A Study of a Dionysiac Sarcophagus

A Study of a Dionysiac Sarcophagus

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A Study of a Dionysiac Sarcophagus

In the Los Angeles County Art Museum

A man dies. He winds his way down into the underworld to reach the banks of the river Acheron where he meets the ferryman Charon. He takes a coin from his mouth to pay the toll across. On the opposite bank he is greeted by a Maenad or perhaps Bacchus himself who offers him a kylix of wine. Drinking deep, the man is transformed and resurrected from death to a higher plane. Instead of living a miserable dream in the underworld he receives redemption from his god Dionysos, the Savior. In Roman imperial times there was a great resurgence of the "Mystery" cults of Greece fueled by the hope of a life after death. In funerary monuments there can be seen the tenets of the religion as well as how it views the afterlife. Within the Los Angeles County Art Museum stands such a vessel created to facilitate this journey to eternal bliss.

A gift from William Randolph Hearst, the piece is a sarcophagus from the Severan period of the Roman empire near the end of the second century detailing a procession of Dionysos, the god of wine, and his followers. Such a procession could be from Dionysos's messianic journeys or from his triumphal return from spreading the wine cult. Originally in the mausoleum of a wealthy family in Rome, the sarcophagus was in later times used as a planter for a flower bed(Matz, 3). This "misuse" of the piece explains the deterioration of the marble which necessitated extensive restoration in the 17th century(4). It is tub shaped with dimensions of 2.1 meters long and 1 meter wide, standing 0.6 meters from the ground. The shape is similar to tubs used for trampling grapes which had spouts ornamented with lions' heads to vent the wine(3). Being shaped like a wine vat makes the sarcopagi a transformative force in its own right by symbolically turning the person interned within into wine ! bringing him closer to the god. Unlike other sarcophagi of the period the back of this piece has not been left unhewn, but instead a strigal pattern of repeating "S" shapes has been carved, suggesting that the piece may have stood in the center of the mausoleum.

Unlike other more famous and elaborate Dionysiac sarcophagi, such as the Seasons sarcophagi and the Triumph of Dionysos in Baltimore which portray specific pivotal events in the mythos of Dionysos, this piece gives us instead a somewhat generic slice of Bacchic life(Matz, 5).

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The style and portrayal of the figures, of course, predate the Roman empire; sarcophagi of this type were mass produced in shops based on patterns and drawings from Greek artisans(Alexander, 46). Dionysos himself is in the center holding his scepter, the thyrsos, in his left hand and pouring wine with his right while riding a panther, a sacred animal closely associated with the god(Matz, 4). Flanking him are two lion heads that represent Dionysos's attempts to escape death at the hands of the titans by transforming into a lion, among other animals, which then lead to his death and subsequent rebirth(Graves, 103-104).

To the right of Dionysos is Silenus, his tutor from his childhood, holding a vessel most likely filled with wine. The presence of Silenus reinforces the cult's belief in eternal youth. Next to Silenus is a Maenad, or female raver, playing a flute above Pan the goat god of the forest. Below Pan and the right lion head are two cherubs, one wearing a mask of Silenus while the other rears back in fright(Matz, 4).

On the left of Dionysos are two satyrs and another smaller image of Pan holding a cup of wine. Further left is another Maenad, this one playing a tambourine, who is being followed by a satyr. Below the left lion head there is another cherub, or putto, and a young satyr. Rounding out the left side on the end is still another maenad followed by a satyr. On the right end there is a satyr, playing the cymbals, following a half nude maenad. Completing the piece, in the background behind the main figures there are two kids(an animal Dionysos often transformed into), another pan and a small panther.

Through looking at the piece we can get some idea of what a gathering of the cult is like for the followers. The practice of the cult was entirely informal when compared to worship in the temples of the sanctioned gods. Unlike worship of the gods of the state-sponsored religion, Bacchic festivals took place outdoors far away from the crowded cities in the forests which harkens back to ancient times before man built temples. When they arrived in the forest, Dionysos gave them herbs, berries, and wild goats to eat and plenty to drink(Hamilton, 57). Wine of course was ever present at these gatherings to honor the wine god. Wine was a sacramental representation of the god himself; drinking wine freed the initiate from the restraints of earthly matters to come together with the god through ecstasy which literally translated from the original Greek means ‘outside the body'(Mcann, 128). This individualistic nature of communion continually practiced gave the faithful a feeling ! of closeness with the god.

The mask of Silenus on one of the putti is a nod to the importance theater played in the cult. The greatest poets of Greece wrote plays honoring Dionysos which were considered sacred to the cult. Both comedies and tragedies were performed, reflecting the dual nature of the god and of wine itself(Hamilton, 61). Wine can inspire man to lofty endeavors and merry frolicking, but, it can also turn him into a savage beast.

Like the Egyptian god Osiris, Dionysos suffered a violent death by dismemberment. Cult members would honor the god by frenzied dismemberment of bulls and sometimes unfortunate men rent with hands and teeth which were then devoured, symbolically taking Dionysos within themselves. This gruesome ritual, accompanied by loud music and the crashing of cymbals, was intended to propel the reveler even further into a state of ecstasy to achieve a liberation from the body. These rites of sacrament and communion stem from the myths surrounding Dionysos symbolizing his birth, life, death, and rebirth of the god through the eternal renewal of life in the natural world which give the faithful a promise of an eternal existence.

Of great significance to the scholar is the window that sarcophagi and other funerary monuments give into the lives as well as the afterlives of the practitioners of the cult. In the case of the Bacchic cult it is especially important in that before the Romans became more open to the emerging prevalence of the cults of the second century little is known of their funerary practices due to the cloak of secrecy surrounding the mystery cult. In fact, the cultists were persecuted by the Roman state religion prior to the acceptance of the rediscovered cults by the aristocratic class as evidenced by increasing number of such sarcophagi(Lehman, 24,26) In using such sarcophagi containing the portrayal of their faith and creeds, the followers of the cult were assuring themselves divine protection and a faith-ordained afterlife.

Bibliography and Works Cited

1. Alexander, Christine. "A Roman Sarcophagus from Badminton House." The Metropolitan Museum Bulletin, vol.14 (October 1955), pp. 39-47.

2. Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. Penguin Books, Maryland, (1955)

3. Greenhalgh, Michael. "Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey." rubens.anu.edu.au/turkey/book/toc1.html (WWW), chap. 8 (1996)

4. Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods And Heroes. New American Library, New York, 1969

5. Lehmann-Hartleben, Karl. Dionysiac Sarcophagi In Baltimore. Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1942

6. Matz, Friedrich. "Rediscovered Dionysiac Sarcophagus." The Los Angeles Museum of Art Bulletin, vol.8, number 3 (1956), pp.3-5.

7. McCann, Anna. "Two Fragments of Sarcophagi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Illustrating the Indian Triumph of Dionysus." The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery,
vol. 36(1977), pp.123-36

8.Thompson, Homer. "Dionysus among the Nymphs in Athens and Rome." The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, vol. 36(1977), pp. 73-84
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