The ongoing pandemic has upended and suspended many routines and rituals that shape our perception of time, sense of order and stability, and feelings of belonging.
The selection of artworks below might prompt you to look around at home and ask: what are the objects that shape everyday practices and reflect traditions? How do they relate to the new rituals we’ve created to cope with current challenges? Are there other objects that have acquired new meaning in our present moment?
As Harvard philosopher Nelson Goodman (1906–1998) pointed out, art objects serve as symbols that help us understand the world around us. By establishing references, they enable us to construct spaces in which we can live meaningful lives. Goodman believed that art, and symbols, are indeed foundational. An ancient Mesopotamian copper statuette, which he donated to the Harvard Art Museums from his personal collection, offers tangible proof of Goodman’s insight. It had been literally inserted into the foundations of a building, likely in what is today southern Iraq, more than 4,000 years ago.
Rituals often mark special occasions, such as a significant construction project, or as an annual rite to pay respect to political leadership, as attested by the elaborate 17th-century print from Florence discussed below. A funerary ritual, which merges public and private spheres, may have been the context of display for the 12 Japanese bird-and-flower paintings featured in our Painting Edo special exhibition.
Everyday routines similarly help us navigate our lives at home, whether that is a moment of reflection with a cherished cup of tea or the more mundane practice of daily personal hygiene. Many artists represented in the Harvard Art Museums collections, past and present, would subscribe to Harvard president Larry Bacow’s encouragement to establish new rituals as we cope with unforeseen challenges. In fact, as the objects selected here demonstrate, artists have long been interested in rituals and routines; they will no doubt continue to invent and embellish them in the future, opening up new possibilities for understanding and making our lives more meaningful.
Imagine a chilly fall day, the scent of leaves and woodsmoke in the air. Now imagine your hands holding the bowl pictured above filled with frothy green tea, the opaque liquid emitting a curl of fragrant steam. Your pinky fingers detect the coarse stoneware foot, while your palms make contact with the smooth surface of the thick brown glaze. As you tip the bowl to take a sip, the delicate veins of a leaf are revealed.
Tea first entered China by the Tang dynasty (618–907) though Buddhist monasteries, where monks used the caffeinated beverage to sustain themselves through long sessions of meditation. The publication of the Classic of Tea (Cha Jing) by Lu Yu in the eighth century popularized the practice of tea drinking, and by the Song dynasty (960–1279), it had been taken up as a leisurely pastime. Bowls were collected and scrutinized, assessed for not only their craftsmanship but also their evocative decoration and texture.
This bowl was likely produced at the Jizhou kilns in Yonghezhen, Jiangxi province, during the Southern Song dynasty. The leaf was impressed into the body before it was submerged, rim first, into the unctuous glaze. During firing, the leaf was incinerated, leaving behind its ghostly impression, a faint reminder of the summer gone by.
Sarah Laursen, Alan J. Dworsky Associate Curator of Chinese Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art
With its octagonal silver body and scroll-shaped fruitwood handle, this teapot would have adorned an 18th-century tea table (and it looks nothing like my electric kettle). Among the standard British hallmarks on the bottom of the vessel is the mark of silversmith Abraham Buteux (“BV”), its maker, and two sets of initials presumably indicating former owners.
Imported from China by the British East India Company, tea was introduced to England in the mid-17th century and was considered a luxury commodity. In the 18th century, the ritual of boiling water, steeping the tea leaves, and sharing time with friends and acquaintances around a tea table took hold throughout the British Empire. Its popularity as a practice created a market for all kinds of useful wares designed specifically for its performance: tea kettles and caddies, cups and saucers, tea tables, and of course, teapots like the one here.
We can imagine our initial bearers using this teapot as the vessel in which they mixed their brew and shared it with companions. As 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson once wrote about tea drinkers: “They who drink one cup, and who drink twenty, are equally punctual in preparing or partaking it; and indeed, there are few but discover by their indifference about it, that they are brought together not by the tea, but the tea-table.”
Casey Kane Monahan, Cunningham Curatorial Assistant for the Collection, Division of European and American Art
 “Review of a Journal of Eight Days Journey,” Literary Magazine (1757). Reprinted in The Literary Magazine: Samuel Johnson & Periodical Literature, ed. Donald D. Eddy (New York: Garland Publishing, 1978), 164.
Ceremony in the City
This etching depicts the annual procession and presentation of tributes to the grand duke of Tuscany in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. The festival took place on the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, June 24, and this scene dates from 1621. Noblemen and others under the protection of Ferdinand II parade through the square to present him with silver vases, altar candles, and other objects as material proof of their gratitude and loyalty. The figures at left still hold these objects, indicating that the parade is just beginning. The print is dedicated to Ferdinand II in the inscription below the image, and his coat of arms is placed prominently in the sky, with putti playfully holding its symbols as if they were physical objects: a crown and the armorial balls of the Medici dynasty.
