Olympian Gods and Mortals Take Manhattan

Mosaic of the Epiphany of Dionysus Late 2nd–early 3rd century AD. Stone tesserae. H. 59 in; W. 86.6 in (H. 150 cm; W. 220 cm). From Dion. Villa of Dionysus, Symposium Hall. 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

Mosaic of the Epiphany of Dionysus
Late 2nd–early 3rd century AD.
Stone tesserae.
H. 59 in; W. 86.6 in (H. 150 cm; W. 220 cm).
From Dion. Villa of Dionysus, Symposium Hall.
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

In school, we studied a bit of Greek mythology, and I always enjoyed the stories of the gods of Mount Olympus – much better than any TV show!  So it was a real pleasure to see the exhibition, Gods and Mortals at Olympus:  Ancient Dion, City of Zeus  at the Onassis Cultural Center in midtown.  Centered on an excavation at Dion, the exhibition features more than ninety artworks and artifacts—including mosaics, sculptures, jewelry, ceramics, coins, glass, and implements—dating from the tenth century BCE to the fourth century CE.  And they’re all magnificent. 

Dion lies on the slopes of Mount Olympus, which is located in the northern range that separates Thessaly from Macedonia. By the end of the fifth century BCE, the city of Dion had become the federal shrine and religious center of the Macedonians. Yearly “Olympian games” were celebrated at Dion under the rule of King Archelaos, the great-grandfather of Alexander the Great.

The show is divided into sections, each featuring objects from the different sanctuaries at the site, which were dedicated to a specific god:  Zeus Olympios, Zeus Hypsistos, Demeter, and Isis, as well as artifacts from the Great Baths, the Villa of Dionysus, two private dwellings and the necropolis. 

I recommend that you start by viewing the video, which will provide a look at the landscape, the excavation and conservation and give context to the exhibit.

Head from a Statue of Demeter 325–300 BC. Marble. H. 9.4 in; D. 7.5 in (H. 24 cm; D. 19 cm). From Dion. Sanctuary of Demeter, South. Hellenistic Temple. 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.

Head from a Statue of Demeter
325–300 BC. Marble.
H. 9.4 in; D. 7.5 in (H. 24 cm; D. 19 cm).
From Dion. Sanctuary of Demeter, South. Hellenistic Temple. 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.

Some of my favorites are a late 4th Century BC marble head from a statue of Demeter, and a marble relief stele  depicting Isis as Demeter from the second half of 3rd – early 2nd century BC. The shift from the Greek to the Egyptian cult  was facilitated by the rise of the Ptolemies, and the similarities between the deities.  Both of these goddesses protected childbirth, fertility and the harvest, and they each searched to recover a lost loved one:  Demeter, her daughter Persephone, and Isis, her brother and spouse Osiris. 

There are also two very large table legs (at least 3 feet high):  one depicting Leda and the Swan (I wonder what the other legs looked like), and the other in the shape of a very stylized lion, supporting a sideboard.

Throughout you’ll find some fantastic mosaics, especially the ones from the private dwellings; against one wall is a lovely mosaic with birds – streaked with red, blue, yellow and green – resting on a Kantheros (drinking vessel). 

nstallation view of Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus, on view at the Onassis Cultural Center NY; photograph by Joseph Coscia, Jr.

nstallation view of Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus, on view at the Onassis Cultural Center NY; photograph by Joseph Coscia, Jr.

At the Villa of Dionysius you’ll find a group of statues of four philosophers in front of an enlarged photo of the excavated site.  There are splendid mosaics in this section, especially the three depicting heads of theatrical masks.  But the showstopper is the Epiphany of Dionysius (5’ x 7’), depicting the god riding triumphantly in a chariot drawn by a sea panther.

In the next section, stop to admire the two copper-alloy oil lamps, especially the larger one with the sinewy decorative head of a panther.  In other cases you’ll find fabulous jewelry, coin impressions and other objects and implements – take a close look at the iron plowshare, and the iron key – I would not want to have to carry that around!

Spectacle-Shaped Brooch with Fabric Remains Early Iron Age (1000–700 BC). Copper alloy, iron, and textile. L. 5.9 in; Diam. coils 2.4 in, 2.6 in (L. 15 cm; Diam. coils 6 cm, 6.5 cm). From Olympus. Tumulus cemetery of Mesonisi, Tumulus 2, grave D. 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

Spectacle-Shaped Brooch with Fabric Remains
Early Iron Age (1000–700 BC).
Copper alloy, iron, and textile.
L. 5.9 in; Diam. coils 2.4 in, 2.6 in (L. 15 cm; Diam. coils 6 cm, 6.5 cm). From Olympus. Tumulus cemetery of Mesonisi, Tumulus 2, grave D.
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

As you go through the exhibit, you’ll hear a specially commissioned soundscape by  Kostas Ioannidis. Inspired in part by W.B. Yeats’s poem The Man and the Echo, he uses the natural sounds of the mountain to immerse you even further into the exhibition.

Before heading to the show, you might want to take a look at the videos on the website   of the Onassis Cultural Center to get an overview of the different aspects of this exhibit.  You’ll also find an app game for the kids!

The Center is also having several events:  Let’s Walk, which features a conversation between philosopher Simon Critchley and a guest, as well as special tours conducted by Museum Hack.

The exhibition and events are FREE.

Gods and Mortals    remains on view until June 18th.  Be sure to see it.