Titled “Female Power: From Divine to Demonic,” it includes ancient carvings of the Roman goddesses Venus and Minerva and the Egyptian lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, as well as modern images of deities worshiped today.
The exhibition is the “first with a cross-cultural approach to this extraordinary and absolutely fundamental subject,” London museum director Hartwig Fischer told reporters.
Especially for the show, the museum commissioned a brightly painted icon of the Hindu warrior goddess Kali wearing a garland of severed heads, from Kolkata-based artist Kaushik Ghosh.
The exhibition, which runs until September 25, also features commentary from leading figures, including feminist writer Bonnie Greer and classic Mary Beard.
“ Back to recommendation stories
“We’re not trying to tell people what they should think or how they should feel about it,” curator Belinda Crerar told AFP, saying she wanted the exhibition to begin a conversation.
A section on “compassionate” figures such as the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, notes that reverence for these female deities “in many societies has not translated into higher status for women themselves” .
“That’s the big question” raised by the exhibit, Crerar said.
“It’s not simple and there is no single answer.”
“I believe there is a connection between spiritual ideas of femininity and masculinity and how… women and men are viewed, but it’s culturally specific.”
For a section called “Magic and Malice” about witches and demons, the museum consulted a collective of practicing British witches called Children of Artemis.
“What we thought was really important to do in this section was to work with a group of men and women of today who identify as witches or modern pagans or who practice Wicca” , said project curator Lucy Dahlsen.
“These relationships have been really important, to make sure we’re looking at a living tradition appropriately.”
Some reactions surprised.
She pointed to a Pre-Raphaelite style painting by John William Waterhouse of the Greek goddess Circe casting a spell while wearing a transparent dress over her naked body.
Many see this painting as “embodiing the male gaze and the image of a witch portrayed as a sort of femme fatale,” Dahlsen said.
But a British witch, Laura Daligan, said the image was not far off.
Witches “don’t always train in clothes – it’s kind of realistic in a way,” she said in a comment posted online by the museum.