Myrtle Wreath: Use poetry and art to explore the Myrtle Wreath.

Myrtle Wreath Conversation Starter

Myrtle Wreath:Use this activity to learn more about this gold wreath from Ancient Greece and facilitate discussions with students.

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Connecting to the Work of Art

 This exquisite wreath of gold myrtle leaves and flowers was probably found in a tomb. For many years this work of art was identified as a laurel wreath.  Recent scholarship, however, indicates the leaves to be myrtle.  Myrtle, an aromatic evergreen, was a tree sacred to Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, and was thus a symbol of love.  Also associated with Hades, god of the underworld, myrtle was a symbol of death, making it an appropriate choice for a funerary wreath. Too fragile to have been worn, the wreath was probably placed in the tomb to symbolize the achievements of the deceased during his lifetime.

This myrtle wreath is a superb example of ancient naturalism.  The artist closely observed the myrtle leaves and flowers, then rendered them in gold.  The leaves and blossoms were cut from thin sheets of gold, finished with stamped or incised details, and attached to the gold circle with pieces of gold wire. Originally, beads of glass or semi-precious stones were fastened by a wire loop to the center of each blossom.

 This wreath is probably from Macedonia, a region in northern Greece famous as the home of Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great.  The conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. made the precious materials abundant in Asia Minor and Egypt available to Mediterranean craftsmen.  Trading systems that developed at this time continued to supply artists well into the first century A.D., and the flourishing of metalwork and jewelwork created new techniques that emphasized modeling and fine detailing.

 The few surviving gold wreaths of antiquity were found in tombs, where they served as grave offerings.  This wreath was reportedly found not far from Corinth in central Greece.  However, it appears to be of Macedonian workmanship. In the late 1970s, a Macedonian tomb was excavated at Vergina and a wreath very much like this was discovered.

 In ancient Greece, wearing wreaths made of real plants signified special accomplishments, such as success in athletic contests.  In the summer of 2004, the winning athletes of the Olympic Games in Athens wore olive wreaths as a symbol of victory and merit. Very similar in design to this myrtle wreath, the wreaths worn in 2004 are a direct reference to the laurel and olive wreaths presented to the victors of the ancient Olympic Games.