12 Must-See Exhibits at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens

Embark on a journey of discovery with the Museum of Cycladic Art's top 12 must-see exhibits, showcasing the rich cultural heritage of Early Cycladic civilization.


The Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens is a beacon for all those who are passionate about exploring the prehistoric and ancient cultures of the Aegean and Cyprus. Boasting over 3,000 items in its permanent collection, with a special emphasis on Cycladic art from the 3rd millennium BC, the museum has been acclaimed by The New York Times as “one of the world’s most significant privately assembled collections of Cycladic antiquities,” establishing it as a must-visit destination for art aficionados and history enthusiasts in the Greek capital.

Founded in 1986, the museum owes its inception to Greek shipowner Nikolaos Goulandris and his wife Aikaterini (Dolly), whose private collection laid the foundation for its initial exhibits. Nestled in a modern building in central Athens, a stone’s through from the National Gardens, the museum’s design harmonizes with its historic surroundings, offering a serene environment for exploration. Renowned for its comprehensive array of Cycladic marble figurines, vases, sculptures, coins, jewelry, and numerous other unique artifacts, the gallery layout takes visitors on a chronological journey from the Neolithic (New Stone Age) to the Post-Byzantine period, with an added section dedicated to the history and archaeology of early Cyprus. 

In the early 1990s, the Museum of Cycladic Art expanded to include the neoclassical Stathatos Mansion, located at the corner of Vassilissis Sofias Avenue and Herodotou Street. Designed by the celebrated German-Greek architect Ernst Ziller in the late 19th century, the mansion features an ornate façade, tall columns, and large windows that echo the classical influences of ancient Greece.

Navigating such a spectacular museum can be overwhelming, so we’ve compiled a list of 12 highlights from the permanent collection to guide your visit (subjective, of course). For those exploring with young children, consider turning this list into a treasure hunt! The museum inventory numbers are included in the margins to help you locate each piece easily.

 

Female Figurine (2700-2400/2300 BC)

Among the most iconic treasures of the Museum of Cycladic Art is a striking female figurine from the Early Bronze Age (2700-2400/2300 BC), crafted from crystalline white marble. One of several dozen figurines on display, this canonical piece is a prime example of the so-called Dokathismata variety, attributed to the renowned “Ashmolean Museum Master,” named after the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where his/her largest known work is displayed.

The figurine, which stands at just over 39cm tall, features a triangular head with a prominent, long aquiline nose, and angular shoulders that curve slightly downward. The chest is rendered in relief, and the arms are folded over a slightly distended abdomen, likely symbolizing pregnancy.

 

This particular piece’s serene and abstract form captures the essence of Cycladic art’s minimalist aesthetic, making it a standout example of prehistoric Aegean artistry. The careful rendering of individual details, such as the incised V on the neck, the shield-shaped head, and the joined legs, showcases the meticulous craftsmanship of the sculptor. More broadly, the strict geometric structure, harmonious proportions, and abstract simplicity of Cycladic figurines – and Cycladic art in general – had a significant influence on 20th-century artists, including Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, and many others. 

Object No.

ΝΓ0206

“The Cup-bearer” (2700-2400/2300 BC) 

Another intriguing figurine from the Early Bronze Age, this time rendered in a seated position, is the renowned “Cup-bearer.” Crafted from white marble and measuring 15.2 × 4.3cm, this rare artifact is the only intact example of its kind discovered to date. Although its gender is not explicitly indicated, it is believed to represent a male figure due to its dynamic, “action-orientated” posture. The figure sits on an integral marble stool, holding a cup in its right hand, poised as if ready to propose a toast or perform a libation.

Archaeologists have surmized that this figurine exemplifies the early works of the so-called Spedos variety, characterized by the plasticity of its volumes and the parted legs. The “Cup-bearer” belongs to a series of elegant Cycladic compositions known as “special form” figurines. These include standing and seated males engaged in activities such as playing musical instruments (flute-players and lyre-players – a famous example is on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens), as well as seated females and groups of two or three figures. Most of these works date from the early phase of the Early Cycladic II period (2700-2200 BC).

 

The purpose of these special figurines remains enigmatic, though their repeated forms suggest they held specific functions, possibly as votive offerings, or ritual objects. The dynamic nature of “The Cup-bearer” sets it apart from more static Cycladic figurines, showcasing the artistry and cultural significance attributed to such depictions.

Object No.

