Myth in the Dionysiac frieze in Pompeii's Villa of the Mysteries

Baldwin, Michelle, McIntire Department of Art, University of Virginia
Dobbins, John, Department of Art, University of Virginia
Carpenter, Thomas H., Department of Art, University of Virginia
Umholtz, Gretchen, Department of Art, University of Virginia
Miller, John, Department of Classics, University of Virginia

The Dionysiac frieze in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii derives principally from myth rather than from cult. Displaying exceptional formal balance, the frieze is presented in three sections. The left section (seated figure to the right of the western door clockwise through the seated satyrisca on the north wall) shows Dionysus as a boy amongst his caretakers--nymphs, Silenus, and satyrs. The section alludes to aspects of Dionysus' Phrygian education and initiation, a myth that was foundational to the mysteries. The right section of the frieze (eros to the left of the western door counterclockwise through the kneeling figure on the south wall) shows Ariadne having her hair dressed on Crete in preparation for a wedding to Theseus, and Ariadne grieving on Naxos because of Theseus' desertion of her. The seated figure into whose lap Ariadne is received on Naxos could be Aphrodite. The cymbalist and the thyrsus-bearer are members of Dionysus' Naxian entourage. The central section (figure with the billowing veil on the north wall clockwise through the winged figure on the east wall) depicts the latter stages of the wedding of Dionysus and Ariadne, who are seated in the center of the section. Silenus, satyrs, and maenads are shown as members of Dionysus' Naxian entourage. As Eos (the figure usually named as the "fleeing girl") arrives, Nyx (the winged figure) recoils and proceeds to depart; thus the figures, personifications of forces that repulse one another, make gestures of aversion toward one another.

The frieze can be understood in solely mythical terms and is consistent with Vitruvius' (7.5.2) observation of grand-style paintings of myth, and with the Greco-Roman pictorial tradition in which subjects are usually mythical. The frieze functioned as a decorative display of its patrons' wealth and taste. The subjects depicted in the frieze reflect the popularity of Dionysus in Roman myth and art, in turn reflecting the importance of viticulture in Roman society--more specifically, the Villa of the Mysteries' economic dependence on viticulture.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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