Alexander the Great. The Road to the East
On 13 February 2007, one of the largest exhibitions of the year opened in the rooms of the Neva Enfilade in the Winter Palace. The exhibition’s key idea is to show not only the personality of Alexander the Great but the transformations which the Age of Alexander brought in. The main theme of the exhibition is Alexander’s travels, the Eastern campaign and its consequences both for the West and for the East. The exhibition shows how great civilizations met - the Hellenistic world, the ancient empires of the East and the world of nomads. Everywhere that Alexander went, the process of Hellenization was begun. Everywhere he spread Greek architecture and art, the Greek language and way of life. This influence affected a huge territory extending from Greece to India and right up to Mongolia and other states beyond the frontiers of the Oecumena (i.e., the world as it was known to the Greeks). At the focus of attention is the historic role played by Alexander in the destiny of Western Europe, Russia and the East, and Hellenism as a global process of interaction between civilizations and cultures. This is the first time that an exhibition devoted to Hellenism has been organized on such a large scale. The exhibition displays more than 500 artifacts and embraces the chronological period from the 5th century B.C. until the end of the 19th century.
The first section of the exhibition (Antechamber) presents the myth of Alexander in the art and culture of Western Europe and Russia as it came down to us in modern history. Among exhibit items dating from the 16th - 19th centuries, we find works by such outstanding artists as Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Alexander and Diogenes), Sebastien Bourdon (Augustus before the Tomb of Alexander) and Sebastiano Ricci (Apelles paints Campaspa before Alexander of Macedon).
The main part of the exhibition (Nicholas Hall) begins with the art of Classical Greece in the period preceding Alexander’s campaign. Here we see vases from Italy and Attica depicting scenes from the Iliad as well as statues of Dionysus, Achilles and Heracles, monuments from the semi-barbarian culture of the Balkans which produced the king of Macedon, as well as works by northern nomadic peoples - another powerful political force of the age (weapons, parts of horse harnesses). These exhibit items give us an idea of the cultural, political and artistic atmosphere in which the personality of the great ruler and military commander took shape.
Several sections are devoted to Alexander’s campaign in the East, which embodied the idea of an expansion of Greek culture. These sections follow Alexander’s itinerary sequentially. Here we see monuments of art and culture from the states located on the territory of Asia Minor, monuments of Ancient Egypt during the Ptolemaic age, as well as works representing the tradition of Antiquity in the Christian art of Coptic Egypt. Among the masterpieces are the gem of Alexander in the form of Zeus, depictions of Alexander on coins and his miniature portrait in marble, portraits of the Hellenistic kings Mithridates VI Eupator and Ptolemy, the Gonzaga Cameo, a statue of Cleopatra VII, a fresco from Nymphae depicting Isida’s ship (possibly an ambassadorial ship from Egypt to the Bosporus) and works of Hellenistic jewelry and silver utensils.
A small section of the exhibition acquaints the visitor with the art of Iran during the age of the Achaemenids and later. Hellenistic Syria (the age of the Seleucids) is represented by a group of coins. The art of Palmyra demonstrates the persistence of the traditions of Antiquity in this region in the Roman period as well. Many of the artifacts in the section on the Hellenized East are being shown publicly for the first time. These include monuments from Central Asia, Parthia and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Among them are a famous frieze from the settlement of Airtam, a sculpture from Khoresm and a clay frieze from Penjikent, the depiction of an Antique head on a silver tankard and of scenes from tragedies by Euripides on a silver cup, Aesop’s fables in paintings from Penjikent and the she-wolf of the Capitol on frescoes from the palace of the medieval state of Ustrushana.
The final two large sections of the exhibition show the development of the Antique tradition in later periods in the countries of the Mediterranean and the East. On the one hand, the Indian state of Gandhara several centuries after Alexander’s campaign, which brought a strong influence of Late Hellenistic and Roman traditions. On the other hand, Byzantium, which was the last Hellenistic state and which built a new Christian world on the foundations of Antiquity.
The exhibition shows how Alexander’s campaign in the East gave the impetus to the process of Hellenization and provided a vector and historic scale to this movement. This was precisely when the outlines of Western European culture took shape and, in particular, the path for development of the arts that took place from the Renaissance to our own day. The major discovery of the Greeks - art as imitation of nature - remained alien to the oriental perception of the world, but it was precisely this which lay at the basis of Western European artistic language.
During the age of Hellenism, the Greek artistic style became universal. It was born and embodied the idea of the cultural unity of the world, and this was the main consequence of the campaign in the East of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia.
Seven departments of the State Hermitage helped to prepare the exhibition. The exhibition’s curator and the scholarly editor of the catalogue is A.A. Trofimova, director of the Department of the Ancient World.
The State Hermitage Publishing House issued a catalogue in time for the exhibition’s opening. The authors of the articles it contains are leading specialists who are on the staff of the State Hermitage and of the St Petersburg State University: Director of the State Hermitage, Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky; Head of the Department of History of Ancient Greece and Rome at St Petersburg State University E.D. Frolov; Scholarly Secretary of the State Hermitage, M.M. Dandamaev; Director of the Department of Archeology of Eastern Europe and Siberia, A.Yu. Alekseev; Director of the Department of the Ancient World A.A. Trofimova; researcher of the Department of Western European Fine Art A.V. Ippolitov.
More than 180 of the exhibits on display are being presented to the public for the first time. The exhibition is accompanied by a video film about Alexander of Macedon and his conquests which was prepared by the Sector of Computer and Information Technologies.