The small size of the Cycladic island of Delos belies its significance in the ancient world, both as a major sanctuary and as a thriving port. According to myth, it was on this remote and rocky pocket of land in the Aegean that Leto, pregnant by Zeus and persecuted by his wife Hera, took refuge and delivered her twin children, the gods Artemis and Apollo. The sanctuary of Apollo was established by at least the 9th century BC, bringing worshippers to the island from across the Greek world for centuries to come.
During the Hellenistic period, however, many newcomers were drawn to Delos for trade. The port was declared exempt from tax in 167 BC, and soon after commercial activity took centre stage on the island. Merchants from all over Greece, Italy, North Africa, the Near East, and the Black Sea made their homes on the thriving, multicultural island. They brought with them new beliefs, deities, and ideas, and, in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, sanctuaries devoted to the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis, Syrian Adado and Atargartis, Philistine Baal-Zebul, and the Roman Lares, as well as a Jewish synagogue, all appeared.
The sacred status of the island, today uninhabited but for a handful of archaeologists, saw a number of works gifted by reverent Greeks installed around the site in antiquity. It was a chance to show off wealth, cultural accomplishments, and religious devotion at this place where people from distant parts of Greece convened. The Athenians, for instance, sent fine Pentelic marble and experienced artisans to build a temple to Apollo (now known as the Temple of the Athenians) between 425 and 420 BC.
Perhaps the most famous of the gifts to Delos are the series of elegant and fierce lions dedicated to the Apollonian Sanctuary by the Naxians, who hailed from a nearby island, by the end of the 7th century BC. There were between 9 and 19 lions originally installed on a terrace. Those that remain at Delos now reside in the site museum, while replicas occupy their former places out on the lion terrace.
The museum offers the original lions shelter from the rains and the visitor relief from the sun, as well as a detailed account of the French School at Athens’ ongoing work at the site since 1873. And for the next few months, the displays of statuary from the Temple of the Athenians, the Temple of Artemis, monuments, and well-appointed dwellings on the island are joined by something rather different: an iron figure lying on the floor.
Give and take
In the 1st century BC, the island was attacked by the formidable enemy of Rome, King Mithridates of Pontus, and then by his ally Athenodorus. After this, Delos fell into decline and many of the island’s inhabitants left as its status as a prominent place on Mediterranean trade routes plummeted. The ancient buildings were abandoned, but some elements of the site were repurposed elsewhere. On the neighbouring island of Mykonos – the main departure point for Delos – columns, pillars, and other bits of ancient stonework can be seen reused in churches and other buildings, and recent excavations have uncovered two of Mykonos’ lime kilns, which were previously used for burning marble from ancient Delos for the manufacture of paint for the bright whitewashed buildings associated with Greek islands.
The sculpture in the museum by British artist Antony Gormley is part of an ambitious project that is now giving something back to the island’s arts. A collaboration between the Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades, NEON (a non-profit organisation founded in 2013 with a record of staging art shows in historic locations in Greece), and Gormley sees the ancient site play host to a contemporary art exhibition. Twenty-nine works by the artist, among them five new site-specific commissions, have been thoughtfully placed around the island, including beyond the main tourist route, to encourage new ways of interacting with and thinking about the ancient ruins.
For a contemporary show in and around an ancient site, Gormley is a well-qualified choice. A self-professed lover of Cycladic art, he studied archaeology, anthropology, and art history as an undergraduate, recently presented a BBC documentary on cave art, and has a clear appreciation and profound respect for the site. His work presents a different approach to a familiar subject we encounter across the ancient world: the human form.
Some of the ‘bodyforms’ are striking; there is, for example, a lone figure standing on the rocks, visible only by boat, and a lofty reflected pair of figures in the House of Dionysus. Others are more understated, lying low among the ruins with their metallic block-like components resembling fallen masonry. Gormley describes them as a sort of ‘acupuncture’, offering points to reflect on what is already there. Setting is important, then, and the works draw attention to the stories their locations can tell, such as of the slave trade in the agora, and of spectacle in the theatre that could seat 6,500 and around which the city’s oldest residential district grew.
Freshwater was scarce on ancient Delos. The inhabitants relied on rainwater to fill the immense public cistern by the theatre or deep tanks of private homes. The art too – both ancient and modern – has been at the mercy of the elements. One of Gormley’s newly commissioned works was originally designed to be placed in the water of the Minoan Fountain (a 6th-century BC public well with an inscription dedicating it to Minoan nymphs), but unusually heavy rainfall in the spring, which also gave rise to the bright blanket of wildflowers across the island this May, filled the fountain more than expected, so the figure now stands at the side, gazing in.
The exhibition, carefully installed to avoid any damage to the archaeology, is the first (and possibly last) of its kind on Delos. The displays of modern material culture reflect the ancient island’s role as a place of trade and exchange of ideas, where people from across the known world congregated, and now brings together old and new, connecting people to material remains of the past in imaginative ways.
Antony Gormley | SIGHT
Address: Archaeological site and museum of Delos, accessible by boat mainly from Mykonos, as well as from Paros and Naxos.
Open: until 31 October 2019. Daily, 8am-8pm (opening hours may vary depending on the month).
Admission: €12 (concessions €6) for entry to site. There is no extra charge for the exhibition.
Images: Oak Taylor Smith / courtesy NEON; Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades, and the artist