Representations in Art

Depictions of Dionysus in Art. Dionysus, like Apollo and Heracles, is one of the most frequently represented figures in ancient and postclassical art. No more than a very few selections can be given here from the thousands of surviving works of art
Dionysus begins to appear on Athenian vases in the mid-sixth century B.C.: a black-figure vase by the Amasis painter shows Dionysus with human devotees and dogs (ca. 550 B.C., now in Bloomington, Indiana). The god is robed, bearded, and wreathed with ivy, and he has a cup (in this case a horn-shaped vessel) in one hand. Another black-figure vase (ca. 540, now in London) shows him flanked by two ithyphallic satyrs carrying two maenads, one of whom plays the double flute and one the castanets. He is shown alone, holding a cup and staff, in a red-figure vase (ca. 480, also in London). Sometimes he holds the thyrsus (normally an attribute of maenads), as in two red-figure vases (ca. 450 B.C.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Dionysus is also portrayed as a young nude god, sometimes holding a thyrsus, as on a red-figure vase in London (ca. 340 B.C.), sometimes alone, as on the east pediment of the Parthenon at Athens (where the god seated on an animal skin and has also been interpreted as Heracles), sometimes with Ariadne (see below). Remarkable re-creations of the youthful Dionysus are the marble statue of Bacchus by Michelangelo (1575, now in Florence) and the painting Bacchus by Caravaggio (ca. 1596, also in Florence).

The Birth and Nurture of Dionysus in Art. Vases depicting the fate of Semele and the birth of Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus have been mentioned in connection with Hermes (see Chapter 12), and Dionysus-Zagreus will be discussed in connection with Orpheus (see Chapter 16). The lid of the Indian Triumph sarcophagus ca. 150 A.D., now in Baltimore), to be discussed below, shows the scenes of the conception, birth, and nurture of Dionysus in sequence. In postclassical art the birth and nurture of Dionysus were frequently painted in the seventeenth century. Poussin’s painting The Birth of Bacchus (1657, in Cambridge, Massachusetts: see Chapter 12, above), shows Zeus (Jupiter) in the heavens being ministered to by Hebe, while Hermes delivers the infant to the nymphs of Nysa, watched by other nymphs, who will also be his nurses. Poussin several times painted The Nurture of Bacchus: one version (ca. 1625) is in London, and two others in France (Paris and Chantilly).

Dionysus’ Arrival Depicted on Sarcophagi. The myth of Dionysus’ arrival from the east (vividly narrated in the first chorus of the Bacchae) was frequently portrayed in relief sculptures on sarcophagi. An exceptionally fine one is The Indian Triumph of Dionysus (ca. 150 A.D.), from the tomb of the Calpurnii Pisones in Rome, and now in Baltimore. The god’s chariot is drawn by panthers, and he is preceded by satyrs, maenads, sileni, and elephants, lions, and other animals. In this relief, as on many other sarcophagi, he is shown young, robed, and holding the thyrsus. One of the finest of all Roman sarcophagi is the Seasons Sarcophagus (ca. 225 A.D., now in New York), in which the young Dionysus, seated and half-robed, is shown flanked by four young men representing the fruitfulness of the seasons.

Dionysus and Ariadne. The myth of Dionysus’ arrival to make Ariadne his bride was also frequently represented. On a red-figure vase (ca. 470 B.C., now in Berlin) by the Syleus painter, Theseus leaves Ariadne as Athena gestures towards him, behind Athena, Dionysus (robed and bearded) leads Ariadne away. In the next century Dionysus is shown as the young god with Ariadne, most splendidly in the so-called Derveni Krater, a large bronze container (for ashes) with reliefs of Dionysus and his followers (ca. 330 B.C., now in Thessalonike). In the main relief the nude young god sits on a rock with Ariadne, who unveils herself in a gesture of acceptance of her husband.
Dionysus appears quite often in Roman paintings at Pompeii and Herculaneum. In the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii is a fresco (ca. 50 B.C.) showing an initiation rite, perhaps of a bride before her wedding, presided over by Dionysus and Ariadne. Its interpretation is still a matter for debate, but its Bacchic theme is certain.
The coming of Dionysus to Ariadne was significant in funerary art as an allegory of the waking of the soul from death to eternal life. This is the theme of a sarcophagus from the cemetery under St. Peter’s basilica in the Vatican (ca. 180 A.D., still in place). The god comes in his chariot drawn by a lyre-playing centaur and preceded by a centauress, Pan, and a silenus. In the center he stands, robed and holding a thyrsus reversed, looking towards the sleeping Ariadne, near whom are maenads. On the right two maenads are about to attack Pentheus. On the lid are dancing maenads, satyrs, and sileni. This may have been a Christian burial, and certainly Dionysiac themes are common in early Christian art.
The theme of Dionysus and Ariadne is very common in postclassical art. Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (ca. 1520, now in London) is a fine example, and it shows both the arrival of the god and Ariadne’s crown (the constellation Corona) in the heavens. Of infinitely inferior quality but of historical interest is the painting by Gustavus Hesselius (1728, now in Detroit) of Bacchus and Ariadne, the first mythological work painted in colonial America (a companion Bacchanal is now in Philadelphia).

