Via dell’ Abbondanza, Pompeii / Wikimedia Commons
Initiation in the Villa of the Mysteries
[We are going] to explore a number of scenes: a frieze of figures, a landscape scene, portraits on Pompeian walls, and also still life painting. And we’re going to look at them both in the context of the architectural style walls that we’ve been discussing thus far this term, especially the Second, Third, and Fourth Styles, but we’ll also look at them as interesting in their own right.
House of Vettii Ixion Room, Fourth Style painting / Wikimedia Commons
[I have discussed] Fourth Style Roman wall painting, and I want to show you again what I consider the quintessential Fourth Style wall. It’s the Ixion Room in the House of Vettii, in Pompeii, and you see it here once again in all its garish glory. It’s an amazing painting. We talked about the fact that it is a kind of compendium of all the styles that went before. We described, for example, the socle, which attempts to imitate marble incrustation in paint, which of course makes reference to the First Style of Roman wall painting. We talked about the fact that the Second Style elements could be seen in the substantial columns that are located in the second tier, or in the main tier of the painted wall — columns that support a lintel above and a coffered ceiling. We see those here; we see them over here as well–those, again, elements of the Second Style.
[I] talked about the Third Style features in this particular painting, the mythological landscape in the center that has a frame, a black frame around it, to make it abundantly clear that this is not a window to something else but rather meant to look as if it is a flat panel painting hanging on the wall–Third Style element. Over here, another Third Style element, the floating mythological figure, in the center in this case, of a white panel with a border that is made up of floral or vegetal motifs–again elements of the Third Style. With regard to Fourth Style, the introduction of architecture, once again, on either side of the main panel in the main zone. These are not representations of complete buildings but rather, as we discussed, fragments of buildings depicted in illogical space, and then in the uppermost tier we see the architectural cages that we also described as characteristic of the Fourth Style. So all of these elements, as I said, a compendium of all of these painting styles, all in one place, is where Roman painting ends up right before the destruction of Mount Vesuvius.
Villa of the Mysteries plan / Wikimedia Commons
Villa of the Mysteries Cubiculum 16 / Wikimedia Commons
[I] also have looked to the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. We looked at it from the standpoint of its architectural evolution. We looked at the two phases, first and second phases, of the Villa of the Mysteries, and you’ll remember the plan. This is the second phase plan, which I show to you again, and you’ll recall the design of the villa, where you enter at the top. You enter into the peristyle, then into the atrium, then into the tablinum; this unusual sequence of rooms that is more in keeping with villa design, according to Vitruvius, than to house design. And we looked at a room, a Second Style wall painted room, called Cubiculum 16, and I can show you where Cubiculum 16 is on this plan. You see it right over here. And you’ll remember that this was an outstanding example of mature Second Style Roman wall painting — this idea of opening up the wall illusionistically. Remnants of the First Style wall still here. That wall is dropped down. We do have substantial columns, with projecting entablatures, a coffered ceiling above and, in this case, a lintel, and then an arcuated lintel; all of these elements typical of the Second Style, and especially the opening up of the wall to see a vista that lies beyond, in this case a tholos or round shrine, surrounded by blue sky. So quintessential Second Style, in Cubiculum 16.
The room that I want to turn now, also in the Villa of the Mysteries, is Room 5. It is to the right of the tablinum, and close to the southern side, close to the great bay window that was added in Phase Two to provide magnificent views out over the sea. Room 5, it’s a plain rectangular room, or so it looks in plan, fairly large in scale – not as large as the atrium but fairly large. I just want to point to the entranceway, to the room, a very small entranceway – it’s actually very important in terms of our decoding of these paintings that we find in there. There are are actually windows, rather than additional doorways. And we’re going to see that the designer of this particular room, the painter, took the corners, took the location of the door and also the corners of the room, and the location of the windows, into great consideration when he painted the scenes on this wall.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 / Wikimedia Commons
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 fresco / Wikimedia Commons
This is a view of Room 5 as it looks today. It’s often also referred to as the room with the Dionysiac Mystery Paintings, mystery paintings that we’ll see feature the god of wine, Dionysus. You can see from looking at this general view that the paintings are quite well-preserved. We’ll see that they cover all four walls of the room, except for the space–except for where the windows are, obviously. We see here a series of very large, monumental figures that seem to walk around the room in a kind of procession, and you see those extremely well here.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 doorway / Wikimedia Commons
With regard to the style of wall that it is, I show you another view over here where you can see those same large figures walking from the doorway along the side of the left wall. But you can also see the design of the wall as a whole, and if you look at it carefully you will note that the figures are, of course, placed against these large red panels. Between those red panels, what look — they’re clearly not columns, but kind of like flat pilasters here; that resting on a socle, down below; and then above, a meander pattern frieze; and above that another, a course that represents, in paint, what looks like variegated marble — variegated marble, the implication being again it would have been very expensive to bring from somewhere else.
So as we look at this, we think, “Well it’s kind of like a First Style wall.” But you can see that it’s not a relief wall, it’s not built up in stucco, it’s flat, because it was done entirely in paint. And yet, as you look at these very large figures, you see that they are standing on a ground line that projects into the spectator’s space, and that suggests to us that what we are dealing with here–if we have to categorize this and put it into First, Second, Third, or Fourth Style — we’re going to call it a Second Style Roman wall painting, because it has, again, residual from the First Style, but it’s done entirely in paint, but it has this projecting element at the bottom, this baseline on which the figures stand and on which the figures process. So a Second Style Roman wall painting with monumental figures.
