Scholars' Association News
Issue 38
May 2016

02/08


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Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus

The exhibition Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus, was inaugurated March 24 at the Onassis Cultural Center NY. This unique exhibition that will run through June 18, 2016 explores the relationship between daily life in a city built on the slopes of Mount Olympus and the mythological abode of the gods at the peak.

Within an immersive setting, the exhibition features more than ninety artworks and artifacts—including mosaics, sculptures, jewelry, ceramics, coins, glass, and implements—dating from the tenth century BC to the fourth century AD.

These works are a selection from the thousands of artifacts that have been unearthed at the site in the course of forty years of systematic and scientific archaeological excavation.

Among the highlights are marble sculptures from Hellenistic and Roman times of deities including Zeus, Demeter and Aphrodite, decorative objects and implements dating back as far as 1,000 BCE and a visually stunning group of mosaic panels from the private Villa of Dionysus, newly restored with the support of the Onassis Foundation.

Images and videos of the city’s ruins and natural landscapes immerse the visitor in the natural backdrop of the artifacts, and bring the ancient city of Dion to life.

Curated by Dimitrios Pandermalis, president of the Acropolis Museum and director of the excavations at Dion since 1973, the exhibition will grant the public access to the ancient city’s daily, cultural, and religious life.

“During these forty-five years of work, not only were we able to locate ancient buildings and portable finds but also to chart the adventures of many individuals throughout the centuries,” Dim. Pandermalis said. “The exhibition Gods and Mortals at Olympus at the Onassis Cultural Center NY aims to provide visitors with a sense of Dion through the presentation of some of its most significant finds, as well as to introduce the wonder of the natural environment that inspired the ancients to develop a sacred center at the foothills of Olympus, the mountain of the Greek Gods.”

Anthony S. Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation, said, “This major exhibition marks the reopening of the gallery spaces at the Onassis Cultural Center NY after three years of renovation. We are eager to welcome American and international visitors to our new space and ready to host a new series of art exhibitions. Following in the established tradition of the Onassis Cultural Center NY, our exhibition and other academic and cultural activities will continue to explore and present the Hellenic heritage to a wider audience.”

Amalia Cosmetatou, Executive Director of the Onassis Foundation (USA) and its Director of Cultural Affairs, said, “This spring we present a major exhibition of ancient art and public programs that draw inspiration from Greek mythology and bring the conversation to the present. We enter into a dialogue about ancient and contemporary art and ideas inspired by life in the ancient city of Dion and the natural environment of Mount Olympus, reflecting on the divine and the human condition, the eternal and the ephemeral. Offering programs for all ages, we provide a forum for creative, original thought about our Classical heritage and its relevance today.”

Dion and the ancient gods

Although people in antiquity associated Zeus and his reign with several ancient locales, very early tradition identified the highest peak in Greece, Mount Olympus, as the habitation of the gods. Located in the northern range that separates Thessaly from Macedonia, the 9,500-foot-high Mount Olympus may have been the site of an altar to Zeus as early as the tenth century BC. But the same great height that shrouded Mount Olympus in awe also made it difficult for worshipers to bring sacrificial animals to its peak. The first known altar to Zeus Olympios, as well as the earliest documented cemetery on the mountain, were established at Dion on the lower slopes: the cemetery where the river Helicon disappeared underground, and the altar downstream where the river re-emerged under the name of Baphyras.

By the end of the fifth century BC, the city of Dion had become the federal shrine and religious center of the Macedonians. This status was confirmed by the king Archelaos (ruled 413-399), the great-grandfather of Alexander the Great, who inaugurated yearly “Olympian games” that were celebrated at Dion with the altar to Zeus Olympios as their focus.

During the Hellenistic period (third to first centuries BC), the concept of the far-ranging influence of Zeus became formalized in the cult of Zeus Hypsistos—the Highest—who soared over the peak of Olympus and above the other gods and sent eagles as his messengers to the mortals in Dion. This was also the period when new divinities introduced by Alexander the Great merged into the traditional Greek pantheon, with worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis being instituted in a sanctuary at Dion that previously had been dedicated to Artemis and Aphrodite.

