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  • Writer's pictureStella Sevastopoulos, MA

A Brief History of the Museum of Cycladic Art (MCA) in Athens

What is the Museum of Cycladic Art?

The Museum of Cycladic Art, often referred to as MCA, is a museum in Athens that houses one of the largest private collections of Cycladic art worldwide, as well as an important collection of ancient Greek and Cypriot art and artefacts.

Museum of Cycladic Art entrance.

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Museum of Cycladic Art History

The Museum of Cycladic Art (or MCA) showcases the impressive collection owned by the high-profile couple of the shipping world Dolly and Nicholas Goulandris. Housed in the museum’s building on Neophytou Douka Street, the MCA opened to the public in 1986. Since 1991, the museum has also leased the nearby Stathatos Mansion, on Vasilissis Sophias Avenue, for its temporary exhibitions; the two buildings are connected by a glass-roofed corridor. The Stathatos Mansion dates back to 1895, and boasts the architectural brilliance of its Bavarian creator Ernst Ziller, who had designed it as a family home for shipping magnate Othon Stathatos.

Traces of human existence have been found on the Cyclades (the group of islands located in the centre of the Aegean Sea, and sprawling slightly to its south) since 7,000 BC. Permanent settlements in this area date back to around 5,000 BC. Cycladic figurines, small and strong-featured sculptures of human forms, have been discovered there in their masses. They present rather an enigma: to this day their exact purpose and significance remain unknown, and no written records survive to enlighten us. Archaeologists believe they had a religious purpose, but are unsure who exactly the ancient people of the Cyclades worshipped. Judging from the appearance of the figurines, they probably included female deities.

These Cycladic figures are among the earliest three-dimensional representations of the human body. The ‘canonical’ marble Cycladic figurines (whose forms stay fairly stable for five centuries), present the nude female figure with arms folded on the waist, and with knees flexed. The head faces slightly upwards and its prominent feature is the sculpted nose, while the rest of the facial features are in most cases conspicuously absent (although there’s evidence to suggest that they were painted on). Most of the figurines are up to 60 centimetres tall, but can reach up to 150 centimetres, and these are considered to be statues. The collection at the MCA includes both small and large Cycladic figures, such as a marble female statue of the Spedos variety, which dates back to the early Bronze Age and is the second largest in the world (at 140 centimetres tall).

It was not until the mid-20th century that the abstract and minimalist aesthetics of the Cycladic figurines received belated attention and praise: until then, and since the Renaissance, the ideals and aesthetics of Classical Greece had enjoyed the limelight. In the modernist movement, artists who delved into the aesthetics of more ‘primitive’ art forms, rediscovered the beauty of these figurines, and their influence was profound: from Romanian sculptor Brancusi, to Swiss sculptor Giacometti, Italian sculptor Modigliani, or even Spain’s Picasso. British sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were also influenced by these ancient forms. But in recent years, it’s the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who has paid tribute to them, and who back in 2016 was also invited to exhibit his work both at the MCA’s Stathatos Mansion and amidst the ancient artefacts in the permanent exhibition. Inspired by the figurines, Ai Weiwei decided to create a large version, with arms uncrossed, which appears to have just dropped a vase – an image that preoccupies him, and shows his modernist-like tendency to stage provocative encounters between traditions and cultures.

Be sure to admire the delicate glass vessels and beautiful amphorae (or storage jars) at the MCA, and other more unusual objects: ancient tweezers; a black-glazed feeding bottle from the 5th century BC; a Cypriot cruciform figurine-pendant made of picrolite; a ‘Dove Vase’ used for ritual offerings; and the flat, round, decorated clay forms which archaeologists call ‘frying pans’, but whose use is unknown.

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