Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus
ONASSIS CULTURAL CENTER | MARCH 24 – JUNE 18, 2016
Gods and Mortals at Olympus marks the welcome return, after a four-year hiatus, of the Onassis Cultural Center to Midtown’s museum scene. Happily, the exhibition continues the Onassis tradition of attractive and engaging historical shows that speak to the cultural and political present. With seventy-six objects and three works commissioned from contemporary Greek artists, Gods and Mortals provides an illuminating look at a contested region at the crossroads of the ancient world, one that persevered through various empires, assimilated the theologies of the past and present, and managed to remain vital for centuries until the combination of barbarian invasions, earthquakes, and flooding finished it off.
Dion (pronounced DEE-on), sacred to Zeus and only a little over an hour’s drive south from Thessaloniki, has been overshadowed by Olympia, Delphi, and Athens, but has yielded a storehouse of ancient treasures that convey the city’s religious and cultural changes over multiple centuries. The objects range from impressive marble cult statues and opulent mythological floor mosaics, to intimate jewelry, surprising bronze obstetrical instruments, and delicately carved funerary couch adornments in bone. The story told is of the real life of a Greek town on important trade routes in Mount Olympus’s northeastern Pierian plain, where excavations have revealed a Macedonian population that was assimilated into the Ptolemaic empire after the death of Alexander the Great, then subsumed into Imperial Rome. The curator, Dimitrios Pandermalis, has worked on-site since 1970, while also directing Athens’s Acropolis Museum. His digs have proved challenging: while the Aegean coastline has receded since Dion’s heyday, springs and overflowing rivers have consistently left much of the site under water.
Nonetheless, the successful excavations have uncovered how residents of Dion worshipped, bathed, embraced new gods (like the Egyptian Isis), and laid each other to rest. The first sight is a showstopper discovered in 2003: the evocative, nearly intact (but for the head and left forearm), cult statue of an enthroned Zeus from a sanctuary dedicated to the leader of the Olympian Gods. Rendered in glistening imported marble and beautifully positioned against a cobalt- blue wall, this is a 2nd century C.E. Zeus Hypsistos, a designation meaning “most high,” as if this thunderbolt-wielding god needed more titles. His himation wraps around his waist and legs, rises up behind his back, and drapes over his left shoulder, exposing an ideally musculated chest and a powerful right arm. He grips a bolt (or at least the fletched butt of it as the flaming head has been lost). He appears relaxed, his left leg tucked underneath him: an approachable god despite his title (if you were a priest, that is, as such cult statues lived in their temples and were inaccessible to the hoi polloi). This was not the case with sculpture in the public baths, examples of which are included in the show, where mortals encountered the gods in the forms of marble statues that reminded Dionians of their varied heritage. Impressive sculptures of Podalirius and Aegle, two of the offspring of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, stood in the baths in support of Roman ideals of hygiene. Made in a workshop in the vicinity of Athens of the same stone used for the Parthenon, they show the Roman obsession with Greek culture, and bear a monumentality that feels aspirational for this provincial site. Archaeologists found Aegle’s body separated from her head, which had been repurposed into the city’s walls centuries later to warn off the Ostrogoths.
Other exceptional works convey clues about the actual people who lived at Dion: the Epiphany of Dionysus mosaics of the late 2nd to early 3rd century AD from the impressive Villa that bears the god’s name, removed from the site last November and conserved for display in New York; and a moving Roman grave stele wherein the husband and wife are represented not by their faces, but with a handshake and the tools of their respective trades, floating in space like a Surrealist rebus. This exhibition eschews the bombast of Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World, presently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its emphasis on hyperbolic dynastic and divine commemoration. At the Onassis, one gets a sense of how the general population lived on a more minor scale—though the nature of archaeological preservation renders us still largely privy only to the one percent.
Kostas Ioannidis produced one of the contemporary works sharing space with the exhibition: a soundscape he recorded in Dion featuring native birds and water that complements an essay in the fine catalog detailing the geography, climate, and species of vegetation and animals in the region. The avian trilling and babbling brooks may be authentic, but at times makes you feel you are in a spa in Sedona. Yet the work embodies a genuine and noble attempt to show nature as a continuing partner in Dion’s wonders, and to illustrate why such a bucolic sanctuary arose there in the first place, where Zeus’s golden eagles still waft along air currents around Olympus’s cliffs.
Inherent in Gods and Mortals is a powerful message of tolerance and fortitude that speaks to the present. For before nature reclaimed it by the 10th century, ancient Dion had been the seat of a Byzantine bishopric, with three churches built on the site, and repeated stages of rebuilding. Romans and Byzantines sensitively used Greek in public inscriptions instead of their imported Latin: heritage had a value to the people who lived there, and the excavated objects in the exhibition nicely reinsert many of their names to the human record. It forms an inclusive corrective to the current geopolitical situation, to the embattled economic condition of the Aegean world and the xenophobia that has greeted its shifting patterns of emigration, as well as the situation in the broader Mediterranean basin to the east and south, including the unrecoverable loss of cultural heritage in the ongoing iconoclasm in Syria.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for The Brooklyn Rail.