June 30, 2016

A Step Back to Ancient Times - "Pergamon" at the Met

The era between the death of Alexander the Great (356 B.C. - 323 B.C.) and the foundation of the Roman Empire in 27 B.C. was a time of tremendous prosperity.  As Alexander's former empire expanded beyond today's Greece, Turkey, Egypt and the Middle East to include Southern Italy, Sicily, parts of France, Spain and North Africa, its cultural diversity and artistic legacy grew as well.  Indeed, the Hellenistic period will go down in history as one of great advancement in architecture, science and above all art.

In a singular partnership between the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, enthusiasts of archeology and ancient art are in for a special treat.  Until July 17th, the exhibition "Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World" presents over 260 extraordinary works ranging from an exquisitely wrought gold, garnet and carnelian diadem featuring a Herakles knot surmounted by a winged goddess...

to a colossal marble statue of Athena Parthenos. The artifacts on display, individually and when viewed as a whole, speak of a very sophisticated and accomplished culture that appreciated the finer things in life.

The center of the Hellenistic world was Pergamon, the royal capital of the Attalid kingdom in what is now known as Bergama, Turkey.  Here, in 1860, a group of German archeologists discovered the ruins of a massive temple which they excavated and exported piece by piece to Berlin where it remains to this day.  The reconstructed Pergamon Altar, with its amazing friezes, had been a must-see stop for any visitor to Berlin until the Pergamon Museum closed the gallery for renovations two years ago and is not expected to reopen to the public until 2019.  Fortunately, through this unique collaboration and thanks to a number of important international loans, a large group of major works is currently on view here in New York.  So while one cannot actually climb the giant altar steps, we can get a pretty good idea of the magnificence of the ancient treasures discovered at the site.

Marble portrait of Alexander the Great 
(The Alexander Schwarzenberg)

The exhibition is a tribute to the glorious history of ancient Greece and its huge contribution to Western culture.  The civilization's achievements in the applied arts, like glass blowing, pottery, jewelry and metal work is well represented with works like this large onyx cameo portrait of Ptolemy II Philadelphos and his sister-wife, Arsinoe II.

The performing arts also thrived during the Hellenistic period with theater and music providing entertainment for the citizenry.  Here we see three marble masks portraying comedy and tragedy...

And this fine mosaic depicts a scene with musicians performing either on a stage or in the street...

Not surprisingly, the majority of the works to have survived the centuries were statues and sculptures carved of stone or cast in bronze.  The Hellenistic legacy of fine craftsmanship on both a small and colossal scale is well documented here and we find superb examples like this bronze statuette of a masked dancer, called the Baker Dancer, a masterpiece of illusion and delicacy.

And this enormous, highly decorated marble urn called The Borghese Krater that probably served as a garden ornament.

The magnificent artifacts presented here trace the history of the Hellenistic Kingdoms and demonstrate their unprecedented contributions to culture, science and the arts.  "Pergamon" is a well deserved tribute to Alexander the Great and his successors and their enduring impact on Western art and civilization.

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