A Mystical Marriage
And those monumental figures tell a story, and it’s a very interesting, very intriguing, very mysterious story indeed. And it is from the mystery scenes here, by the way, that the Villa of the Mysteries got its name. As you enter into the room and you make a sharp left–well first, of course, you enter in the room and you get a glimpse of the entire space — but as you turn to your immediate left, you begin with the beginning of the story. And the artist again has orchestrated this in such a way as to make it look like this woman, who is standing here, has actually entered through the doorway of the room, and is now beginning to process from that doorway, along the side of the room.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 left wall fresco / Wikimedia Commons
If we look at the woman, we see that she is wearing quite a heavy garment, over here. But it’s a very jaunty representation of this woman, because you can see she has her right hand on her hip, in an interesting way. And then, most interesting of all, is the fact that she wears a veil over her head, and it’s a kind of diaphanous veil, as I think you can see. It’s over her head, protects her hair, and then it wraps around her–she wraps it around her chest. She’s holding one corner of it, with her left hand, and the rest cascades down her back. The artist has paid a great deal of attention to that veil, because he wants to identify her for us, and to tell us that she is a bride. Brides were often depicted with voluminous veils, like that, as you see her here. And she is a bride–as we’re going to find out as we interpret these scenes–she is a bride, probably a young Pompeian woman, who is about to enter- who is about to participate in these religious rites that are going to allow her–it’s kind of like a fraternity or sorority initiation that she’s about to undergo: let’s say a sorority initiation that she’s about to undergo, because she’s about to go through something that’s going to enable her ultimately to enter into a mystical marriage with the god of wine, Dionysus.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 seated woman on fresco / Wikimedia Commons
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5, reading of the liturgy and purification on fresco / Wikimedia Commons
She enters here. Then she comes upon two other figures. There’s a seated woman, as you can see, who holds in her left hand, a scroll. She has her right hand on the shoulder of a little boy. Note that the little boy is completely naked and completely oblivious to the fact that he is naked. He holds in his hand a scroll, which he has–another scroll–which he has unfurled, and it looks as if he is–well there’s no question, he’s very intent on looking at the text on that scroll–and it looks as if he is reading from the text of that scroll. And we interpret that scroll, or we interpret his participation in this scene, as probably the fact that he is reading the liturgy, the liturgy that has to do with this cult of Dionysus and with the mystical marriage of women with the god Dionysus. It’s a wonderful depiction of that boy.
And I also show you here the rest of that particular side of the room. We’re going to look at all the figures in order, but I just wanted you to get a sense of the rest of the wall as it unfurls — this left wall as you first come into the room. And I wanted to point out, using this image, that again about how sophisticated this particular artist was, because he takes into consideration, as I mentioned before, the corners of the room, and they become part of the narrative. As you can see here, there’s an empty space, but the story line, as we’ll see, continues across the corner, and the figures over here interact with the figures on the other side of the bend in the wall, in again a very, very sophisticated and interesting way, and we’ll follow that through.
Before we do though, I just want to show you a head detail of the seated woman, to give you a sense of the extraordinary talent of this artist, whose name, unfortunately, has not come down to us. We see this head here, and you can see the way in which the artist has captured the moment: what this woman is going through, what she’s thinking about. She’s seated. She’s listening to the liturgy that’s being spoken by this boy. You can see that the artist has paid a great deal of attention to her eyes, which are wide open and very nicely painted. But one gets the sense, or at least I get the sense as I look at this, that she is not only wide eyed at what’s going on, but you also have a sense that she’s kind of almost jaded. She’s kind of seen it all. She has a sense of what the moment is and what is about to occur. Notice also the way in which her lips are slightly parted, and especially the hair.
The artist, as we’ll see, who was responsible for painting this–and it may have been more than one artist; it may have been a designer who worked with obviously others in a workshop. But whether it’s a single individual or several, it is very clear that this person or persons have a very good sense of what hair, real hair, is actually like. It’s the same as I mentioned when we talked about the gardenscape of Livia, and I said that that artist had clearly looked at nature and was actually depicting what he saw and knew about nature. Here is somebody, I believe, who has really looked at human beings, who has really looked at the way in which hair grows from the scalp, because you can see the way in which he has shown that hair growing from the scalp, and he understands that when you part your hair in the middle, there may be a certain part of the scalp that you actually see through the hair, and he has represented that extremely realistically here. So although we don’t know the name of this particular artist, we can acclaim his talent here, as we look at details such as this one.
The story continues from the boy reading the liturgy to the figure that you see here. It is a figure, again, of a woman. She is holding some kind of a dish, and she has on that dish probably–it’s very hard to identify exactly what’s there–but she has probably some items that have something to do with this cult, with this mystical marriage of these Pompeian women with Dionysus. She is dressed in–she has a light colored top and a purple–there’s a lot of purple in this scene–a very vividly purple skirt, as you can see down here. She is the first woman of the group to wear a laurel wreath over her head, as you can see. And she and all of them, by the way, wear bracelets. You can see bracelets around her lower arm. Some of them wear these arm bracelets up higher on their arms, as we’ll also see. And she’s one of the only figures that actually looks out at us, the spectators. She really is basically confronting us. We link eyes with her when we look at this particular painting, and the artist is obviously trying to establish fairly early on a connection between the viewer and what is happening in this scene.
