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An Ancient Mosaic of the God of Wine Debuts in New York

Restoration of the Mosaic of Epiphany of Dionysus (GIF by the author for Hyperallergic, via Onassis Foundation/Vimeo)
Restoration of the Mosaic of Epiphany of Dionysus (GIF by the author for Hyperallergic, via Onassis Foundation/Vimeo)

New York City is spoiled with archaeology exhibitions this spring, among them a show of late antiquity textiles at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and the Pergamon display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But don’t overlook the lower level of Midtown’s Olympic Tower, where the Onassis Cultural Center NY is showcasing four decades of archaeological findings from Dion, the ancient Greek village that tried to get as close to the gods as possible by building shrines and structures on the slopes of Mount Olympus.

Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus is the first exhibition in the Onassis Center’s newly renovated galleries. All of the over 90 objects in the show, from an imposing 2nd-century CE statue of Zeus to a slab of marble with two footprints from the late 2nd to 3rd century CE, to Iron Age metal jewelry found wrapped on a skeleton, are on view for the first time in the United States. A large Roman Period mosaic that serves as the show’s centerpiece is being exhibited for the first time anywhere. The “Epiphany of Dionysus,” which dates to the late 2nd to early 3rd century CE, is a five-by-seven-foot vision in tesserae of the god of wine rising from the water on a chariot pulled by panthers.

Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus
Mosaic of the Epiphany of Dionysus (late 2nd–early 3rd century CE), stone tesserae, 59 x 86.6 inches, from Dion, Villa of Dionysus, Symposium Hall (Archaeological Museum of Dion, photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports — Archaeological Receipts Fund, courtesy of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria and the Dion Excavations) (click to enlarge)
Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus
Installation view, ‘Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus’ (courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY)

Dimitrios Pandermalis, curator of the new Acropolis Museum, explains in a video from the Onassis Foundation that the Villa of Dionysus, containing the mosaic on its floor, was revealed in 1987. It wasn’t until last year, with support from the Onassis Foundation, that it was able to be removed for conservation and restoration. The Dion site is lushly overgrown, with the mud helping to preserve so many centuries of art and architecture. “Every summer we’ve had a special surprise from the soil of Dion,” says Pandermalis, who’s directed excavations at the site since 1973.

The rediscovery of Dion is attributed to English antiquarian William Martin Leake in 1806, but it’s only in the last four decades that major archaeological excavations have taken place at its temples, homes, and city walls. And the history here is deep: the village boasts early Macedonian shrines and later elaborate architecture when it became a thriving extension of the Roman Empire.

The “Epiphany of Dionysus” is joined in Gods and Mortals by three mosaics that were found alongside it at the site; each features a different mask, perhaps representing the village’s theatrical culture. If you get close to the “Epiphany” mosaic (although not too close; the guards here are very attentive), you can see that its depth is formed by an incredible use of small stone mosaic tiles. Bird songs and the sound of water recorded at Dion play in the background, so although you can’t see the mosaic embedded in the ruins, you can get an auditory impression of the site today.

The video below follows the step-by-step process of the mosaic’s conservation. According to the New York Times, when the mosaic panels return to Dion, they’ll be protected in a new museum where visitors can witness ongoing conservation projects.

Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus
Installation view, ‘Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus’ (courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY)
Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus
Cult Statue of Zeus Hypsistos (2nd century CE), marble, 33.7 x 18.1 inches, from Dion, Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos, Cella (Archaeological Museum of Dion, photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports —Archaeological Receipts Fund, courtesy of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria and the Dion Excavations)
Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus
Slab with the imprint of two feet and dedicatory inscription (late 2nd–3rd century CE), marble, 19.7 x 15.3 inches, from Dion, Sanctuary of Isis, on the steps leading to the pronaos of the temple of Isis Lochia (Archaeological Museum of Dion, photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports — Archaeological Receipts Fund, courtesy of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria and the Dion Excavations)
Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus
Installation view, ‘Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus’ (courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY)
Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus
Relief stele depicting Isis as Demeter with dedicatory inscription (second half of 3rd–early 2nd century BCE), marble, 12.2 x 13.4 inches, from Dion, Sanctuary of Isis, Courtyard of the temple of Isis Lochia (Archaeological Museum of Dion, photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports — Archaeological Receipts Fund, courtesy of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria and the Dion Excavations)
Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus
Oil lamp decorated with a panther protome (1st–2nd century CE), copper alloy, 14.6 x 13 inches, from Dion, Water organ sector (Archaeological Museum of Dion, photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports —Archaeological Receipts Fund, courtesy of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria and the Dion Excavations)
Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus
Spectacle-shaped brooch with fabric remains (Early Iron Age, 1000–700 BCE), copper alloy, iron, and textile, from Olympus, Tumulus cemetery of Mesonisi, Tumulus 2, grave D (Archaeological Museum of Dion, photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports — Archaeological Receipts Fund, courtesy of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria and the Dion Excavations)
Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus
Statue of an Eagle (2nd century CE), marble, 25 x 13.6 inches, from Dion, Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos, Cella (Archaeological Museum of Dion, photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports — Archaeological Receipts Fund, courtesy of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria and the Dion Excavations)
Installation view of 'Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus' (courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY)
Installation view, ‘Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus’ (courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY)

Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus continues at the Onassis Cultural Center NY (Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Avenue, Midtown East, Manhattan) through June 18.

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