On Tuesday, ISIS suicide bombers carried out attacks that killed over 30 people and wounded more than 300 in Brussels. The next day, as members of the press gathered at the Manhattan Onassis Cultural Center in advance of an archaeology exhibition, Greek Minister of Culture Aristides Baltas wondered how this exhibit could provide meaning in the wake of such horrific events, suggesting that "culture and education may be the best weapon against terrorism of all kinds." "Gods and Mortals at Olympus" certainly offers hope that an understanding of Hellenic culture may civilize ruthless extremists, though it is something of an uphill battle: Terrorist groups, and ISIS in particular, routinely plunder ancient sites to fund their operations. However, for the rest of us, there's much to be learned from this show, on view now through June 18th.
Spectacle-Shaped Brooch with Fabric Remains Early Iron Age (1000-700 BC). Copper alloy, iron, and textile. Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, and the Dion Excavations. Courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY.
Nestled in the slopes of Mount Olympus, Dion was the religious center of Macedon for centuries, with sanctuaries dedicated to Zeus, Artemis and the Egyptian goddess Isis. Over ninety artifacts excavated from unearthed temples, baths, and private homes are on display in the Onassis Foundation's recently renovated gallery space. Brooches from the Iron Age, copper lamps, gold bracelets and stunning Roman-era mosaics evoke the importance of Dion as a sacred site, and how the constant influx of outside cultures influenced local art and architecture.
Mosaic of the Epiphany of Dionysus Late 2nd-early 3rd century AD. Stone tesserae. Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, and the Dion Excavations. Courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY.
Dion was also a major theater hub dating back to 400 BC, when Euripides wrote The Bacchae under the patronage of Macedon's King Archelaus and was believed to have visited the city seeking inspiration. A suite of mosaics depicting theatrical masks surround the imposing "Epiphany of Dionysus," a 5 foot by 7 foot mosaic dating from the late 2nd century CE which shows the god of wine and theater bursting out of the sea on a jaguar-drawn chariot. Pulled from a luxurious villa, the piece suggests that the homeowner had embraced Roman customs while still retaining various Greek religious traditions. (Many of the stelae on display have inscriptions written in both Greek and Latin, offering further evidence of life in the city under Roman rule.)
Slab with the Imprint of Two Feet and Dedicatory Inscription Late 2nd-3rd century AD. Marble. Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, and the Dion Excavations. Courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY.
Equally impressive is a diminutive 3rd century BC gold bracelet with lion's head finials, which was discovered in a Macedonian tomb outside the city. Massive marble statues, table supports, and stelae depicting various gods, all offer tantalizing glimpses of this special place.
Bracelet with Lion's Head Finials Late 3rd century BC. Gold. Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, and the Dion Excavations. Courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY.
Shepherding the exhibit into the 21st century are installations by contemporary Greek artists Maria Zervos and Kostas Ioannidis. Zervos' video combines imagery shot at Mount Olympus with her translations of poetry by the ancient female poet Telesilla (510 BC), exploring how contemporary viewers perceive ancient notions of perfection and immortality. Ioannidis created sound installations which can be heard in the gallery foyer, playing on the idea of a "mountain language." An onsite video game called "Secrets of the Past--Excavating the City of Zeus" invites players to pretend they're directing the excavation work at Dion and decide the best way to unearth and examine the artifacts.
The Greeks at Dion demonstrated an ability to adapt as religious beliefs changed, even in the midst of war and natural disasters, and these artifacts offer opportunities to discover similarities between an ancient culture and our own. That's something to be hopeful about.
GODS AND MORTALS AT OLYMPUS: ANCIENT DION, CITY OF ZEUS is free to the public. Visit the Onassis Foundation's website for information on guided tours and additional programming.