Still later, during the second and third centuries AD, Dion enjoyed a period of remarkable prosperity while Macedonia was a province of the Roman Empire. Adopting Roman standards of city life while simultaneously looking back to Classical times, the residents of Dion built great baths, new city walls, and lavishly decorated dwellings.

The magnificent mosaics that are displayed in Gods and Mortals at Olympus were created for the symposium hall of one such private house from the Roman era, known today as the Villa of Dionysus. The large central panel (approximately 5 feet high by 7 feet long), showing Dionysus, the god of wine and theater, in triumph, is installed in the exhibition with three accompanying mosaic panels depicting the theatrical masks of Silenus, King Lycurgus, and a satyr. These decorations from the late 2nd to early 3rd century AD testify to the importance of Dion as a theatrical center dating back to the reign of Archelaos, under whose patronage Euripides is said to have written The Bacchae and under whose support the play was first performed.

Also on view from the Roman period are a group of four marble sculptures portraying philosophers (part of the furnishings in the Villa of Dionysus) and sculptures of a philosopher and two divinities associated with Asclepius, the god of medicine, that were installed in Dion’s main public baths. These works illustrate the persistence into Roman times of the Greek tradition of the gymnasium as a place of recreation and discussion.

Other important statues, dating from the Hellenistic period, reflect the prominence of the cults of the goddesses Demeter and Aphrodite, as well as the gradual introduction of Egyptian influences into the religious life of Dion. Among these works are a head from a statue of Demeter, a statue of Aphrodite Hypolympidia excavated from the sanctuary later dedicated to Isis, and a relief stele depicting Isis as Demeter.

The dominant cult on Mount Olympus is represented by a powerful seated figure of Zeus and three marble statues of eagles, excavated in 2003 from the sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos, and royal letters and treaties inscribed in marble that had been deposited in the earlier sanctuary of Zeus Olympios.

Also included in the exhibition are fascinating objects that are more intimate and utilitarian in nature. Among these are a metal brooch with remnants of fabric, fashioned as a pair of spirals, that dates from the early Iron Age (1000 – 700 BC); terracotta jars from the same period, excavated from a cemetery mound; a gold bracelet with lion’s head finials from the late 3rd century BC; a group of nine gold impressions of coins; a copper alloy medical instrument—a speculum—from the 1st century BC; a copper alloy oil lamp with a decorative head of a panther (1st-2nd century AD); and a miniature glass vessel with an incised inscription from the mid-2nd to 4th century AD.

Accompanying the exhibition will be entertaining educational programs for school groups, children and families; weekly tours for the public by archaeologists; special tours by Museum Hack; and philosophical discussions with Simon Critchley and special guests as part of the Onassis Cultural Center NY’s new program Let’s Talk.

In addition, a specially commissioned video game designed by the Greek game/software studio CulturPlay will enable children ages 10 to 12 to engage with and understand the process of archaeological excavations and the preservation and display of antiquities.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Onassis Foundation (USA) is publishing a 176-page, softcover catalogue, which includes illustrated entries for all objects in Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus. The catalogue features essays by Dimitrios Pandermalis on the history of ancient Dion and its excavations; Maria Katsakiori on Mount Olympus and its natural environment; Fritz Graf on Zeus Olympios and his cult in Greece; Richard P. Martin on divine family in the human landscape of Dion; Semeli Pingiatoglou on the cult of Demeter at Dion; Angelos Chaniotis on everyday life in Roman Dion; and Sophia Kremydi on the use of coinage in ancient Northern Greece.

While the exhibition is on view, the Onassis Cultural Center NY will present Olympus, a new video project by artist Maria Zervos, on The Art Wall in the public atrium of midtown Manhattan’s Olympic Tower. Shot on location in the landscape of Mount Olympus, the video brings a poem by Zervos into dialogue with an ancient Greek text by the Hellenistic poet Telesilla, while exploring how people in modern times grapple with ancient ideals of perfection and immortality.

Also featured in conjunction with the exhibition will be specially commissioned sound pieces by the Greek artist Kostas Ioannides. These document the centuries-old “language of the mountains”—a repertoire of whistles with a fully developed vocabulary and grammar, still in use—and the sounds of Mount Olympus.


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