ΝΓ0286

“Frying Pan” (2800-2700 BC) 

Another captivating piece in the Exhibition of Cycladic Art is this mysterious “frying pan,” dating back to 2800-2700 BC. Crafted from reddish clay with inclusions, this unusual ceramic piece measures 5 × 18.3cm and features a distinctive quadrilateral handle. Its surface is adorned with intricate incised and impressed decorations filled with a white substance, likely kaolin. The base is elaborately decorated from the center outward with a series of motifs: a spiral, a ring zone of triangles, a running double spiral, and another zone of triangles. The frying pan’s vertical walls are similarly decorated with a double running spiral and a zone of triangles.

This type of ceramic vessel, common in the Early Cycladic II period (2700-2200 BC), gets its name from its characteristic shape reminiscent of a frying pan. Typically, these vessels have low vertical or slightly flaring walls and a handle, either forked or quadrilateral. The decorations on the base often include concentric circles, spirals, and radiate ornaments, which might symbolize celestial bodies or sea waves. Indeed, some frying pans even feature incised boats and triangles, potentially representing female anatomy, hinting at symbolic associations with nature and fertility.

 

While the exact purpose of these “frying pans” remains a mystery, their presence in both graves and settlements suggests varied uses. Proposed interpretations include ritual vessels for libations or offerings to the dead, containers for cosmetics, drums for funerary rituals, mirrors, navigational instruments, or even plates for food. This enigmatic artifact not only showcases the artistic ingenuity of Early Bronze Age artisans but also provides a window into the symbolic and practical aspects of prehistoric Cycladic life.

Read more on the hypothesized function and purpose of Cycladic frying pans here.

Object No.

ΝΓ0971

“Dove Vase” (2700-2400/2300 BC) 

This bizarre-looking object has had archaeologists scratching their heads for years. Whatever its purpose, the aptly-named “dove vase,” dating back to 2700-2400/2300 BC, is undeniably an outstanding example of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship.

The “dove vase” is a large (5.1 × 39 × 41.5cm), disc-shaped marble plate with low walls, adorned with a row of 16 doves carved in the round across its center. Doves appear to be a popular motif in Early Cycladic art, perhaps, as today, symbolizing peace and harmony.

 

This particular vase is the largest and best-preserved example of its type, known only from the tiny, uninhabited Cycladic island of Keros, specifically the site of Kavos-Daskalio, excavated by archaeologists from the University of Cambridge. The presence of the row of birds across the diameter of the bottom suggests a ritualistic function. Scholars have proposed that it may have been used for ritual offerings, as objects of symbolic significance were often deposited and deliberately broken at Kavos-Daskalio, most probably in the context of specific rituals.

What do you think it was used for?

Object No.

ΝΓ0329

Mycenaean Burial Larnax (1400-1200 BC)

Stepping away from the Exhibition of Cycladic Art, keep an eye out for this intriguing object: the long side of a Mycenaean clay cist-shaped burial larnax, dating from the Late Bronze Age (1400-1200 BC). Measuring 54 × 99cm and made of coarse-grained, pale reddish clay, this larnax (coffin or enclosed “ash chest”) is adorned with a detailed depiction of a procession of mourners, all marching to the left. The figures are all women, wearing long skirts with fringes and a headdress known as “polos.” The first woman in the procession is dressed in a more richly decorated garment, suggesting she may be a priestess. Each figure is shown with hands raised to their heads in a gesture of deep lamentation, indicative of the “prothesis” (the laying in state of the dead), a ritual preceding the “ekphora” (the procession to the grave).

Larnakes (plural), four-sided clay coffins with legs and a cover, were used in elite Mycenaean burials, and contained the cremated remains of the dead. Their sides often featured representations of religious processions, mourners, and occasionally scenes of burial, warriors, priests, and mythical creatures. This particular larnax likely originates from the Mycenaean cemeteries at Tanagra in Boeotia (Viotia), north of Athens, where similar examples have been excavated. While larnax burials were relatively rare on mainland Greece, they were a common practice in Crete from the Middle Minoan period (2000-1600 BC).

 

The painted representations on the larnakes of Tanagra provide invaluable insights into Mycenaean burial customs and religious practices in the Late Bronze Age. This specific larnax, with its detailed depiction of a mourning procession, not only highlights the ceremonial aspects of Mycenaean funerary rituals but also offers a glimpse into the societal roles and attire of the period.

Object No.

ΚΠ0060

Pyxis with Horse Figurines (760-750 BC) 

Staying on the Greek mainland, this elaborate clay “pyxis” is an exquisite example of Attic pottery from the early years of the Late Geometric period (760-700 BC). Measuring nearly 25cm in height, it is a luxurious variation of the flat pyxis, a vessel traditionally used for storing cosmetics and jewelry. 