The beginning of another scene here, with a series of women–and I have a better view of it here–where you can see what’s happening next. Here we have three women who are standing at some kind of a table, and one of the women, the woman on the right, has a pitcher from which she’s pouring some kind of liquid. Whether it’s water or wine or what, we’re not absolutely sure. It might well be wine, given that this is the Mysteries of Dionysus. She may be pouring wine. But whatever it is, it has been interpreted as a purification scene, in which something–and we can’t see what it is that’s underneath this purple piece of cloth that one of the women is holding up and revealing. They are purifying that or either an object or a series of objects on this table.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 fresco showing satyr with lyre / Wikimedia Commons
It’s a wonderful depiction of these three women, one woman holding the edge of the table over here, and looking to her compatriot who is pouring the liquid on this side. And a real tour de force–it’s not so easy to depict a figure from the rear and make it work, but this artist has done so. A very monumental woman, seated on a wonderful throne here, with a purple hem, as you can see down below. But look at the way he’s depicted her garment. It’s tight in some places and molds her body, and cascades in others. She’s also wearing a scarf that’s tied back behind her head, and she too wears a laurel wreath over that scarf. This woman has a laurel wreath as well. So they’re purifying; as part of this rite, they are purifying. Women, three women, are participating and purifying this object or objects here. This woman has her–she’s not really looking as you–well she isn’t looking at what she’s doing, as you can see. She’s doesn’t seem to be watching the purification, but rather is looking at this fellow over here, and given what he looks like, I guess that’s not surprising. Her glance is caught by him. Now who is he? He is what we call a Silenus, which is an older satyr. Who were the satyrs? The satyrs were the compatriots of Pan, P-a-n; compatriots of Pan. And so a young Satyr grows up into an old Silenus, and you see that Silenus here, and he’s a very interesting figure.
You can see that he’s completely naked, and in fact, well there are naked men and naked woman in this, as we’ll see. But it’s interesting to see which ones are and which ones aren’t. He is, and you can see that this great purple mantle that he had draped around his body has completely, or almost completely, fallen off. He is playing a lyre, as you can see here, and probably singing, along with his lyre playing. And not only has his garment fallen off, but you can see that he is not–one foot is on the pedestal, on which the–or on a base, on which the pedestal that supports the lyre is located. But another leg has slipped off that pedestal. Why is that? He’s quite tipsy. We know that the Silenuses and the satyrs did a lot of drinking, very serious drinking. He has clearly imbibed, and he is not very much in control of himself any longer. So he’s probably pretty oblivious to the fact that his clothing has fallen off and that he too has slipped off the base, as he sings. So it’s not surprising that this woman casts her glance towards the goings on next to her.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 / Wikimedia Commons
The satyrs again are associated with Pan. And goats are also associated with Pan, and you can see one of them is feeding the goats here. These young boys all have sort of Pan or animal ears, as you can see very clearly, the pointed animal ears. And this one is playing a flute. So one playing a flute, one feeding the goats, both of them seated on a kind of rocky area over here. This figure is of particular interest. It’s a woman clothed with a white garment that is sleeveless. She has one of these bracelets on the upper part of her arm. It is clear that she is afraid and she is fleeing from something. You can see that she holds up her left hand, she holds up her left hand, as if she is trying to ward something horrific off. And you can see that she is — by the way, while she’s holding up her hand to ward it off, you can see that she’s absolutely mesmerized by whatever it is that she’s seeing. Her eyes are staring straight ahead–wide eyed, staring straight ahead–to look at whatever it is that is on one hand fascinating, and on the other horrific. She is clearly in a rush, because you can see that the purple mantle that she wore has been caught in the breeze; as she tries to escape, the breeze is caught in that, and it almost serves the purpose of a kind of parachute that’s about to rescue her from whatever it is that she has seen and that has frightened her.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 / Wikimedia Commons
We are now at the first corner of the room. So again, the artist has taken the corner into consideration and created this dramatic interaction between this woman and whatever it is that she’s afraid of on the other side of the corner. And before I show that to you, I just wanted to show you a close-up of her face, to again give you a sense of how talented, how extraordinarily gifted this artist was in capturing the moment, in capturing the feelings that this woman must have been going through. Once again, the very wide eyes, fascinated by what she sees, but seemingly all knowing. She’s seeing something that she doesn’t quite expect, but you get the sense that perhaps she did know all along that she was going to see something of this nature. The parted lips, once again, and the expert way in which the artist has shown the way hair naturally grows out of the scalp of the head, again achieved magnificently in this head detail.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 fresco, dancing satyr with mask / Wikimedia Commons
What is she fleeing from; what is she afraid of? This horrific mask that is being held by one of the satyrs. We see another set of two young satyrs here, and an old Silenus again, and one of the satyrs holding up this horrible mask, and that seems to be what has put fear into the eyes of this particular woman. With regard to the scene of the satyrs, you can see that–the Silenus and the satyrs–the Silenus is seated on some kind of marble block, as you can see here. He looks very similar to the one that we saw before. An older man with those animal ears, as you can see, one of the satyrs holds a mask. All of these figures, by the way, do not have any–are semi-naked. You can see that they have bare chests, in all cases, and the mantle’s only covering the lower parts of their bodies. And the Silenus, while looking back toward the woman, is holding a large cup from which one of the satyrs is drinking. It’s a kind of–I always think of this as a kind of Mory’s Cup–and you see that the Silenus is holding it, the younger satyr is drinking from it. So again, this has a lot to do with drinking and getting drunk, this mystery and–at least from the male point of view, because it actually seems to be the men who are drinking, and not the women who are drinking, in this particular instance.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 fresco, young satyr drinking from cup / Wikimedia Commons
It’s a wonderful–let me also show you a detail of the young satyr drinking out of the cup, and you can see how gifted again this particular artist is. I don’t think this artist always gets the hands right. He tries. They’re sometimes a little bit awkward, but on the other hand he really has made an effort to show the way in which hands and fingers grip something, both from the bottom and also from the top. He’s very good with the eyes. Again you get–it’s just wonderful the way he has achieved showing this satyr on one hand greedily drinking from the cup, but at the same time with one eye–you can see one eye, and that one eye is very much on what it is that he’s doing. He’s looking at that liquid quite intently, as he drinks it, and I think that’s very well achieved here. And again this extraordinary way in which the artist has depicted the hair of this young man as it grows out of his scalp. Particularly talented; you don’t see that very often in Roman painting.