Jacques Stella completed this print, one of his most ambitious etchings, when he was 25 years old and in the first phase of his residence in Italy. Two important features distinguish his portrayal: he includes a self-portrait (he is seated on a roof in the left corner, shaded under a parasol and looking out at the viewer), and in a second-floor window at right, he depicts a woman who watches the proceedings through a telescope. (You can zoom in on the image here to get a closer look.)
Scholars believe this to be the first time an illustration of a telescope was published in Florence, and the first illustration of a woman using the device. Galileo made his first telescope in 1609, but telescopes were used only by amateur scientists early on; Stella’s inclusion of this detail in his print suggests that the instrument had already permeated society outside the scientific community.
Elizabeth M. Rudy, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Associate Curator of Prints, Division of European and American Art
The average human, over a lifetime, spends 82 days brushing their teeth. It is a ritual as familiar as the backs of our hands, barely registered and sleepily performed in front of steamy mirrors and bathroom sinks. Matthias Mansen’s woodcut print Teeth-Brushing, from Bathroom, part of his series In the House, rethinks this ritual. Re-cutting his woodblock multiple times and overlaying the printed forms, Mansen mimics the toothbrusher returning to their brush day after day, his technique rehearsing the daily ceremony of oral hygiene.
Building print upon print, the multiplicity makes the human body unfamiliar, blurring the silhouette and filling it with “patches of light.” To print in woodcut for a German artist is itself a ritualistic act: it is an homage to the German Old Masters Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, and Hans Baldung Grien. The technique, however, has changed since the days of those artists. Mansen’s method of cutting, his inks, his tools, and even the wood itself—which Mansen is known to salvage from discarded furniture, used palettes, and building sites—would be entirely unfamiliar to a 16th-century artist.
In a similar way, Mansen’s Teeth-Brushing asks us to make unfamiliar our familiar rituals: to re-encounter our oral hygiene as a work of art, to see it as a performance staggered in time, where every tooth-brusher is the master of craft, using skills honed by years of practice, so that the mouth is reimagined as a museum of 32 perfect, pearly whites.
Hollie Buttery, Graduate Student, Department of History of Art and Architecture
Laying the Foundation
It’s one thing to be “king for a day,” but kings in ancient Mesopotamia slipped into the role of construction worker. This solid and heavy copper peg represents one of the rulers of the mighty kingdom of Ur, probably King Shulgi, who reigned in the last century of the third millennium BCE. Clean-shaven, with a nude upper body and wearing a simple kilt, the royal image emerges from and completes the peg. The shallow basket the figure carries on its head is heaped with clay for making bricks. Sun-dried mud bricks were the prime building material in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and the king was the prime builder, not just of palaces and fortifications, but also of temples.
These monumental buildings were physical expressions of power and prosperity, and of the king’s support from the gods. Cuneiform inscriptions on clay “nails” inserted into the walls declared the king’s agency in the building effort. The king contributed to the construction of temples in ceremonial fashion, by molding the first brick and symbolically laying the foundations. This copper peg both represents and perpetuates such a ritual act. A ritual object itself, the peg was deposited in the foundation to ensure the permanence of the building, as well as the king’s enduring stature as a pious ruler, and, ultimately, the order of the world.
Susanne Ebbinghaus, George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art, and Head, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art
This cycle of hanging scrolls is a spectacular example of the convergence of classical and contemporary in Japanese Edo painting. Together, they create a paradisal garden in which all the seasons flower simultaneously. The theme dates to the 12th century, when a series of paired birds and flowers was assigned to poetically symbolize each month. These prescribed associations remained prominently embedded in cultural memory for more than 600 years. Here, however, the painter Sakai Hōitsu has cultivated an alternate set of symbolically charged motifs, creating a vibrant visual idiom for the new era.
New motifs include recently imported plants, such as the canna lily from South America, and novel poetic subjects incubated within contemporary short form haikai (commonly known as haiku) verse. While the paintings are ostensibly secular, research points to their use in Pure Land Buddhist rituals conducted at the Sakai family mortuary temple in Maebashi, situated about 75 miles northwest of Tokyo. The paintings may have been hung as a complete set for funerary rituals or for services performed on important death anniversaries. Alternatively, the paintings may also have been used as six seasonally adjustable pairs of paintings that could be displayed flanking a central icon.
Rachel Saunders, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Curator of Asian Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art
Joachim Homann, the Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings in the Division of European and American Art, and Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art in the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art, compiled and edited the entries.