Adorned with intricate Geometric motifs, both the body and lid of the pyxis are beautifully decorated. Particularly striking are the four horse figurines standing atop the lid. 

 

Pyxides were commonly found as grave goods in female burials and as votive offerings in sanctuaries dedicated to female deities. In the early 9th century BC, spherical and pointed pyxides with conical lids were predominant. However, by the latter years of the 9th century and the early 8th century BC, the flat pyxis had replaced the spherical one. 

This specific type of flat pyxis, with horse figurines adorning the lid, appears to have been intended exclusively for male burials, typically found in the graves of the aristocratic class, the Knights (“Hippeis”). These horse figurines likely symbolized the aristocratic status of the deceased. 

This pyxis not only showcases the artistic sophistication of Attic pottery during the Late Geometric period but also provides valuable insight into the social and cultural practices of ancient Athens. Its intricate decoration and symbolic significance make it a fascinating artifact, shedding light on the elite class and their burial customs during this period.

Object No.

ΝΓ1103

Black-figure Amphora, attributed to the Swing Painter (540-530 BC)

Another masterpiece of Attic black-figure vase-painting is this amphora attributed to the so-called Swing Painter, dating from 540-530 BC. Standing just over 40cm tall, it is a stunning example of Late Archaic pottery.

On the main side of the amphora, facing the viewer, Dionysus, the god of wine, is depicted flanked by two Satyrs, mischievous half-human, half-horse creatures from Greek mythology. The other side features a scene of divine assembly, with Hermes and Athena in the middle, Ares on the left, and another figure on the right. The intricate details of the decoration are rendered with incisions and added colors, showcasing the skill and artistry of the Swing Painter.

 

The depiction of Dionysus on this amphora reflects the god’s popularity in 6th century BC Attic vase-painting, especially on vessels associated with wine consumption. The prevalence of such scenes on Attic vases from the latter half of the 6th century BC suggests the increasing significance of the cult of Dionysus in Attica

The Swing Painter was one of the most prolific Athenian artists of the second half of the 6th century BC. He earned his name from his repeated depiction of a girl on a swing, a subject that became his signature motif.

Object No.

ΝΓ0716

Corinthian Helmet (475-450 BC) 

For those visitors with a keen interest in ancient Greek arms and armor, this remarkable object is one of the best-preserved Corinthian helmets on display anywhere in the world. Dating from the early to mid-5th century BC, this helmet represents an advanced stage in the development of the Corinthian type, featuring a spherical shape that would have provided a better fit for the wearer and, crucially, better protection. 

Crafted from a single sheet of bronze, this helmet would have effectively shielded every part of the head, boasting a larger nose-guard, cheek-pieces, and a neck-guard; significant advancements in design and functionality compared to earlier types.

 

This particular helmet, weighing 787g and measuring 23 × 29cm, was possibly an offering to the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. Similar helmets have been found in graves and sanctuaries, where they were often dedicated by victorious warriors. 

During the Persian Wars, Greek hoplites (citizen soldiers that served as heavy infantry) commonly wore Corinthian helmets into battle. An almost identical example found in the Museum at Olympia bears the inscription “Miltiades offered (me) to Zeus,” suggesting it was a votive offering by the Athenian general Miltiades after the Battle of Marathon of 490 BC.

The Corinthian helmet is undeniably the most characteristic type of Greek helmet. Its introduction in the late 8th century BC marked a significant innovation in ancient metalworking, providing effective protection for the head. This innovation coincided with the rise of hoplites and the creation of the military phalanx, revolutionizing tactics in ancient warfare.

Object No.

ΚΠ0075

Fish-Plate, attributed to the Palmer-Scallop’s Painter (Third quarter of the 4th century BC) 

This quirky-looking object is a large footed fish-plate attributed to the so-called Palmer-Scallop’s Painter, dating from the third quarter of the 4th century BC. Measuring 17.6cm in diameter, it is a superb example of functional Classical period pottery.

The plate features a rim decorated with a “tongue-like” pattern and is adorned with red-figure decoration. Two large fishes are depicted, either swimming or portrayed as food placed inside the dish. A scallop and a small shell are shown between the fishes. 

 

This fish-plate is the product of a “Campanian” workshop in Italy, and is attributed to the Robinson Group. We know that fish-plates, also known as fish-dishes, were particularly popular in the workshops of southern Italy in the mid-4th century BC, although the earliest examples were already produced in 5th century BC Attic workshops. 

Of particular interest in this example is the circular depression or cavity in the middle of the plate. Scholars agree that this cavity was used for “garum,” the accompanying sauce made from fermented fish entrails, a delicacy in the ancient Mediterranean world. 

