March 19, 2018
Quick Tour: 30 works to awaken your appetite
It is universally acknowledged today that wine is a major part of human culture. Since the very beginning of winemaking, around 6000BC, wine has played an important role in many civilisations. The Muses’ companion, wine is present across the arts, an essential witness to our social and cultural history. Some distance from Pompeii, the Villa of Mysteries was once a doctor’s house. In the masters’ quarters, a room holds the newly-restored fresco to which the villa owes its fame: rolled out on a large frieze are twenty nine life-size characters, set against on a Pompeian-red background. This fresco might represent the initiation of a young bride to Dionysian mysteries; here the ritual is read by a child who might be Dionysus himself. The cult of Dionysus, of which the mistress of the house would have been a priestess, was very popular in Southern Italy at the time.
Greco-Latin mythology has long been the basis of much of mankind’s cultural heritage. 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. Upon arrival on 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!” 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…”’
Wine is mentioned 173 times in the Old Testament, and the vine 114 times. Wine adopts many guises and often wreaks havoc. It takes control of individuals, throws down obstacles and trips them up. It enables debauchery, murder and deception: a drunken Noah strips naked; Absalom intoxicates Amnon in order to kill him; Lot’s daughters ply their father with wine and then seduce him; Belshazzar serves wine to his guests in sacred vases, stolen from the Temple of Jerusalem by his father Nebuchadnezzar II. Only in the profane Song of Songs does the tone become more positive, with the beloved’s affirmation: “Thy love is better than wine”.
The principal references to wine and the vine in the New Testament start with the Wedding at Cana and end with the Apocalypse, and include the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the Last Supper and the Supper at Emmaus. Although the theme of ‘the mystical winepress’ is not cited in the Bible, this image refers directly to the blood of Christ. In his Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson highlights the fact that many accounts confirm the influence of the cult of Bacchus: “Bacchus-Dionysus was already considered a saviour – to rise from the dead was normal for the old gods, while to eat a god’s body and drink his blood (represented by wine) was a familiar concept to the Ancient Greeks who believed in the myth of Orpheus. The grape, to the Ancient Greeks an attribute of Dionysus, was to become a symbol of the blood of Christ for the Eucharist.”
For a long time, wine was considered a foodstuff. It restored invalids, boosted workers’ morale (as shown here) and accompanied family meals. In many families, mealtimes could go on for hours. After the meal, members of the family would sit around the uncleared table and discuss old times in a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere. At the other end of the social scale, a crystal carafe on the table was seen as an important mark of prosperity for bourgeois households, even in an intimate family setting. In such households, the family would take their coffee in the drawing-room or smoking-room while the domestics cleared the table. For those without a family to go home to, cafés provided a sort of substitute family and a way of killing time.
Wine as a way of life – and as a way of living well – captures the artistic imagination. Wine has always “gladdened the hearts of men” (Psalm 104, 15). Associated with friendship, love, celebration and even politics, wine is a part of social life. Peter Brueghel the Elder is considered one of the greatest Flemish ‘genre’ painters of the sixteenth century. He was a perceptive observer of colorful countryside traditions. Religious festivals were used as a pretext for celebration, as such events allowed the peasants to forget daily hardships. This scene of country mores uses a staged fight to caricature those who are still celebrating Carnival and those who have already started Lent.
From cheerful inebriety to all-out drunkenness, some artists have used wine to convey a message: from the 15th to the 17th century, to condemn wine-drinking in the name of morality; in the 18th century, to celebrate or denounce the lifestyles of the social elite; and in the 19th century, to remind us that drunkenness can lead to alcoholism. At the other end of the spectrum, the concept of ‘good taste’ was reinvented and the end of the 17th century. The few paintings which represent the pleasure of wine connoisseurs were produced in the 18th century. ‘Good taste’ was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy, but could also be enjoyed by the bourgeoisie. Connoisseurs would taste different wines, exchanging their impressions and searching for the right words to describe its colour and aroma.
The product of a whole year’s hard work in the vineyard, the grape harvest is a key moment in the calendar. The date must be chosen wisely: after all, “we reap what we sow”. The harvest was a time of great festivities. The 18th century was marked by the growth of maritime trade. The Port of Marseille is one of a number of paintings of French ports by Vernet, commissioned by Louis XV to represent the activities specific to each region. Marseille, which by 1720 had recovered from the demographic disaster of the Plague, was (like Bordeaux) one of the great international trading ports of France. The barrels shown here attest to Marseille’s trading links with the Mediterranean basin.
As though to prove the importance of wine and the vine in art, many artists have given these elements pride of place in still life compositions, whether symbolic or decorative. This dates back to Antiquity, as shown by the vine and grape motifs in mosaics and frescoes unearthed in the Vesuvius region of Italy. Still life began to emerge as a definable genre at the end of the sixteenth century. It would explode in popularity during the seventeenth century. Certain 17th-century works bear witness to contemporary dietary habits and beliefs. In the 18th century, such paintings were largely decorative; but by the 19th century, still lifes were considered essentially documentary. In the 20th century, artworks of this type – whether futurist, cubist, surrealist or hyper-realist – were seen more an extension of the artist’s personality, an expression of style and individual talent.
A pictorial technique similar to that of frescoes or miniatures, illuminations were very popular during the Middle Ages. Done by hand, illuminations decorated or illustrated texts, usually on handwritten manuscripts. Until the 12th century, manuscripts were copied out in religious settings, such as abbeys, where they were used to support prayer and meditation. From the 13th century, private artisans began to produce literature for the secular market. This was due to the greater literacy that had resulted from the growing university and administrative sectors. Illuminations can give us a lot of information on the history and place of wine in medieval society. Once more, painting plays a documentary role. The world of wine is portrayed in illuminations in much the same way as in frescoes and paintings.