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Apollo's Role at the Dining Table

by Lan Vy Phan

Johann Joachim Kändler, German, c. 1748. Apollo, from the Bath of Apollo centerpiece [Meissen porcelain sculpture with clear gaze]. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Among the pieces we viewed at the Ackland Museum, my favorite piece was “Apollo, from the Bath of Apollo centerpiece.” This small porcelain sculpture, depicted from an elevated perspective, portrays Apollo emerging from the water partially undressed. The intricate details on the figurine, such as the inclusion of flowers that reflect Baroque artistic elements and the depiction of pores on the submerged rock below, emphasize the aquatic setting.

Initially, I had not expected for it to be directly related to the feast at all. Historically, this piece was part of a set of sculptures meant to adorn a dining table, and it stands as the sole surviving fragment of this collection. We only know what the other pieces look like from the molds of the collection found in the factory. Observing the sculpture from all angles, it becomes evident that there is no elaboration on the back, suggesting that these sculptures were likely meant for a U-shaped table arrangement. The absence of detail on the back underscores the notion that there was no need for ornamentation where guests would not see.

The sculpture captures Apollo in a poised stance, with his hand outstretched, appearing as if he is preparing to leap, perhaps into a bowl of wine. These small statues, like the one of Apollo, were inspired by classical motifs and likely commissioned to showcase the opulence and grandeur of the owner's lifestyle. These exquisite sculptures served as a testament to the lavishness of the feast's host, highlighting their ability to procure such extravagant decorative pieces.

Furthermore, our museum guide enlightened us about how these sculptures doubled as conversation starters. This aspect reminded me of scenes from the film "Parasite," in which elaborate plates were used as ornamental displays, rather than for consumption. It underscores the idea that a part of the dining experience is not solely focused on the culinary offerings but also extends to the artistry and decor on display. What you choose to exhibit on your dining table can be as significant as what you serve, whether it's for the purpose of entertainment or to demonstrate your prowess as a host.

From this experience, I gained further insight into the intersection of art and feasting in the past. The meticulous detailing and placement of small sculptures on a dining table tells a story of opulence, grandeur, and the importance of aesthetics in the context of a feast. It relays the host’s desire to showcase their luxurious lifestyles and spark engaging conversations among their guests through the display of such exquisite pieces.


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