The Vine of Dionysus. Like the myth of Ariadne, the vine of Dionysus has been important in Christian art. In archaic and classical art Dionysus or his followers are wreathed with vine leaves or ivy. In early Christian art (especially in mosaics) the vine appears as an allegory or symbol of eternal life, in part because of Christ’s saying "I am the true vine" (John 15:17). It is shown on the wall mosaic of Christus Apollo in the Vatican cemetery (see Chapter 11), and the vine and the vintage are repeatedly shown in the mosaics of the fourth century A.D. on the vaults of the church of Santa Costanza in Rome, built to house the sarcophagi of the emperor Constantine’s mother and family. All these images appear in postclassical art with great frequency.

Resistance to Dionysus: Pentheus and Lycurgus. Central to the theme of resistance to the coming of Dionysus is the myth of Pentheus. Euripides’ masterpiece dominates the tradition, but Ovid’s narrative in Book 3 of the Metamorphoses has also been influential. The death of Pentheus is shown on a red-figure vase (ca. 480 B.C., now in Toronto) about 75 years before Euripides’ Bacchae, and its appearance in the Vatican Ariadne sarcophagus has been noted above. At all times the myth has been more popular in literary works than in art.
The resistance and punishment of Lycurgus is the theme of a "cage-cup" (carved from a single piece of green translucent glass, that shows red when a light is placed behind it) of the fourth century A.D. (now in London). On one side Lycurgus is shown trapped in the vine that he tried to cut down, and Dionysus, Pan, a nymph, and a satyr are shown on the other side.

Dionysus and the Pirates. A special example of the epiphany of Dionysus is his appearance to the sailors as narrated in the seventh Homeric Hymn. One of the most beautiful of all Greek vase paintings is on the kylix by Exekias (ca. 530, now in Munich), only 4.5 inches in diameter. Dionysus, robed, reclines in the ship, round whose mast a grape-laden vine entwines itself. The crew have already leaped into the sea and have been transformed into dolphins. Ovid tells the story in the Metamorphoses (3.582-691).

The Dionysiac Thiasos: Satyrs and Maenads. Just as common as Dionysus himself are representations of his thiasos, or entourage. Maenads appear in innumerable vase paintings, usually with the god or in association with satyrs: the early painting by the Amasis painter (ca. 530 B.C., now in Paris) is a fine example. In it two maenads in long patterned robes and wearing jewelry, each with an arm round the other, dance in step towards the god (robed, bearded and holding a wine cup) and offer him a hare and a panther: they hold ivy tendrils. Perhaps the finest of all painted maenads is the unaccompanied dancer on the round kylix by the Brygos painter (ca. 480 B.C., now in Munich), robed and wearing a leopard skin over her himation. She carries a thyrsus and a small leopard, and her hair is wreathed with a serpent. In group paintings and reliefs, satyrs are shown with maenads, often attacking them or carrying them off (the satyrs are usually ithyphallic) but never actually succeeding in their lustful designs. With them also may be sileni and centaurs and centauresses, as on the Ariadne sarcophagus in the Vatican. Poussin recreated the classical motif in the painting  of A Nymph Carried by a Satyr (ca. 1630, now in Kassel). The Dionysiac thiasos appears repeatedly in postclassical art, especially in the paintings of revelers in the sixteenth century, for example, Poussin’s Bacchanalian Revel before a Term of Pan (1636, now in London). In the twentieth century Picasso was especially fascinated by the lustful and voyeuristic nature of satyrs (and their Roman equivalent, fauns), and many of his drawings of them have been published. Examples (copies in Cambridge, Massachusetts) include Satyr Dévoilant une Femme (from the Vollard suite, 1936); Les Faunes et la Centauresse (1947); Faune Musicien (1948); La Danse des Faunes (1957).
The Dionysiac thiasos appears early in Greek art with paintings of the myth of The Return of Hephaestus, in which Dionysus escorts the drunken Hephaestus back to Olympus riding on a donkey. The myth is shown on the François Vase (ca. 575 B.C., now in Florence) and on a black-figure vase by Lydos (ca. 550 B.C., now in New York).