The God of Wine and His Brides
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 back wall fresco, satyrs with Dionysus and Ariadne / Wikimedia Commons
The center–we’re now on the back wall; we’ve turned the corner, it’s the back wall, the wall that you face when you come into the room and look ahead. And we see that the scene that follows the Silenus and the satyrs with the mask is the scene that you see here, and it is the most important scene in the painting, because it is a scene that represents Dionysus himself, this man with whom all of these Pompeian women are anxious to be initiated into his rites, and to enter into mystical marriage with him. Here he is, and he is wasted, clearly. Look at him. Despite the fact that he’s about to enter into marriage with all these attractive young women, he’s completely out of it. He is lying in the lap of Ariadne, his mortal lover; you see her here. And look at his eyes, they’re sort of rolled up into the top of his head. He couldn’t possibly support himself, without Ariadne’s help. His arms are outstretched behind him; in fact, she has to put her arm around his chest in order to protect him.
And I think it’s interesting to see the way in which women are represented as protective beings, in these paintings. The woman earlier on who puts her hand around the boy who’s reading from the liturgy, and now Ariadne who drapes her arm around Dionysus: Dionysus, the god of wine. You can see again that he had a mantle–and that’s about it–on, but that is slipping off. And you can also see that he’s so drunk that although he’s kept one sandal on, he’s lost the other sandal. You can see his bare foot over here. You’re looking at the bottom of the foot. That sandal is gone, and if you look for it, you can find it; here it is, it has fallen off and it is located closer to Ariadne. Look also at the staff that Dionysus usually carries: the thyrsus of Dionysus. It’s there and it helps to identify him, as does the ivy wreath that he typically wears. Note the yellow ribbon that is tied around the thyrsus. But one wonders how that thyrsus is being supported, because you can see I guess it’s just leaning slightly against the chair on which Dionysus sits, but one wonders how it is being supported. But it crosses his body here, and is meant again as an identifying attribute for the god of wine.
The fact that we see Dionysus in this state and also on the lap of Ariadne is interesting, especially the lap of Ariadne. Because again, she was his mortal–she herself was a mortal–his mortal lover. And I think one of the ways of interpreting this as–a scene like this–seeing that Dionysus could unite with a mortal woman gave hope to the women of Pompeii who were hoping to be initiated into this mystical religion, and to embark on a mystical marriage with Dionysus. This gave them hope that if another mortal woman was allowed to enter into a relationship with Dionysus, then they too would be able to follow in Ariadne’s footsteps. And so this is a very important message, I think, of hope to those women who were hoping to become initiates of this particular cult.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 fresco, discovery of the phallus / Wikimedia Commons
The next scene that we see is also a very interesting scene and a very important one. It’s the one that comes right to the right of the scene of Dionysus and Ariadne. And we see here the discovery of the most important cult object in this scene, which is the phallus. We see a woman kneeling. Her arms are wonderfully depicted, as they seem to barely touch whatever it is that lies beneath this purple cloth. We see down below a basket that is certainly the basket in which the phallus, the secret ritual–the most important but secret ritual item in the Dionysiac religion–was kept. And there’s been a lot of speculation, what was behind the purple cloth. Is it an erect phallus? Very possibly, that’s exactly what it is, that would have been kept again in this basket, but is underneath here.
Although the speculation has been so wild that we even have a scholar who has written an article suggesting that the profile of this particular cloth here is so similar to the profile of Mount Vesuvius that what we have here is a reference instead to Mount Vesuvius and to the fact that this scene takes place in Pompeii. It’s a very intriguing idea. I can’t imagine that it’s correct, but nonetheless it gives you some sense of the kind of scholarship and some of the speculation there has been about what is actually going on here. But it seems to be the covering, in this particular case, and possibly about to reveal the secret–the most important secret item in this cult.
You see in the “discovery of the phallus” fresco portion the figure of a woman who is winged; the only winged figure that we see in these scenes. You can see her large outstretched wings behind her. She is naked from the waist up. She’s wearing a fantastic skirt–I love this skirt–with purple around the waist and purple at the hem, and then a wonderful–it flips out, it’s brown, and it flips out, and it matches these great tall boots, brown boots, that she also wears. And she’s sort of on her tippy-toes as she herself puts up one of her hands, perhaps again to ward something off; we don’t know what. But with the other hand what’s most important, she has her hand behind her back and she’s about to bring a whip, which you can see, down on the back of one of the initiates.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 fresco, initiate about to be whipped / Wikimedia Commons
And as we look across the corner–again the artist masterfully taking the corner into consideration in his design vis-à-vis the content and the execution–we see the way in which that whip is about to come down on the back of one of these initiates who’s kneeling and has her head in the lap of a woman who protects her. Here is the scene. So again we see the figure, the winged figure with the whip. We see the object of the whipping, this initiate here. She is kneeling. She is in the lap, in part, of a woman who seems to protect her, or try to protect her. The woman who is trying to protect her, her eyes are very wide. She is staring up at the winged figure, imploringly it seems, almost imploring her, “Please, enough, enough, please stop.” And she is very nurturing to the young girl who is undergoing this initiation, as she pats her on the head, as you can see here. An incredible view of this woman, the way in which the upper part of her body is exposed for the whipping, the rest of it covered in a voluminous purple mantle, as you can see here.
