Dionysus and his companions: a triumphant procession

Triomphal Procession of Bacchus, Maerten van Heemskerck, 1537/38 - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria | Followers of Dionysus | Nectar of the Gods | From Divine to Sacred | Wine and Painting | The Virtual Wine Museum



Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574)

ca. 1536-1537
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 will calm the god’s wrath against him. He is attached to four horses and torn apart when they are sent galloping in different directions. Dionysus then leaves Thrace in order to go to India. He claims the territory after a magical armed conquest. This episode is at the origin of the triumphant procession, the god’s chariot pulled by panthers and decorated with vine branches and holly, which is accompanied by Silenus and other satyrs, centaurs and Maenads.


 “And thou dost guide thy lynxes, double-yoked, with showy harness.—Satyrs follow thee; and Bacchanals, and old Silenus, drunk, unsteady on his staff; jolting so rough on his small back-bent ass; and all the way resounds a youthful clamor; and the screams of women! and the noise of tambourines! And the hollow cymbals! and the boxwood flutes…”  (Ovid, Metamorphoses, IV, 24-30)


THE MISFORTUNES OF SILENUS Piero di Cosimo ca. 1500 - Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, Cambridge, MA, United States / 1

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DRUNKEN SILENUS Jusepe di Ribera, 1626 - Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy / 2

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THE DRUNKEN SILENUS Pierre Paul Rubens, 1616-1617 - Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

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While Silenus never leaves Dionysus’ side (he is his adoptive father and guardian), he remains the personification of Drunkenness, not dissimilar in this sense from two other minor gods in Dionysus’ entourage, borne of Hybris (“Excess”) at the order of Hera: Comos (emblematic of “good cheer”) and Coros (“Satiety”). From the Renaissance onwards, Silenus often appears in art. He is traditionally portrayed as a fat old man, both ugly and lubricious, his drunkenness making him grotesque. Silenus is also “a generic term for old satyrs” (Pierre Grimal, Dictionnaire de la mythologie grecque et romaine).

1. In the centre, Silenus attempts to gather honey from a hollow tree without descending from his mount, a donkey. He is then attacked by bees. To the right, he is slowly put back on his feet.


2. Silenus, a satyr resembling an obese human, lies on the ground, his back slightly raised. His head is supported by the hands of his father, the god Pan.​


NYMPH AND SATYR Christiaen van Couwenbergh, 1626-1628 - Private collection / 1

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TWO SATYRS Pieter Pauwel Rubens, 1618-1619 - Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

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SATYR DRINKING FROM GRAPES David de Haen, beginning of the 17th century - Private collection

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Satyrs are ambivalent creatures – half-man, half-goat – who live in the wild. Along with with the Maenads, they form Dionysus’ cortege, accompanying the god. They can also be associated with the god Pan. Satyrs mix freely with nymphs, minor divinities characterized by their youth and beauty, native to many places: forests and woods, fertile valleys, springs and rivers, mountains and caves, etc. As with Dionysus’ cortege, the nymphs often take part in divine processions.

1. It is assumed that the painting is an allegory of Taste, and it belonged to a series representing the five senses.


THE DANCE OF THE BACCHANTES Charles-Gabriel Gleyre 1849 - Musée Cantonal des Beaux-arts, Lausanne, Switzerland

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PENTHEUS, HUNTED BY THE MAENADS Charles-Gabriel Gleyre, 1864 - Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland

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DEATH OF ORPHEUS (LA MORT D’ORPHÉE) Émile Lévy, 1866 - Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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The Maenads are the followers of Dionysus and accompany him on his travels, notably his voyage to India. They are not priestesses but play an important role in religion and worship. They participate in the mysteries and festivals held in honour of the god. Bare-chested, they wear lion skins and carry thyrsus staffs (ivy-wrapped spears). Personifying the orgiastic spirits of nature, they dance frenetically, plunging themselves into mystic ecstasy. Certain heroes were to fall victim to their prodigious strength. The Bacchantes (the Roman name for the Maenads) were said to behave like ferocious beasts.


