Leafy tendrils frame twelve (originally fifteen) busts of satyrs, maenads, and others who attended the wine god Dionysos during his thiasoi, or revels. His tutor, Silenus is the bald man at the lower right. Herakles appears as the bearded man at upper left. The two figures with horns in the second row may be Pan and one of his sons who, according to Nonnus of Panopolis, assisted Dionysos in his conquest of India. The women are amongst the maenads who attended him. These mythological figures are typical of the continuity of interest in classical learning and culture in the Byzantine world, including Egypt.
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Title:Hanging with Dionysian Figures
Geography:Said to be from Egypt, Antinopolis
Medium:Linen, wool; tapestry-woven
Dimensions:Textile: L. 25 1/2 in. (64.8 cm) W. 58 in. (147.3 cm) Mount: H. 41 1/4 in. (104.8 cm) W. 62 3/4 in. (159.4 cm) D. 1 1/4 in. (3.2 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of Edward S. Harkness, 1931
Dionysian scenes were widely popular in the Late Antique world, especially in Egypt, among educated people of all religions. In this vivid wall hanging, leafy tendrils frame twelve (originally fifteen) busts of satyrs, maenads, and others who attended the god Dionysos in his thiasoi, or revelries, including his tutor Silenus, the bald man at the lower right, and Heracles, the bearded man at the upper left.
The worship of Dionysus was particularly strong in Egypt, but the use of Dionysiac motifs during the late Antique and Early Byzantine periods is not unique to Egypt: images of the god appear on objects throughout the Empire. Floor mosaics, silver plate, furniture ornaments, and so forth are more often than not decorated with Dionysiac or other mythological imagery. Considering the use of textiles as hangings, covers, and curtains, it is therefore not surprising that they should be decorated with the same or related motifs. In Egypt as elsewhere in the Early Byzantine world, objects like these were made not so much for diehard traditionalist pagans as for the members of a well-to-do, educated class. For these patrons, visual representation of pagan myths, like the reading of classical literature or contemporary poetry on classical themes, such as the Dionysiaca of Nonnos of Panopolis (Akhmim), were acknowlegments of the culture of the past, rather than expressions of religious sentiment.
The decorativeness of Late Antique textiles is vividly demonstrated by this hanging, a precious relic of Early Byzantine weaving as well as a beautiful wall hanging. Twelve busts (there were originally fifteen), each placed inside a yellow roundel, fill the loops of a delicate leafy interlace covering a red-rose background. The busts portray participants of thiasoi, revelric festivals of the god Dionysus, among which wreathed maenads and horned satyrs are most prominent. The bold male at the bottom center right is Silenus, the diadem-wearing youthful female in the top central roundel is a Victory, and her bearded neighbor to the left is Heracles. The last two are often included in depictions of Dionysus's triumphal return from the conquest of India. The busts could have been included to give the hanging a specific meaning or, more likely, as stock members of the Dionysiac entourage. The identities of the three missing busts are conjectural. It is quite possible that Dionysus himself was portrayed in the central roundel. The continuous tendril of the interlace, and its clearly displayed interstitial vine leaves and grape clusters, as one of Dionysus 's pricipal attributes, further emphasize the Dionysiac content of this textile. Although the figures are presented in bust form, they retain the impression of movement associated with Dionysiac figures; the cast glances and disheveled hair of the maenads in particular convey the revelric mood of more extensive Dionysiac scenes.
In spite of its overtly pagan subject, the hanging dates from the early Byzantine period, specifically the late 5th and early 6th century. Its stylistic features—prominent outlines and reduced modeling of the busts combined with a more schematic arrangement of their costumes–are present in other late 5th and early 6th century monuments. (Cf. the figures of the original mosaic program in St. Apollinaire Nuovo and in the Archepiscopal chapel, both in Ravenna)
The hanging is also an excellent example of Late Antique and Early Byzantine decorative composition in general. The busts are part of an overal patterned design in an ornamental frame. The same combination of surface patterning, enriched with figural fillers and framed, is used in floor mosaics. The latter also provide further compositional and iconographic analogies for the Dionysiac hanging. For example, a field of garland interlace, filled with Dionysiac figures (busts and full figures) and the Seasons, decorates the second century floor in the House of the Peacock in El Jem (in Tunesia). A mid-4th century floor from a villa from Antioch-Daphne with a bust of Dionysus and full figures of his companions, including Hercules, is also related.
Dionysiac figures, in fact—full figures, busts, and head masks—are the largest single category of main and auxiliary motifs in Late Antique and Early Byzantine art. The interlace pattern, used in floor mosaics from the 2nd century onwards, became especially common in the 5th and 6th centuries. The compactness of this interlace pattern agrees with the 5th and 6th century development of this motif.
Edward S. Harkness, New York (until 1931; gifted to MMA)
Providence, RI. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. "Beyond the Pharaohs: Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th Centuries A.D.," February 10, 1989–April 16, 1989, no. 42.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Textiles of Late Antiquity," December 14, 1995–April 7, 1996, no. 45.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Panopolis and Classical Themes," November 1, 2000–December 1, 2001.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Panopolis and Classical Themes," December 6, 2005–September 24, 2008.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Design Motifs in Byzantine Art," August 5, 2013–August 3, 2014.
New York. Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University. "Designing Identity: Gender and Power in Late Antique Textiles," February 25, 2016–May 22, 2016, no. 9.
Friedman, Florence D. "Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th Centuries AD." In Beyond the Pharaohs. Providence, R.I.: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1989. no. 42, pp. 132–33, ill. (b/w).
Stauffer, Annmarie. Textiles of Late Antiquity. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995. no. 45, pp. 18–19, 47, ill. (color).
Evans, Helen C. "The Arts of Byzantium." Metropolitan Museum of Arts Bulletin (2001). p. 26, ill. (color).
Bühl Gudrun, Sumru Berger Krody, and Elizabeth Williams, ed. Woven Interiors : Furnishing Early Medieval Egypt. Washington, 2019. no. 9, pp. 40–41, ill.
Thomas, Thelma K. Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity. New York, 2016. no. 9, pp. 22–23, 132–34, 145, ill. figs. 1–1.1, 2–5.6.
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