Also figures to her right, a naked woman who is placed in front of, interestingly, a very heavily clothed woman, in a dark garment, which only serves to accentuate the lightness of this woman’s flesh. This sort of contrast or tension between clothed and unclothed also seems to play a very important part in this particular painting. But this woman is incredible. Again, the artist has enjoyed trying to represent figures from the rear, as well as from the front. And you see he has also shown her on her tippy-toes, as she is–well she has cymbals above her head and she’s crashing those cymbals, and then she is dancing on her tiptoes, down here. But it’s an incredible feat because she also has this gold mantle that is over her shoulder and between her legs, and somehow she’s keeping this mantle balanced as she is dancing and as she is playing her music. And then there’s another thyrsus of Dionysus that seems to be located–that is located between these two women, and one wonders again how in the world that thyrsus is being held up, as this woman is participating in this dance and music-making over here at the right.
To get back to this figure, I just want to show you a detail, because I think in this detail you really get, almost more than anywhere else in this painted frieze, the extraordinary talent of this particular artist. Here the artist gets these hands really right. You can see this, the limp hand of the woman being whipped almost says it all–it’s an incredible detail–as does the more nurturing hand of the woman who is trying to protect her. And I think you can get a sense of what she must be going through by the way in which the artist has represented her face. He has cast her eye–her eyes are–this is one of the only closed eyes; it may be the only closed eye in the scene–her eye is closed, or almost closed, and it is sunken, it seems to be sunken in a darkness here, that gives you some sense of the pain that this woman must be going through: pain that she obviously feels, however, is worth it. And look also at the way in which the hair has been depicted here. You really get the sense of sweat drenched hair, of this woman again who’s going through what is almost certainly the most difficult moment in her life, but one that she hopes is going to be well worth it, at the end of the day. It’s an incredible detail, I think.
Conclusion to the Initiation Rites
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 fresco, bride with attendant / Wikimedia Commons
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 fresco, admiring cupid / Wikimedia Commons
After that scene, there is a window, and then at the very end of that wall–we’re now facing the room on the right wall of the room–there is one last corner, and we see here what is represented across that one last corner. It is a very young woman, seated on a kind of a throne here. She has an attendant standing next to her, and then there’s a small winged cupid at the left, and then across the corner we see another cupid, standing on a base, leaning on a pedestal, winged again, his head resting on one of his hands, and he is looking across the corner at what is going on, on the other side. And he looks very, very admiring. And in fact whom is he admiring? He’s admiring another one of these young initiates, a young woman who seems to be readying herself to become a bride, who’s getting ready for her initiation. She wears a glorious golden garment that is wrapped, and wrapped around her waist is a purple tie, a purple ribbon or tie, as you can see here. She is again accompanied by another woman, an attendant, and the two of them together are actually fixing her hair, to get her ready again for her mystical marriage–I have a detail of her to show you in a moment.
You see the cupid in front of the bride holding up a mirror in his hand, a rectangular mirror. And if you look very, very closely–and you can study this detail on your own as well–if you look very closely you can see that there is a reflection of the young woman’s face in that mirror. So a lot of attention being paid to the readying of this woman, to be a bride, to enter into the mystical marriage with Dionysus. And we see a detail here where we can see her; see how pretty she is; see how her–again the artist has shown this extraordinary ability to depict hair as it really is, growing out of her scalp. You can see the part of her hair, the scalp showing through, the way in which the hair grows from that. And then you can see that not only is she working on arranging it, but she’s getting help from the attendant. The attendant also has a section of her hair in her hand, and the two of them together are trying to get her ready for her mystical marriage. Her arm is up. You can see both of her bracelets: one around her wrist, and then another bracelet up on the upper part of her arm.
Villa of the Mysteries Room 5 fresco, woman on throne (house matron) / Wikimedia Commons
We see this woman here, a woman who is seated on a very elaborate throne. She too is veiled. She has again a combination gold and purple garment: bracelets, she’s wearing bracelets. But she is veiled. So again the implication is she too is a bride. She seems very placid. She seems somehow a little bit older than some of the other brides. And what has been speculated–she’s very pensive; you can see she leans her chin on one of her hands. She seems to be sitting there, right at again the doorway of the room. She seems to be seated there, basically surveying everything that’s happening in front of her. And because she looks a little bit older, because she looks a little bit wiser, because she is looking out at the panorama of what’s happening in front of her, it has been speculated, and I think quite convincingly, that the woman we see here is probably the matron of the house — probably the wife of the man who owned and built the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, who was herself an adherent to the cult of Dionysus, and has set aside this secret room in her house for the cult of Dionysus in which she can help initiate other young women into this mystery cult.
Just one, a couple of quick words about religion and cults during this period. The Roman religion was the Roman state religion. Everyone essentially adhered to the Roman state religion, which was very closely allied with the government of Rome. So Church and State very closely allied in Roman times. But as time went on, a number of religions had emanated from other parts of the Empire, especially the Eastern Empire. The cult of Dionysus, the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, began to take hold, both for men and women. Women had a particular predilection for the Egyptian goddess Isis and for the Dionysiac mystery religions. And initially, because they were not accepted by the state–the only religion that was considered legitimate was the Roman state religion–since they weren’t accepted by the state–and this included Christianity–these religions had to be celebrated in, or the rites had to be done in secret. And so we see underground rooms, underground buildings being built for this purpose–I’ll show you one a bit later in the course–but we also see rooms in houses being set aside for these kinds of rites. And that seems to be what happened here. The woman of the house, the matrona, the materfamilias of this particular family, who lived in the Villa of the Mysteries, has set aside Room 5 as this secret chamber in which she can practice the Dionysiac rituals, and she can also encourage other women, in Pompeii, to partake of those same rituals.
