The immortal Alexander the Great

The myth, the reality, his journey, his legacy

18 September 2010 - 18 March 2011

No other king from antiquity has such a powerful appeal to the imagination as Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). Nor other king has been so often cited and depicted as an example.

The exhibition The Immortal Alexander the Great will be on view from 18 September 2010 until 18 March 2011 in the Hermitage Amsterdam, with over 350 masterpieces, including the famous Gonzaga cameo from the State Museum the Hermitage in St Petersburg (number 46). This is the first time that any Dutch museum has devoted an exhibition to Alexander the Great, his journey to the East, and the influence of Hellenism. The exhibition spans a period of almost 2500 years. In the Hermitage Amsterdam, the ‘immortal’ Alexander will be brought to life for six months.

© Cameo. Twin portrait of Ptolemy II Philadelphos and Arsinoe II (Gonzaga Cameo), Alexandria. 3rd century BC, Three-layer sardonyx, 15.7 x 11.8 cm, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Alexander was born in 356 BC as the son of King Philip II of Macedonia. In boyhood he was taught by Aristotle, who would be an abiding influence on him. At twenty years of age Alexander succeeded to the throne, following his father’s assassination. Two years later he embarked on the great expedition that would seal his fame. His conquests brought him into contact with numerous countries and cultures: Syria, Egypt, Persia, Bactria, and India. He founded new cities wherever he went, naming many of them Alexandria. His arrival had a lasting impact on local architecture, art, language, and ways of life: in the course of time they assimilated and displayed Greek influence, a process that became known as Hellenism.

© Head of Alexander (fragment of a figure), Asia Minor, Bithynia (?), Roman copy, 1st century BC, after Greek original. 175-150 BC, Fine-grained marble, h 6 cm. State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Greek sphere of influence was vast: it extended from Asia Minor to India, from Egypt to Mongolia. Alexander’s name and fame has endured down to the present day.

The exhibition in the Hermitage Amsterdam gives a picture of Alexander himself and of the great cultural and artistic changes that followed in the train of his conquests.

The exhibition begins with the myth of Alexander. Images in paintings dating from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, tapestries, and decorative arts display his heroic deeds and conquests. Impressive examples include paintings by Pietro Antonio Rotari (Alexander the Great and Roxana, number 36) and Sebastiano Ricci (Apelles painting Campaspe, number 38), and a tapestry depicting The Family of Darius before Alexander the Great (number 40).

© Pietro Antonio Rotari (1707-1762), Alexander the Great and Roxanne. 1756, Oil on canvas, 243 x 202 cm, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The exhibition then moves on to Alexander’s reality, his native Macedonia, his teachers, his heroes Achilles and Heracles, and his ideals. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the figure of Hercules with the apples of the Hesperides from the 2nd century AD (number 08). The lion’s share of this reality consists of his journey, the Great Expedition to the East: an unparalleled campaign of conquest lasting over ten years, with an army that was more than 50,000 strong. Objects from Egypt and Persia, from the nomads and the Babylonians, attest to the rich cultures that he encountered on his travels. Visitors can follow the route of his celebrated journey on interactive maps and computers.

© Bust of Achilles, Roman copy, 2nd century AD, after Greek original. 170-160 BC, Marble, h 42 cm, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

This part of the exhibition also highlights the Greek influence on those other cultures. Terracotta figurines depicting men and women, gods and satyrs, musicians and Eros, and stone fragments of architecture, testify to the artistic wealth that characterized the Hellenistic territories from the fourth century BC to the first few centuries AD. While many of these works reflect the Greek spirit of cheerfulness and playfulness, the Greeks also took an interest in the atypical, such as disabilities and deformities.

Finally, the exhibition dwells on Alexander’s heritage. Fourth-century reliefs from Palmyra demonstrate the endurance of Greek traditions outside Greece, as do papyruses bearing texts in Greek, which were still being produced in the ninth century. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Alexander played a prominent role in Persian literature, in which he is known as Iskander. He is recognizable in finely executed miniatures. On an illumination from a manuscript of Khamse by Nizami Ghanjavi Iskandar and the Hermit are dipicted (number 42).

© Iskandar and the Hermit. Illumination from a manuscript of Khamse by Nizami Ghanjavi, Manuscript copied by Mahmud in Herat for Sultan Shahruh, 10 Rabi’ II 835 Hijra (December 16, 1431 AD) Paper, gouache, gold, 23.7 x 13.7 cm, inscribed area 17 x 8.7 cm, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Alexander the Great is still a topical figure in our own times. Very recently (2004) a broad international public became better acquainted with him thanks to Oliver Stone’s film of his life. Alexander is a phenomenon. He is immortal. And the exhibition on show at the Hermitage Amsterdam makes this abundantly clear.

Erwin Olaf was asked to make photographic interpretations of Alexander, which he did in a photographic series and a short film. By interlacing objects from the exhibition with photographs of an actual model, Olaf has succeeded in skilfully conveying Alexander’s character traits and his handsome features. (see: image sheet Morphing Alexander by Erwin Olaf).

© Morphing Alexander by Erwin Olaf

Opening hours

Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed on April 26 and December 25

© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

More information:
+31 (0)20 530 74 88

More information online ticketing:
+31 (0)20 530 87 55