Mosaics, Wine, and The Spirit of Dionysus

Pella. Pebble mosaic, Dionysus on the Panther. 103 x 106 ΒΌ in. (262 x 270 cm). 330-310 BC.

This week we at the Abbeville Blog toast Greek and Roman Mosaics, a comprehensive survey of classical mosaic art by Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello. And when we toast mosaics, we toast rowdily, with bowls of wine. That’s because, as you thumb through the (gorgeous, full-color) illustrations in the book, you’ll find that a striking number of ancient dining room floors feature mosaics with Bacchic themes.

What would we do without Bacchus, a.k.a. Dionysus, a.k.a. the god of wine, revelry, and ritual madness, a.k.a. everyone’s favorite god? This jovial scamp has been entertaining the masses and driving women crazy since he first popped out of Father Zeus’s thigh.

Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale (inv. 9991), from Pompeii, House of the Faun (VI.12.2), triclinium (34). Winged Dionysus on a Tiger, 64 1/4 x 64 1/4 in. (163 x 163 cm). Late second century BC.

His influence on Greek and Roman mosaics is far-ranging but sometimes intriguingly oblique. For every Winged Dionysus on a Tiger from the House of the Faun in Pompeii–in which the god carries a giant wine jug and rides that tiger like the party will never end–there is a more subdued or even sinister memento of ancient drinking culture, such as the wine pitcher-toting skeleton from another Pompeiian mosaic. (Both pieces are held at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.) These were civilizations that knew, and honored, both the ecstatic and the sobering side of drink.

For a god, Dionysus is not always portrayed as especially powerful. A famous pebble mosaic at the palaces of Pella, about 28 miles southwest of Thessalonica, “depicts Dionysus, limp and ephebic, on the back of a sinuous, rampant panther, a theme also seen in vase painting,” according to Pappalardo and Ciardiello. This image was part of the traditional symbolism associated with the cult of Dionysus. Does it perhaps symbolize the animal desires that master us during drunkenness, taking our weakened human willpower along for the ride?

Rome, Musei Capitolini (inv. 1256) from Tivoli, Villa Adriana. Drinking Doves. 33 1/2 x 38 3/4 in. (35 x 98.5 cm). Probably second century AD.

Nor are animals themselves, in these mosaics, immune to the charms of wine. One recurrent mosaic motif, the most distinguished rendering of which was discovered in Tivoli at the Academy of the Villa Adriana in 1737, depicts “Drinking Doves”: doves clustered around a winebowl. Pappalardo and Ciardiello suggest that they are “an epiphany of Aphrodite, or an apparition of the goddess of nature in the form of her sacred animal.” Later they “appeared in late-antique and Byzantine art, in which they took on a symbolic Christian meaning.” Though not a Dionysian image per se, these birds shed their own kind of light on the drinking culture from which they emerged. If there is something terrifying and self-abasing about drunkenness in Greco-Roman art, there is also something communal, even democratic. The power of drink and drinking rituals holds sway over all creation: gods and men, birds and beasts alike.


Click here to learn more about Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello’s Greek and Roman Mosaics, published by Abbeville Press.

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