February 2, 2018
Nectar of the Gods in Classical Mythology
BACCHUS ON A THRONE − NYMPHS OFFERING BACCHUS WINE AND FRUIT (detail)
Caesar Boetius van Everdingen (1617-1678)
Greco-Latin mythology has long been the basis of much of mankind’s cultural heritage. Painters have drawn inspiration from its stories, creating numerous works which, as well as being masterpieces, represent our great founding myths. Since the earliest days of Antiquity, wine and religion have been closely connected. Wine has been, and remains, an important element of ritual and sacrificial practices. In Ancient Greece, it was both the object of a cult and a symbol of culture. The famous ‘Mysteries’, celebrated in honour of Dionysus, gave birth to theater. Rome had a more troubled relationship with Bacchus and bacchanals. In Rome, when Dionysus was not assimilated with Liber, the object of an official cult, he was often referred to as Bacchus – another of his Greek names – and the private sanctuaries in which his cult was practiced were called bacchanalia. The bacchanals remain associated with the scandal and repression recounted by Livy. But the cult of the bacchantes was to flourish once again under the Empire.
The gods and goddesses Soma (Vedic), Spendaramet (Armenian), Sabazios (Thrace and Phrygian), Moloch (Syrian), Ammon (Libyan), Oratal (Arab), as well as the Indian Shiva, the Egyptian Osiris, the Babylonian Gilgamesh, the Greek Dionysus, the Etruscan Fufluns, the Italian Liber Pater, Sucellus (Latinised to Silvanus) in Gaul – who the Romans replaced with Bacchus – bear witness to the quest for resurrection and immortality that only divine drunkenness could satisfy. In this way, the cult of the wine god survived into the 17th century.
BACCHUS, VENUS AND ARIADNE
Tintoreto, GM (Jacopo Robusti, 1518-1594)
Palazzo Ducale, Sala dell'Anticollegio, Venice
Originating from the island of Naxos, Bacchus consoled and then married Ariadne, abandoned by Thesius, and gave her a gold crown, Vulcan’s masterpiece: ‘“I am she to whom you used to promise the heavens. Ah me, what a reward I suffer instead of heaven!” She spoke: Liber had been listening a long while to her complaint, since he chanced to follow closely. He embraced her, and dried her tears with kisses, and said: “Together, let us seek the depths of the sky! You’ll share my name just as you’ve shared my bed, since, transmuted, you will be called Libera: and there’ll be a memory of your crown beside you, the crown Vulcan gave to Venus, and she to you.” He did as he said, and changed the nine jewels to fire: Now the golden crown glitters with nine stars.’ (Ovid, Fasti, 3, 505-516)
TRIUMPHAL PROCESSION OF BACCHUS
Maerten van Heemskerck (1462-1522)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Pursued by his wife, Zeus takes Dionysus far from Greece, to the land of Nisa. He leaves him to be raised by nymphs. As an adult, Dionysus discovers vines, but is found and driven mad by Hera. He wanders through Egypt, Syria and Asia before reaching Phrygia, where the goddess Cymbeline welcomes, teaches and heals him. Upon Dionysus’s arrival in Thrace, the reigning king Lycurgus tries to take him prisoner. Dionysus is protected by Thetis (a Nereid, or sea nymph) who offers to shelter him in the sea. Lycurgus, meanwhile, captures the Bacchantes in Dionysus’ entourage; they too manage to escape and the king is stricken with madness. Delusional, he cuts off his own leg and attacks his son with an axe, believing him to be Dionysus’s sacred vine. When Lycurgus comes to his senses, he realises what he has done; his land has also become infertile. An Oracle reveals that only his own death...
BACCHANAL OF THE ANDRIANS
Titian (ca. 1488-1576)
Museo del Prado, Madrid
In this work by Titian, the inhabitants of the island of Andros (known as ‘Andrians’) celebrate receiving a gift from Dionysius: a river of wine. This was one of the ‘miracles’ popularly attributed to the god, soon to be venerated as the god of the vine. In his play The Bacchae, Euripides gives an account of the miracle: “One of [the Bacchants] hit the rock with her thyrsus and water spurted out of it; when the other brought down her narthex to the ground, the god sent forth a spring of wine. Those who desired a white drink scratched the earth with their fingernails and had streams of milk. The ivy on the thyrsus dripped with honey... Ah! have you seen?” For their part, the inhabitants of Teos in Ionia were proud of their wine source, which sprang to life on a particular day each year. They claimed that this proved that this was the god’s birthplace (see Diodorus of Sicily and Pliny the Elder)...
COLLECTION FROM DIVINE TO SACRED