The Wanderings of Odysseus
Fresco of wandering of Odysseus, house on Esquiline Hill in Rome / Wikimedia Commons
I want to show you paintings that also are of special subjects, that also belong to Second, Third or Fourth Style walls, and are particularly interesting in a variety of ways. The first of these is also mythological in subject matter. I’m going to show you the so-called Odyssey paintings. We’re moving back to Rome. These are located in a house on the Esquiline Hill, one of Rome’s original Seven Hills, in Rome. And while–I think I neglected to give you a date for the Mystery paintings, but those are 60 to 50, and these paintings are a little bit later, 50 to 40 BCE. They are also extremely interesting, because they seem to represent scenes from the tenth and eveventh books of Homer’s Odyssey. And Vitruvius, the architectural theorist, writing in the age of Augustus, Vitruvius tells us that the Greeks were particularly interested in representing the wanderings of Odysseus in landscapes. So he tells us–that’s very important for us to know because it means that the Greeks painted paintings like this, illustrations of Odysseus’ wanderings. And yet we see one of these paintings in this house on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, between 50 and 40 BCE.
Fresco of wanderings of Odysseus, house on Esquiline Hill in Rome / Wikimedia Commons
Books X and XI focus on Odysseus’ coming upon the Laestrygonians–I put that name on the Monument List for you–the Laestrygonians, and what happens when he meets the Laestrygonians. And we see one of the scenes here. We see, in fact, that several scouts, working for Odysseus, get off their boats on an island and they come across this beautiful young woman who has just fetched–you can see she’s holding a pitcher–she has just fetched water from a well, and she’s walking down this mountain and she comes upon these scouts of Odysseus. And being a friendly sort, she says to them: “I’d like to invite you back to my father’s house for dinner.” Well her father is a man-eating giant, as are the other Laestrygonians. And the scouts fall for it, and they come with her to meet her father, and the father immediately cooks up one of the three for dinner.
And various other adventures happen on this island, but what’s particularly interesting for us is the fact that these scenes again are from a well-known work of literature. But the figures are very small in relation to the landscape. It’s clear that the artist, whether originally Greek artists were particularly interested in the landscape and the telling of a narrative across that landscape, a landscape that is magnificently rendered, as you can see, by these artists. There are a number of scenes still preserved. After that dinner, by the way, where one of the scouts gets consumed, after that the Laestrygonians decide that they don’t want any more of Odysseus and his crew. And they take boulders, as you can see in this scene here, and they begin to attack the ships of Odysseus, destroying most of them, and only the one with Odysseus himself is able to escape, and he makes his way, at that point, to another island, to meet up with the enchantress Circe. So we see all of this very carefully described here.
Fresco of wanderings of Odysseus, house on Esquiline Hill in Rome / Wikimedia Commons
But as we look at these scenes, I think we’re particularly struck–or at least I’m particularly struck, and I would imagine you’ll share this–by the interest of this artist in depicting the landscape. We have an artist again, whether it’s the original Greek artist, but certainly copied here by an artist in Rome, we see an incredible interest in landscape, by someone who is clearly not only looking at earlier models, but looking at landscape itself, and is very interested in depicting all kinds of anecdotal details: inlets of water, as you can see here; rocks and the way in which the rock is cast in shadow on one side and is lighted on the other; the way in which branches bend, both when people pull on them, or when they are buffeted by the breeze or by the wind, as you can see with that tree at the uppermost part of the peak. So again the artists here are particularly interested in nature and in the display of nature, and in that way very comparable to what we saw in Livia’s gardenscape at the Villa at Primaporta.
I mentioned already that it is believed that these paintings on the Esquiline Hill are based on Hellenistic Greek models that probably were made in about 150 BCE. So a copy, and in that regard should strike you as very much the same trend, as we’ve seen so often in the beginning of this semester, of the Romans looking back and admiring Greek art, and incorporating it — a kind of Hellenization of Roman art and architecture, because of this reverence and because of this incorporation of earlier Greek scenes and prototypes. And so we see that here. And there are three reasons that scholars believe that what we’re looking at here is based very closely on a Greek model. One of those is that passage in Vitruvius that I already mentioned. Vitruvius tells us that the Greeks were particularly interested in representing scenes from the Odyssey against a landscape background. So that certainly tells us that it’s likely these are based on earlier Greek originals. The second has to do–you’ve probably noticed this–with the fact that many of the figures in these paintings are labeled, and those labels are–if you look very closely you will see–in Greek, and not only are they in Greek, but some of the words are misspelled. So since those words are misspelled, it has been speculated–and I think again quite convincingly–that those who are misspelling them don’t really know Greek, and may be Roman artists, who are not familiar with that language, are copying it and making mistakes in the process. So that also suggests to us that earlier Greek models are being looked at, absorbed, and even copied here.
But most interesting of all, for us aficionados of the Second Style, is the fact that very careful–the archaeologists, who have looked at these with great care, have determined that the landscape scenes that we’ve studied are continuous beneath the columns, that when they copied these, they copied–perhaps they had a scroll that they had from somewhere else, a Greek scroll, that came from a library that had images on it, and they unfurled that scroll and they copied it here. They did that first, they copied–so we had a continuous landscape scene, and it was only after that landscape scene was painted that the artists went back and painted the columns on top. They put these Greek paintings, or copies of these Greek paintings of Odysseus’ wanderings, based on this Greek prototype of the mid-second century B.C., they put it into a Roman context by providing these Second Style columns or pilasters–pilasters, I believe–pilasters, by creating these Second Style pilasters and making this into a vista or panorama that would have been seen through the window, in a sense, of a Second Style painting. So it’s a Romanization of an original Greek painting, in an extraordinary way that tells us a good deal about how the Romans were thinking about these Greek prototypes at this particular juncture.