Silenus and Sileni.  Silenus is a more complex character, especially as a source of wisdom. Vergil exploits this in his sixth Eclogue, where the song of Silenus is an extraordinary conflation of cosmogony, human history, epic, mythology, and Roman poetry. Sileni appear very commonly in postclassical art along with other members of the Dionysiac thiasos: unique, however, are the two paintings by Piero di Cosimo The Misfortunes of Silenus (ca. 1505, now in Cambridge, Massachusetts) and The Discovery of Honey (now in Worcester, Massachusetts), both based on Ovid's Fasti (3.734-45). Equally mysterious is Giovanni Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (1514, now in Washington, D.C.: see Chapter 5 above), in which Dionysus, Silenus, and a satyr all appear. More obvious in meaning is The Drunken Silenus by Rubens (1617, now in Munich).
The gift to Midas of the golden touch as a reward for his return of Silenus to Dionysus is told by Ovid (Metamorphoses 11. 85-193), whose narrative is the inspiration for Poussin’s painting of Midas Bathing in the River Pactolus (1629, now in New York), which does not focus on the usual interpretation of the myth as an allegory of foolish greed.

Pan and Syrinx. Pan is often found in the company of Dionysus and his followers. His lustful and pastoral aspects are seen in the name-vase of the Pan painter (ca. 460 B.C., now in Boston), where he is shown pursuing a shepherd: his uninhibited lust makes all the more poignant the painting of the Death of Actaeon on the other side of the same vase (see Chapter 10 above), where the mortal is punished with a horrible death for his unwitting violation of the chaste privacy of the goddess Artemis. Pan appears frequently in the paintings of Poussin (see above for his Bacchanalian Revel before a Term of Pan), most splendidly in The Triumph of Pan (1636, now in London), where the garlanded term of Pan presides genially over the dancing and reveling followers of Dionysus. Pan, perhaps because of the implications of his sexual vigor, has been especially popular in the literature of the post-Freudian age.
Ovid’s tale of Pan and Syrinx (Metamorphoses 1. 689-713) has inspired a large number of works, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Poussin’s Pan and Syrinx (1638, now in Dresden) is exemplary, and Rubens painted the story many times, for example, in 1617 (now in London).

Echo and Narcissus. Echo is sometimes said to have been torn to death by shepherds maddened by Pan. Ovid’s version (Metamorphoses 3. 342-510), however, in which she fades away for love of Narcissus, has dominated the tradition. Of the very many postclassical versions Echo and Narcissus by Poussin (1630, now in Paris) is exceptional. In the painting by Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo (1644, now in London), the landscape dominates and the mythological narrative is minimal.
Poussin associates the death of Narcissus with the birth of Dionysus in his Birth of Bacchus (1657, now in Cambridge, Massachusetts: see above and Chapter 12), where the dead Narcissus and the grieving Echo appear to the right of the reception of Dionysus by the nymphs. Thus Poussin contrasts the life-giving fertility of Dionysus with the sterility of Narcissus’ self-love.
Narcissus alone looking at his reflection is a very common subject, for example, in paintings by Caravaggio (ca. 1599, now in Rome) and François Le Moyne (1728, now in Paris). The discoveries of Freud led to a renewed interest in Narcissus in the twentieth century, especially in poems (e.g. by Rainer Maria Rilke, 1904). He has also appealed to the surrealists, for example, Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937, now in London).

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