Ancient Greek heroes take center stage in new exhibit

More than 100 pieces of ancient Greek art will go on display at the San Diego Museum of Art from May 22–Sept. 5 as part of “Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece,” a traveling exhibition organized by The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Among the works from European and North American museums are statues, reliefs, painted vases, coins and carved gemstones. These will be combined with literary quotations to illustrate the lives of heroes and heroines.

Even thousands of years later, the stories of the Greek heroes have deep resonance for modern audiences. Sometimes heroes are portrayed as superhuman protagonists, while at other times they emerge as average people who rise above the ordinary.

“The mission of The San Diego Museum of Art is to present the finest works from all times to our audiences,” said Dr. Julia Marciari-Alexander, deputy director for curatorial affairs at SDMA. “Because the museum does not have significant holdings of Greek and Roman art in its permanent collection, ‘Heroes’ affords us an ideal opportunity to show first-rate antiquities from major museum collections in the U.S. and Europe to our audiences here in San Diego.”

The Heroes exhibition is divided into three sections: “Heroes in Myth,” “Heroes in Cult” and “Hero as Role Model.”

“Heroes in Myth” presents the life cycles of four major heroes — Achilles, Heracles, Odysseus and Helen — each with distinct characteristics and unique tales. Visitors will learn about the heroes’ parentage, birth, education, marriages, deeds and death. A major component of the exhibition focuses on the triumphs and setbacks in each hero’s life revealing one’s vulnerability and ability to overcome obstacles.

The second section, “Heroes in Cult,” is devoted to the worship of heroes. Worshippers gave heroes sacrifices and offerings in hopes of receiving answers to prayers, and the exhibition includes a selection of these votive objects ranging from marble reliefs to small terracotta vessels to the bronze armor of a soldier.

Focusing on warriors, athletes, musicians, women and rulers, the final section, “Heroes as Role Models,” reveals not only the omnipresence of heroic representations, but also how much warriors and athletes were admired in ancient society.

The exhibition has been organized by The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, in cooperation with the Frist Center for Visual Arts, Nashville; The San Diego Museum of Art; and the Onassis Foundation (USA), New York. It is accompanied by a 328-page catalog with 10 essays and 106 color images published by The Walters Art Museum and distributed by Yale University Press.

If you go

  • What: ‘Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece’
  • Where: The San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
  • When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, May 22-Sept. 5.
  • Admission: $4.50-$12
  • Contact: (619) 232-7931,