Villa at Oplontis Caldarium 8 / Wikimedia Commons
Villa at Oplontis Caldarium 8 / Wikimedia Commons
House of Julia Felix still life fresco / Wikimedia Commons
This is from the Villa at Oplontis, the Caldarium 8, and we looked at the soffit of Caldarium 8, with these floating mythological figures, and women in niches with shells at the top. And I pointed out to you, at that time, that we also have a number of small panel pictures, representing still lives, with fruit and the like. And these in a sense get lost in the overall scheme of these Second, Third, and Fourth Style walls, but they’re very interesting, if we look at them in greater detail. And I want to show you just two examples today. This is a–it’s blown up, obviously, way beyond the size that it was–but it gives you some sense of what these look like in detail. It’s a still life painting that comes from the Villa of Julia Felix, in Pompeii, which dates to around 50 BCE. And it probably–we do believe that it is a detail from a Second Style wall. And we look at that detail here, and we see that these–for those of you who enjoy modern art, for example, I think you’ll agree that this is- tends to be as modern as Roman Art gets, because we see it has a very contemporary appearance, I think, this particular still life painting. We see that the artist has shown a striking penchant for, or a sensitivity for composition, for light, the way in which light falls on objects that are made of different materials, be it metal or stone. The artist has shown that kind of sensitivity, I think, here, as well as to composition, the way in which a group of objects are composed in relationship to one another.
House of Julia Felix still life fresco / Wikimedia Commons
If we look at this painting, I think we’ll agree it’s quite a tour de force. We see some interesting things, which are not that easy to decipher. We see over here, for example, a cloth with fringe that hangs on a nail on the wall. We see over here, also hanging on the wall, four dead birds. We see a plate, an oval plate of what seem to be eggs. We see a pitcher over here, which again looks like a metal pitcher, bathed in light on one side, with a handle. And then we see here what looks like some kind of a beaker, with something that may have been used to stir whatever liquid was inside. All of this on a stone pedestal. And then leaning against that stone pedestal we see one of these clay vessels, which seems to have an inscription on that clay vessel.
So what is this still life painting? Is it just meant to be a mix of objects that would be found in the kitchen of a house? Or is it something more than that? Do these have meaning beyond that? Is there some religious symbolism here, for example? This is not easy to decipher, and no one really has done that satisfactorily, up to this point, but it’s something that one would want to keep in mind, as one thinks about the meaning of these still life paintings. And keep in mind again, if you think back to a room like the Ixion Room, there are a number of these small panel paintings in the Ixion Room. When you look at the room as a whole, these are not easy to see. They’re so small that they’re lost in the overall scheme. So you’d really have to go up very close to these, if you could even reach them, if they’re way up in the top it would be difficult, but if they’re down below, go up close, look at them, and try to figure out for yourself exactly what is going on here.
Herculaneum still life fresco / Wikimedia Commons
Another one from, in this case, from Herculaneum, which is not so ingeniously called Still Life Painting with Peaches and Glass Jar–but that’s very descriptive, that’s exactly what it depicts–which is later in date, around 62 to 79, and probably was a panel in either a Third or a Fourth Style Roman painting. We see two tiers here. We indeed do see peaches, and the artist again has really looked at peaches to depict this–shows the peaches on the vine, with the leaves, as you can see here–and wants to make sure that we know what a peach looks like inside, as well, so has cut a section off one of these and shows the pit inside, just to make sure that we get a full sense of how peaches grow, and of what happens when you open a peach. And then down here, below, a glass vase, and you can see that the artist has filled that vase halfway with water, so that he can explore the effects of light on that water, and the reflection of that water on the glass vase itself. So clearly again artists that–there may be other reasons that they juxtaposed these particular items, reasons that may be beyond our comprehension today. But while they may do that for ritual or other reasons, they also are clearly very concerned with just exploring composition, light, and so on and so forth, as I said before, which is a very modern thing to do.
Genre, Historical, and Portrait Painting
Painting of a Magistrate Distributing Free Bread, House VII.3.30 in Pompeii / Wikimedia Commons
Petrified bread from Pompeii / Wikimedia Commons
We also see among the paintings that I’ve called “Special Subjects” today, genre scenes, scenes that represent daily life in Pompeii or Herculaneum. I’ll show you just one of those here. It is a painting of–it’s usually called Painting of a Magistrate Distributing Free Bread, and it comes from House VII.3.30 in Pompeii, a wall painting from VII.3.30 in Pompeii — dates to around A.D. 70. And what’s depicted here–whether the magistrate is distributing free bread or it’s bread being sold, we’re not absolutely sure–but what you can see here is piles and piles of round breads that are being distributed to those who stand in front of the bread stand. And I can show you a detail also of the same, where you can get a better sense of the shape of the breads. You remember the petrified bread that we looked at from Pompeii, and the division into shapes that make it resemble pizza. The same kinds of breads can be seen here, and it’s that bread that is being distributed to these people down below. While this painting comes from a house, and it may have just referred to the particular profession of someone who lived in that house. But paintings like this we believe–and it may or may not have been the case with this one–could also have–were also used as shop signs, to advertise what was being sold in one of those tabernae, that often opened off houses in places like Pompeii and Herculaneum, and that may have been the case here as well.
