Academic journal article Art Inquiries

God as Cult Initiate: Dionysos and the Eleusinian Mysteries in Greek Vase-Painting

Academic journal article Art Inquiries

God as Cult Initiate: Dionysos and the Eleusinian Mysteries in Greek Vase-Painting

Article excerpt

Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, had a well-established iconography in Athenian black-figure and red-figure ceramics during the Archaic period. Thus, when a vase-painter of this time represented him in ways that diverged from convention, such imagery is striking and presents art historians with an iconographic puzzle. A vase-painter named Makron provided one such intriguing depiction of Dionysos on the reverse of an Attic red-figure cup attributed to his hand from c. 480 BCE. Today, this cup is housed in the British Museum (vase number E140) (Figs. 1 and 2). (1) This skyphos is a masterpiece of Late Archaic Greek vase-painting and among this prolific artist's best works. Dionysos might be expected to be seen with some of his usual attributes, such as his kantharos (drinking cup), ivy vines, thyrsos (fennel stalk), and animal skins, or perhaps in a narrative context with maenads and satyrs, who form his band of followers. (2) The Kleophrades Painter--also from the Late Archaic period and thus contemporary with Makron--depicted this familiar iconography of Dionysos on a neck-amphora in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek Munchen, which includes all of the above mentioned elements (Fig. 3; satyrs not visible in photograph). (3) But with his work, Makron created something different. Holding an unusual variation on the thyrsos, Dionysos stands in procession among a gathering of gods that includes Zeus, Amphitrite, and Poseidon (who sits beneath one handle). Makron identified all of the figures on the vase with inscriptions, so their identities are certain, but can the intended subject of this scene be recovered?

Earlier discussions have interpreted Makron's representation of Dionysos as celebrating the god's local cult and festivals at Eleusis, just as the Mission of Triptolemos on the obverse celebrates the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter. Active for 1,000 years, the Eleusinian Mysteries were the most important mystery cult for the Greeks, and initiation promised one a better lot in the afterlife. It is in this light that scholars have preferred to see Makron's Dionysos, believing that he celebrates two of the most important deities at Eleusis on either side of the cup. This article offers a new interpretation of the Dionysos scene that, in turn, reveals a different way to conceive of the vase's iconographic program. (4) Despite great scholarly interest in Dionysos, little attention has been paid to his role as an initiate in the Mysteries, which is a more unusual aspect of this god in art. (5) A reconsideration of iconographic features--including Dionysos' truncated thyrsos, dress, associations with Triptolemos and Zeus, and the absence of his usual band of followers--within the context of mythic traditions and cult ritual reveals that Makron portrays Dionysos as an initiate in the Eleusinian Mysteries, making the skyphos the earliest known representation of this subject in Greek art.

Makron's unorthodox treatment of Dionysos contrasts with the standardized and canonical scene of the Mission of Triptolemos on its obverse, which led scholars to dub this vase the "Triptolemos skyphos." Not surprisingly, most attention has focused on the picture on the vase's front, which Alan Shapiro describes aptly as, "the fullest and most beautiful preserved version" of Triptolemos' departure (Fig. 2). (6) The Eleusinian prince sits in his winged wheel seat in the center flanked by the goddess of grain, Demeter, on the left and Persephone and a personification of Eleusis, the place where the Mysteries take place, on the right. This is the culmination of the Mysteries. Already reunited with her daughter, Demeter has just shared her secrets of agriculture with Triptolemos, who makes a libation and is about to provide this gift to the world. Poseidon and Eumolpus, the chief priest who revealed things during the Mysteries, each sit beneath a handle, legs facing the gods on the reverse but looking over their shoulders at the founding of the Mysteries on the other side. …

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