Look out for the other fish-plate in the museum collection – Object No. ΝΓ0043 – depicted in the video above.

Object No.

ΝΓ0714

Statue of a Child Holding a Hare (320-310 BC) 

Standing at just over 52cm in height, this captivating marble statue of a child holding a hare in his left hand is a remarkable example of Early Hellenistic sculpture.

The statue portrays the child with more naturalistic elements, exhibiting an exaggerated movement of the body and an elaborate hairstyle typical of his age and gender, a significant departure from the more rigid styles of early statuary. The child’s character is further accentuated through a cheeky smile and a round belly, beautifully capturing the innocence and charm of childhood.

 

During the 4th century BC, Greek sculpture shifted away from the idealized models of Early Classical art toward realism. Artists began portraying figures with individualized features, attempting to convey the inner psychological state (“ethos”) of the subject. 

By the end of the century, as the Hellenistic period began (323 BC), a new trend emerged, focusing on images from private life in both city and countryside settings. Sculptors aimed to depict ordinary people in simple everyday situations rather than in exceptional moments or in death, as had been common in early Classical art.

During this period, there was a particular interest in representing children, who had previously been only a complementary subject in Greek art. Statues of children, both boys and girls, were often found as offerings in sanctuaries such as the one dedicated to Artemis in Brauron, on the southeast coast of Attica.

Object No.

ΝΓ0277

Gold Earring with Eros (3rd century BC)

If bright, shiny things excite you, then seek out this exquisite piece of Hellenistic jewelry: a gold earring dating from the 3rd century BC. A stunning example of ancient craftsmanship, the earring features a wire hook in its upper part and a disc decorated with a central setting and a continuous spiral around it, resembling a vine shoot. Hanging from the disc is a ring with a full-length winged Eros, the Greek god of love and desire, depicted naked, and wearing a mask. He holds an inverted torch in his right hand and a ribbon or “telamon” in his left hand, a nod to his presence in the Dionysian “thiasos” (troupe), in which he participates wearing a mask. 

This particular type of earring, with flying figures suspended from discs (e.g., Eros, Nikes, Sirens), was popular in the late Classical (400–323 BC) and Hellenistic periods (323-31 BC). Indeed, the frequent depiction of Eros on earrings is also attributed to their close relationship with Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, as well as to aesthetic reasons. These winged figures were considered the most suitable accessories for earrings.

 

This gold earring not only showcases the skill and artistry of ancient goldsmiths but also provides valuable insight into ancient fashion and cultural practices. 

Object No.

Ζ0450

A Little Something from the Island of Aphrodite …

The Museum of Cycladic Art is home to one of the best collections of Cypriot artifacts outside of Cyprus. Be sure to have a look around this remarkable gallery, and keep your eyes peeled for this little treasure:

Cruciform Figurine-Pendant (3900-2500 BC) 

Stepping back in time to the Chalcolithic period (literally “Copper Stone Age”), 3900-2500 BC, we encounter this light-green picrolite cruciform figurine-pendant from Cyprus. This ingeniously shaped artifact, standing at just 3.9cm tall, is a masterful combination of two figures intersecting at right angles. The outstretched arms of the larger figure form a second, smaller figure with a long neck and incised facial features. A suspension hole at the top of the larger figure’s head suggests that it was worn as a pendant.

This type of “double” figurine is extremely rare in Cyprus, and its exact significance remains a subject of scholarly debate. Interpretations range from a mother and child, a couple in a mating position, to an amulet with magical properties, possibly worn by those hoping for twins. The choice of picrolite, a soft stone native to Cyprus with an attractive green-blue hue, adds to its allure. This particular example hails from the Paphos district in the west of the island, the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

 

The cruciform figurine-pendant not only showcases the craftsmanship of Chalcolithic artisans but also provides a glimpse into the symbolic and mystical beliefs of ancient Cypriot society.

For more information on this remarkable museum, its collections, and temporary exhibitions, visit the website here.

Object No.

Z0668

Information

4 Neophytou Douka St. / 1 Irodou & Vas. Sofias Ave., 106 74, Athens

Opening hours: 

 

Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday 10.00-17.00

Thursday: 10.00-20.00

Sunday: 11.00-17.00

Closed on Tuesday

Last entrance is 15 minutes before the Museum closes.

The Cycladic Shop and Cycladic Café are accessible without an entrance ticket.

Tickets:

General admission: €12

Discounted admission: €9

For general enquiries, telephone (+30) 210.722.8321-3 or email [email protected]



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