Bacchus Sculptures – Three examples of Greek Art


Great Art is a mix of two basic components. The first is the accumulation of the past. The second is the break away from the past. In an earlier post, I presented Michelangelo’s Bacchus in Florence’s Bargello. Today I would like to view some earlier sculptures depicting Dionysus or Bacchus, the God of Wine. This will serve to highlight the first component of Great Art, the tradition that Michelangelo inherited, and will make it easier to appreciate his creation.

Dionysus, Bronze, Greece 460 BC. Musee du Louvre, Paris

I start with a Greek statuette of Dionysus as a young man, of the 5th century BC. I quote from the Louvre site:

“Created c.460 BCE, this statuette bears witness to the aesthetic innovations introduced by the generation of sculptors who worked in the Severe style, after the Archaic period and before the Classical period. The contours are more flowing and the distribution of weight is new. The tilted pelvis and the accompanying movement of the muscles add life to the figure, although the line of the shoulders remains horizontal: the contrapposto arrangement of the figure developed by Polyclitus of Argos toward the mid-fifth century BCE had not yet been adopted at this point. The youth is captured in a walking position, with his weight on his left leg and the right leg bent, the heel of the right foot probably raised from the ground in the manner of works by Polyclitus of a few years later. The weight of the body is thus shifted on to one leg alone. The treatment of the skillfully proportioned musculature also anticipates the athletic figures of Polyclitus. The hair, caught up in a short style, reflects the style common at the time. The grave facial expression, finally, contrasts with the open smiles of the Archaic kouroi.”

Praxiteles: Hermes and the infant Dionysus, 4th century BC

I continue with Praxiteles’ infant Dionysus held by Hermes, one of the most beautiful sculptures of Ancient Greece, now in the Archaelogical Museum of Olympia in Greece. I quote from the Museum of Art and Archaeology of the University of Missouri:

“When Zeus, king of the gods, revealed himself to his mortal lover Semele, she was at once incinerated by his divine radiance. Zeus, however, was able to rescue their unborn child by sewing him within his own thigh. Following the birth of the child, Zeus ordered Hermes, his messenger, to hide the newborn from his jealous wife Hera, who sought to destroy any remnants of the affair, including the newborn. Hermes swiftly took the baby to remote mountains for hiding, where nymphs raised the child. Under their care, the infant Dionysos grew to maturity and became the god of wine, revelry, and theater. Hermes and the Infant Dionysos depicts the messenger before he delivered the infant to the mountain nymphs.

German excavators discovered the statue in 1877 in the Temple of Hera at Olympia. Pausanias, a second century A.D. historian, describes his tour of this temple in which he saw such a statue said to be by Praxiteles.

Praxiteles achieved a naturalism and intimacy not seen before in sculpture. His style moved away from the hard, scientific vision of the earlier Classical Period. Unbalanced poses, sensuous forms, playful subjects, and use of emotion contrast with the previous period’s idealized and stoic works. The innovations evident in Hermes and the Infant Dionysos define the Late Classical Period and signify changes fully realized in the Hellenistic Period.”

Borghese Vase, detail, Musee du Louvre, Paris

To conclude this short detour, I would like to view the Borghese Vase, now in the Louvre. The Vase was made in Athens in the 1st century BC, of Pentelikon marble. Quoting from the Louvre site: “These large vases, much appreciated by the Romans as decoration for their gardens, were mass-produced in workshops in Athens and then exported to Italy in large quantities. Athenian marble workers specialized in making these pieces. The rapid Hellenisation of the Roman ruling class that resulted from the conquests stimulated the development of backward-looking styles. Since pillaging by Roman generals was not sufficient to meet the growing demand for Greek works, artists drew on the repertoires of ealier periods of Greek art. The relief decoration represents a Bacchic procession. Satyrs and maenads dance to music, accompanying Dionysus and Ariadne, who preside over the revels. The models for the decoration are drawn from Hellenistic art of the mid-second century BC.”