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Walk among Olympic gods—in New York

The Onassis Cultural Center is hosting a major loan exhibition of objects from the archaeological site of Dion

by Helen Stoilas  |  25 March 2016
Walk among Olympic gods—in New York
Mosaic of the Epiphany of Dionysus. Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, and the Dion Excavations. Courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY
New Yorkers can be transported to the foothills of Mt Olympus at the Onassis Cultural Center, where a major loan show of artefacts from the Greek archaeological site of Dion. More than 90 objects are on view, many for the first time in the US, from the city where the Macedonian kings, including Alexander the Great and his father Philip II, celebrated Olympic Zeus.

“It is important for us to show that all these pieces came out of systematic excavations at the site,” the show’s curator Dimitrios Pandermalis told The Art Newspaper during a tour of the exhibition. (In addition to leading the digs at Dion since 1973, Dr Pandermalis is also the president and curator of the Acropolis Museum in Athens.) Because of the surrounding wetlands at the costal site, nestled between rivers that drain from the mountains into the Aegean, many of the buildings’ foundations and artefacts were preserved in relatively good condition under layers of mud and water.

Statue of Aphrodite Hypolympidia and Base with Dedicatory Inscription (statue: 150-100 BC; Base: second century AD) from the Sanctuary of Isis, Archaeological Museum of Dion. Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, and the Dion Excavations. Courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY
Statue of Aphrodite Hypolympidia and Base with Dedicatory Inscription (statue: 150-100 BC; Base: second century AD) from the Sanctuary of Isis, Archaeological Museum of Dion. Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, and the Dion Excavations. Courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY
The objects are grouped based on the locations in which they were found, so statuary and reliefs from sanctuaries dedicated to various gods shows the development of ancient religions at Mt Olympus, while pieces from private homes show how Greek and Roman landowners displayed their wealth and influence.

The centrepiece of the show is a stunning mosaic, dating from the Roman period in the second to third century AD, that has been restored and transported from a private home named the Villa of Dionysus, after the subject of the work. Showing a triumphant Dionysus emerging from the sea on a chariot drawn by aquatic panthers, the mosaic features detailed shading created by expertly cut and arranged tesserae, some as slim as a fingernail clipping. It is based on the myth that Lycurgus, the King of Thrace, chased the young god out of the kingdom, and he fled to safety under the sea “into the arms of the Nereid Thetis”, the catalogue states. But Dionysus had his revenge as only a god can. “He could make the king mad,” Pandermalis explained, and so a small, manic-looking portrait of Lycurgus can be found among the panels of theatrical masks that surround the main mosaic.

  • Installation view of Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus, on view at the Onassis Cultural Center NY. Photo: Joseph Coscia, Jr
  • Installation view of Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus, on view at the Onassis Cultural Center NY. Photo: Joseph Coscia, Jr
  • Relief Stele Depicting Isis as Demeter with Dedicatory Inscription (second half of third–early second century BC) from the Sanctuary of Isis, Courtyard of the temple of Isis Lochia. Archaeological Museum of Dion. Photo: © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, and the Dion Excavations. Courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY
  • Slab with the Imprint of Two Feet and Dedicatory Inscription (late second–third century AD) from the Sanctuary of Isis, on the steps leading to the pronaos of the temple of Isis Lochia, Archaeological Museum of Dion. Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, and the Dion Excavations. Courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY
  • Bracelet with Lion’s Head Finials (late third century BC) from Karitsa, Macedonian Tomb IV, Cist grave ΙΙ, Archaeological Museum of Dion. Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, and the Dion Excavations. Courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY
The exhibition not only allows visitors to see some of the treasures of the ancient temples and private villas of Dion, up-close and in intimate detail in the foundation’s newly renovated galleries. It also recreates the atmosphere of the mythic home of the Greek gods through a series of multi-media commissions, including a sound installation of birdsong and running water recorded on site at Mt Olympus, and another of villagers reciting poems by Ovid and Yeats in a generations-old “whistling” language used in the mountains of the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, Secrets of the Past: Excavating the City of Zeus, a video game developed by Greek software studio Culturplay for the Onassis Foundation, allows children (and other young-at-heart visitors) to step into the shoes of an archaeologist working at Dion. The foundation has also organised a programme of public events, including a “peripatetic” talk through the galleries next month with the philosopher Simon Critchley and the theatre director Bryan Doerries.

• Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus (until 18 June), Onassis Cultural Center, New York


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