THE FIGHT BETWEEN THE LAPITHS AND THE CENTAURS Piero di Cosimo, prob. 1500-1515 - The National Gallery, London / 1

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THE BATTLE OF CENTAURS AND LAPITHS AT HIPPODOMIA'S WEDDING Karel Dujardin, 1667 - Schloss Sanssouci, Potsdam, Germany / 2

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BATTLE BETWEEN THE LAPITHS AND THE CENTAURS Lucas Giordano Late 1680s - The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia / 3

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Centaurs are sometimes presented as half-man, half-horse. Symbolizing animal appetites (for the Greeks, sensuality and drunkenness), they too make up part of Dionysus’ cortege. Their fight against the Lapiths can also be read as a parable of the struggle between nature and civilisation.

1 to 3. Pirithous married Hippodamia and invited the gods of Mount Olympus to the wedding. As the palace was not big enough for all the guests, his cousins the centaurs, as well as Nestor, Caeneus and other Thessalonian princes were housed in a nearby cavern, which was cool and dark. But the centaurs were unused to wine and, smelling it, they pushed away the curds that had been served to them and galloped to fill their silver horns with wine…

In their ignorance, they drank the wine undiluted and became so drunk that, when the bride arrived with her followers to greet them, Eurytion leapt from his seat, knocking over the table and, grabbing Hippodamia by her hair and dragging her away. The other centaurs followed his example, throwing themselves on the young men and women and trying to rape them. Pirithous and Theseus rushed to save Hippodamia, cutting off Eurytion’s nose and ears and, with the help of the Lapiths, throwing him out of the cavern. The ensuing battle, during which the Lapith Caeneus was killed, lasted until nightfall. Thus began the long war between the centaurs and their Lapith neighbours, both sides wishing to avenge the affronts of that day.


BACCHANTE, André Lhôte, 1912 - Fine Arts Museum, Bordeauxe Bacchante 1912 MBA Bordeaux (4).jpg

BACCHANTE, André Lhote, 1912 - Fine Arts Museum, Bordeaux

La figure mythologique de la Bacchante a ressurgi dans l’art au XIXe siècle et au début du XXe siècle. Au début, ce sont les personnages du cortège bachique (le thiase) qui retiennent l’attention des artistes. La Bacchante (ou Ménade), prêtresse de Bacchus (ou de Dionysos), a des attributs précis : une peau d’animal sauvage (le plus souvent la panthère, une coupe de vin, une couronne de lierre ou de pampres et un thyrse. La bacchante du XIXe siècle, au service du dieu du vin, est de chair ; elle obéit à ses pulsions et fait preuve d’une sensualité sauvage, offrant aux artistes la possibilité d’une nudité extatique, équivoque, voire licencieuse. Progressivement, les peintres et les sculpteurs utiliseront de plus en plus le mythe comme prétexte pour montrer l’érotisme de corps qui se cabrent et se cambrent. La bacchante perd ses attributs mythologiques, elle n’est plus qu’une femme nue, libérée de toute contrainte. En revanche, l’idée de l’ivresse et de la sensualité est gardée (source : La Tribune de l'art).

La Bacchante d'André Lhote est une femme totalement dénudée et charnue, aux rondeurs généreuses. Dans un état d'abandon et une pose lascive, elle mange du raisin pour chanter Bacchus, le tout dans un cadre champêtre. Elle célèbre les plaisirs de la vie. Rodin réalise sur le même motif des dessins érotiques de modèles qui s’exhibent sans pudeur ; c’est seulement après qu’il décide de les intituler "Bacchante". Il est vraisemblable que ce fut également le cas pour celle de Lhote. Accessoirement, cela permettait d’atténuer les foudres des ligues de vertu, combien nombreuses à l'époque.

Le titre prête donc à confusion : cette bacchante moderne est bien loin de la bacchante antique, celle du thiase, même si l'on veut bien admettre la présence du vin par le truchement du raisin.


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