good one to have if you have the time and the space to indulge it. I’m now short on both, and it feels like we’ve barely begun. (You’ll have the same issue, unless you have several hours to spare; this is not a one-day visit.) So: A corridor leads from Rome and Byzantium to Greece, the length of it lined with so much awe-inspiring work that you could lose hours just getting from A to B. About that good problem: The text on the wall explains that Greek sculpture, the embodiment of the classical ideal 500 years before the Romans started to emulate it, is exceedingly rare in the world today; then it reels off a half-dozen exemplary works of it, including the enchanting Greek marble “Head of a goddess,” from 300 BCE. (Auguste Rodin was obsessed with it, and if you cross the building to the museum’s current “Monet and Rodin” show, you’ll find its direct descendent in his “Ceres,” from 1896.)
If you have days — days! — you can work your way through all of the lively gallery on Greek daily life, which includes objects like cups and urns and fish hooks and children’s toys. There’s also an array of ancient coins from the 8,000 in the museum’s collection spanning Greece and Rome. (A favorite: one from 43 BCE celebrating the murder of Julius Caesar by Brutus.) You can skip over to another gallery that details Greek theater and literature, and specifically the epic poems of Homer, as well as the Dionysian rituals of the Symposium, where debauchery and sex coupled with debates on poetry and philosophy were the amusements of the elite.
But reserve significant time for the Early Greek Art gallery, with its stairs curling down to the Egyptian pyramid age. Tracking from the ninth to fifth centuries BCE, the gallery, with a clerestory much like the one above Juno’s head, lays a foundation for the classical period that seeded Rome and much of Western culture beyond it. It shows quick evolution: From crude geometric patterning on pots and amphoras to the supple lines of a headless funerary sphinx perched on a tall pedestal, it captures a civilization in fast forward. There are wonders of every scale: the tiny bronze figure of the Mantiklos “Apollo,” stiff and crude, from 700 BCE, and a same-size effigy of Hermes carrying a ram, strong-limbed and sure, from just 200 years later. High above, arrayed in an archway, are the giant stone reliefs that once decorated the base of the pediment of the Temple of Athena at Assos in modern-day Turkey.
Together, the works portray a sprawling empire over the course of 400 formative years, poised to ascend to the heights of its cultural achievement. They squire you through the steps along that path, too many to mention here. It is, to put it simply, a lot — and much of it extraordinary. So plan accordingly. Pack a lunch. Maybe a tent. This will take a while. It’s worth it.
ART OF ANCIENT GREECE, ROME AND THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
Permanent collection. The Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org