Pompeii ampitheatre fresco of riot between Pompeians and Nucerians / Wikimedia Commons
Just a few words about what we might call history painting, among the Romans. This is a fascinating and very famous painting of the Amphitheater at Pompeii. You see it on the left-hand side of the screen. It comes from House I.3.23 in Pompeii, and dates to between 59 and 70 A.D. And it purports not only to represent the Pompeii Amphitheater, which I remind you of here, and you’ll recall the very distinctive staircase of the Amphitheater at Pompeii, and you can see how carefully that is rendered here by the artist to make sure that we know this is indeed the Amphitheater at Pompeii. It purports to represent a very famous historical event, at least in terms of local history, and that is a brawl that broke out between the Pompeians and another group of individuals who lived in the area called the Nucerians, N-u-c-e-r-i-a-n-s. The Pompeians and the Nucerians, a brawl broke out between them. You can see that brawl being represented in the oval arena there. The brawl was so serious that the local magistrates decided to punish both the Pompeians and the Nucerians, and they did something quite extraordinary, and that is that they decided to close down the Amphitheater in Pompeii, for ten years: count them. Can you imagine the city of Pompeii without an amphitheater for ten years? That was a very brutal punishment. But it seems to have happened, and it is memorialized, that very event is memorialized in this painting, in this house at Pompeii.
This painting is also very valuable–I think I’ve mentioned this to you before–is also very valuable, not only for showing us the shape of the amphitheater–which, of course, as you know, still survives–the oval shape and the seating, but for a detail that doesn’t still survive, and that is the awning. I mentioned to you that in amphitheater design, they put poles at the very uppermost part of the amphitheater, and they were able to put an awning on those poles to protect people in inclement weather. And we see the representation, our only preserved representation in paint, of one of these awnings. So again, it is very valuable in terms of helping us understand amphitheater design.
The last two paintings I want to show you today are both portrait paintings, and you have to think of these portrait paintings, like the mythological panel pictures, as paintings that were inserted into walls, inserted into probably mostly Third and Fourth Style Roman walls. And when those treasure hunters hit Pompeii and Herculaneum, these were the ones they went to first, and they cut a fair number of these out of their original contexts and made off with them. But some of them fortunately have found their way into, especially into the Naples Archaeological Museum.
Portrait of Sappho / Wikimedia Commons
This is the first one that I want to show you, an absolutely fetching portrait of a young woman from Pompeii, that dates to around the middle of the first century CE, that is, 45 to 50 CE. And we see it here, and it’s an incredible painted portrait by clearly once again a very talented artist who’s done an extraordinary job of capturing this woman. It’s a very appealing portrait. We see her, she’s a quite attractive young woman, with wide, sort of hazel colored eyes, sharp, straight brows, straight nose, sort of Cupid’s lips. As you can see down below, the hair is magnificently rendered. You can see that she has a bevy of corkscrew curls. Those in the front, toward the front of her face, are highlighted, and match very well the color of her eyes. She wears gold hoop earrings that also mimic the curlicues of her locks. And then you can see also that she wears something that appears to have been fashionable to wear, among Roman and Pompeian women, and that is a gold hairnet, at the very apex, which adds shine and glimmer to the hair; but also you can see the hair beneath it through that. Down below you can see she wears a green garment and a sort of purple or brownish mantle over her shoulder, and she holds a stylus to her lips.
And she has in her other hand, as you can see, a tablet, in front of her, and it is clear, as she puts that stylus to her lips, she is deep in thought, very pensive, figuring out what it is that she’s going to write on her wax tablet, because these were wax and they would write into the wax tablets. Because she is caught in this moment of deep thought, a number of scholars have suggested that she must represent the Greek poetess Sappho; which is why I’ve put that painted portrait of Sappho on your Monument List. But you can see I’ve put Sappho in quote marks. I think this is almost certainly not Sappho. It is probably a Pompeian woman, and she may not be thinking about the poetry that she’s about to write, but perhaps the shopping list that she’s putting together before she makes her way down to the central market of the city of Pompeii, or sends her slave to go down to the central market of the city of Pompeii. But it may also be that she was literate, and that she wants to underscore the fact that she was literate. It may also be that this was just a set way of representing women in portraiture in Pompeii. Because this is not the only portrait we have of a woman with her stylus to her lips and her tablets in her hands.
Portrait of married couple from House VII.2.60 in Pompeii / Wikimedia Commons
Here’s another portrait that we have, also from Pompeii, with a woman represented in exactly the same way. This portrait is from House VII.2.60, and dates to around 62 to 79 CE — the portrait of a woman, and presumably her husband by her side. She again has the stylus to her lips; she has the tablet down below. You can see that he holds a scroll, which has a red place marker up above. So this portrait of the two of them may either allude to the fact that they are both literate, that they can both read and write. It’s also possible that the scroll that he holds may indicate that he’s a magistrate. Or lastly, and one of the more popular solutions, is that this may–he may be holding the marriage certificate, the marriage between the two. The portraits are very interesting. You can see that she isn’t quite as gorgeous as her other counterpart. Her hair is not arranged in those wonderful golden locks, but is kind of fizzy over her forehead and down her neck. As you can see here, her ears stick out. She has a uni-brow. But she’s more than happy to be represented, as she was, preserved for posterity, as she was, along with her husband over here.
And if you look at the portrait, you will see again that it has a black frame around it, and then a maroon frame, which tells us again that this was inserted into a wall, a Third or Fourth Style wall, just like the mythological paintings were inserted into those walls, as a painting that was located in the center of that wall, and in this case emphasized the owners of this particular house, and their undying love for each other–their relationship honors their marriage–and served as a kind of counterpart to a portrait of the loving couple that one might put on a mantelpiece, or on a piano, in one’s house today. So you have to think of it as quite comparable to that. Again, when you wander through Pompeii, you don’t see many of these portraits in situ, in large part because they were so popular with treasure hunters. But fortunately we do have a few preserved from both Pompeii and Herculaneum, and those can be seen in museums like Naples today.