Alexander the Great

Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism

December 10, 2004-May 28, 2005

Photo by Joe Coscia Jr.

"The most spectacular display is a gold ensemble from the tomb of an unknown noblewoman buried in an important part of the vast cemetery of Aigai, once the Macedonian capital."

                                                    - Grace, Glueck, The New York Times

"Here is the world of Alexander in all its glory."

                                                   - Wendy Moonan, The New York Times

From December 10, 2004 until May 28, 2005, the Onassis Cultural Center presented Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism, an exhibition featuring a variety of rare Macedonian artifacts including portraits of the legendary Greek king in the form of ancient marble heads, bronze statuettes, medallions and ancient coins. Highlights of the exhibition included the Acropolis Museum's classic Athenian-style marble bust of Alexander, thought to be the work of the sculptor Leohares; a unique equestrian statuette, depicting the Macedonian king on his fabled horse Bucephalus, from the Napoli Museum, Italy; and a marble portrait of Alexander dating from the 3rd Century B.C. found in Pella, the capital city of ancient Macedonia and Alexander's birthplace. The exhibition - which presented many of these objects to the public for the first time - also featured sections on weaponry, symposia or social gatherings and Macedonian women, and was on view at the Onassis Cultural Center through April 16, 2005.

Another highlight of the exhibition was a collection of rare and precious artifacts recently excavated in Vergina from the tomb of an ancient queen known as "The Lady of Aigai." These finds - including gold plates, golden fibulae, an ornate set of matching gold jewelry, and decorations from a dress - attest to the elegant and lavish lifestyle of the ancient Macedonian noblewomen.

The exhibition shed light on the legend of Alexander the Great and explored the historical and cultural context of this celebrated figure in Greek history. During his reign, Alexander united the warring City States of Greece, conquered the Persian Empire, and expanded the reign of his empire to the borders of India. Modern historians consider the death of Alexander the Great, in 323 B.C., as the event that marks the beginning of the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greek History.

In studying Alexander's life historians must rely on second-hand sources as most, if not all, documents about Alexander produced by his contemporaries have been lost. These sources vary considerably in their presentation of Alexander. This exhibition seeks to examine the legacy of this renowned leader by presenting portraits of the man himself and highlighting his cultural and historical context through the material artifacts of his time.

Alexander was the first leader to immortalize himself on the faces of coins, a practice which became nearly universal after his death. Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism will present a selection of ancient coins documenting the progression of numismatic art of the era. Coins dating from before the rule of Alexander generally depicted either Gods or symbols of the Macedonian state. Included in the exhibition are early, traditional coins depicting Gods, later coins depicting Alexander in fighting poses, including examples with royal titles inscribed, examples dating from after Alexander's death memorializing him in deified portraits, and finally coins in which Alexander's successors replaced his portrait with their own. Although he never included obverse portraits of himself, the depictions of Alexander on coins dating from his lifetime, often assuming outright attributes of divinity, paved the way for future rulers to place portraits of themselves on the faces of coins, an honor once reserved only for the Gods.

While the exhibition included depictions of Alexander, it also painted a vivid portrait of Macedonian life through ancient artifacts of the time. Alexander's battles and conquests were remembered in a section featuring Macedonian weaponry including beautifully decorated shields and swords, sling shells, parts of body armor and an original sarissa, the famous five-meter long spear introduced by Alexander's father Philip II. This display of Macedonian weaponry will highlight the many innovative changes that Philip II and Alexander made to ancient military strategy, training and equipment, most importantly the introduction of the phalanx formation consisting ofa tight-knit configuration of infantry carrying overlapping shields and sarissa of varying lengths.

In addition, the exhibition featured a display highlighting precious tableware from Macedonian symposia, convivial meetings for drinking and intellectual discussion that were the key social events in the lives of Ancient Greeks. Ancient texts place Alexander as the leader of many of these ceremonies which were famous for their richness and extravagance.

Finally, the exhibition Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism included a special section focusing on the role of women in Alexander's kingdom. The reigns of Philip II and Alexander mark the high-point in the production of Macedonian jewelry. In addition to the finds from the grave of "The Lady of Aigai," the section on Macedonian women included rare pieces of delicate ancient jewelry including earrings, pendants, necklaces, rings, bracelets, pins, diadems and decorative headbands, many of which served important funerary and religious purposes.

The section on women also presented a selection of other ancient adornments, including a rare series of decorative garment appliqués. A set of ancient terracotta figurines from the collection of the Pella Museum depicted the rich gamut of garment styles worn by Macedonian women. The women depicted in these figures exhibited a greater freedom over dress and hairstyle than examples from earlier periods. These figurines document a move toward the cosmopolitan and away from the traditional that indicates a change in the role of women during the Hellenistic period, in which Alexander's expansion of his empire exposed women to cultures from new parts of the world.

The exhibition was curated by Dimitris Pandermalis, professor of Archeology at the University of Thessaloniki. Professor Pandermalis is an expert on the subject of Alexander the Great and the President of the Executive Committee of the International Foundation of Alexander the Great.
Pandermalis is also Director of the archaeological excavation at Dion, Mount Olympus, the President of the Organization for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, a former Member of the Greek Parliament and the former President of the History and Archaeology Department and Dean of the Philosophical School of the University of Thessaloniki.

The Onassis Cultural Center collaborated with the Hellenic Ministry of Culture to bring together objects from the collections of the Acropolis Museum, the Pella Archaeological Museum, Museum at the Royal Tombs of Aigai (Vergina), the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum, and the Pydna Excavations collection at the Thessaloniki Museum, the Dion Archaeological Museum, the Kilkis Archaeological Museum, and the Polygiros Archaeological Museum in Greece. Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism also includes objects from the American Numismatic Society, New York, Harvard University Art Museums, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Indiana University Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Princeton University Art Museum, the St. Louis Art Museum, Stanford University, the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, the Archaeological Museum of Napoli, Italy and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. 


Greece in collaboration with the Hellenic Ministry of Culture: Acropolis Museum
Dion Archaeological Museum
Kilkis Archaeological Museum
Pella Archaeological Museum
Polygiros Archaeological Museum
Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum
Thessaloniki Museum - Pydna Excavations
Vergina Museum The Royal Tombs

France: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
Italy: Archaeological Museum of Napoli
U.S.A.: The American Numismatic Society, New York
Brooklyn Museum of Art
Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Indiana University Art Museum
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey
The Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri
Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University, Stanford, California
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore