High on History
How Alexander the Great Changed the Art World Forever
A major new Met exhibit shows the breadth and richness of Hellenistic art. Prepare for gold-plated head-dresses, and two meter-tall vases.
The Hellenistic period inspired awe in works both big and small.
That feeling of constant wonder can be found at a massive new exhibition five years in the making at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World—opening Tuesday to July 17—catalogs the breadth, diversity, and richness of Hellenistic art, a period which began with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and ended after the Battle of Actium with the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 BC.
“This exhibition has something for everybody,” Carlos A. Picón, the irrepressible curator of Greek & Roman art at the Met, told me. “Clay, marble, jewelry, glass, and so on.”
The core of the exhibition—one-third of the statues on view—is comprised of works from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, many of which have never been to the U.S. before.
The Pergamon is named for the city in modern-day Turkey that was the capital of the Attalid dynasty (one of the Hellenistic kingdoms formed from Alexander’s divided empire).
It was excavated in the late 19th century by German archaeologists who brought many of its treasures back to Germany. The Pergamon Museum is now undergoing a renovation, presenting a ripe opportunity for the Met.
One of those pieces here for the first time, which could perhaps be considered one of the exhibition’s centerpieces is the Athena from the Pergamon Altar.
Weighing more than three tons, it was shipped in three pieces, Picón said. Even with its magnitude, the most stupefying thing about the towering work is that it is just one-third the size of the original carved by Phidias that stood in the Parthenon.
The Athena is surrounded by other monumental works, including the captivating Fragmentary colossal head of a youth from the 2nd century BC (gay men, you will understand). There is also the impressive marble head and arm of Zeus from Aigeira from circa 150 BC on loan from the National Archaeology Museum of Greece.
Against another wall can be found the earliest known text of Homer’s The Odyssey from 285-250 BC, preserved because the papyrus it was on was reused for a mummy and buried in hot sand.
The exhibition, featuring many maps, begins with large sculpture portraits of the major Hellenistic rulers found in the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, introducing us to some of the men whose wealth and power shaped this period.
Each room in the exhibition has one signature piece. In one it is the Athena, in another the model replica of the Altar of Pergamon. In the final chamber, which focuses on Hellenistic art in the Roman period, stands the Borghese Krater.
Standing nearly two meters high, the vase was made in Athens in the 1st century BC, shipped to Rome and discovered in the 16th century in a Roman garden. Purchased by Napoleon from the Borghese family in 1808, it has only left the Louvre twice.
The fate of many museum exhibitions today rests on their success on social media, particularly Instagram (just see the packed crowds every weekend for Wonder at the Renwick Gallery or The Beach last year at the National Building Museum).
The Loeb Diadem commanded most of the attention from the journalists at the press preview, suggesting it might find itself the social media star.
This gold-plated headdress made in 150 BC and found in Crimea features at its center an utterly captivating Herakles knot of gold and garnet from which hang a series of tasseled pendants of gold, garnet, and carnelian and white-banded pearls. Crowning the piece are two golden sea dragons on either side of a golden Nike, the goddess of victory.
In the same room, the skill of the craftsmen of the period is all too evident, from gold serpentine armbands a number of gold hairnets.
The exhibit’s jewelry section clarifies a wider political history.
When Alexander conquered Persia, six thousand tons of gold were taken from the treasuries of Persepolis and Susa alone. Those fabulous riches combined with Greek skill meant a dawning of a new era in terms of cultural supremacy.
While his empire was split into a number of kingdoms (the Ptolemaic perhaps being the most famous due to its library and Cleopatra), the art and architecture originating in Greek city-states exploded.
The exhibition notes, however, that the wealth also changed Greek culture. Tossed out were the strictures and disapproval from city-states like Athens and Sparta against ostentations displays of private wealth. The result was a period of art that changed cultures across the ancient world.
That influence is perhaps most palpable in ancient Rome, where the craze for copies of famous Greek works are often all we have left of Greek art.
Do not overlook the Sleeping Hermaphrodite Roman, made in the 2nd century AD but as a copy of a 2nd century BC Greek original. Dozens of copies were commissioned by wealthy Romans, and this statue and its subject reflect the varied tastes of those wealthy clients.
The exhibition’s goal of capturing 300 years worth of art history at one of its richest periods is a daunting one, yet visitors will walk away from this exhibition with a far richer understanding of the influence and reach of Hellenistic art. Indeed, one is left wanting to know more about how the art changed and progressed over those centuries, and how it differed in the various kingdoms.
In the final display case is a portrait of Kleopatra Selene. She was the only daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and for that matter the only child of theirs to survive at all.
She was married to Juba II, the former King of Numidia before they were shipped of to rule Mauretania, in modern day northern Morocco. Inside the case is a Carnelian gemstone ring in which it is believed to be a portrait of her, the offspring of one of history’s most doomed affairs.
Small as a fingernail, yet with a story far more impressive than a giant balloon dog.