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Vine and the Wine in Ancient Frescoes and Mural Paintings


1a. La The first representation of the winemaking process comes from the Ancient Egyptians in the third millennium BC. The Egyptian frescoes also bear witness to the importance of the vine during this period. Wine and the vine have their place in the tomb of Ouserhat, Royal Scribe under Amenhotep II, and in that of Nebamun, who served under Thutmose IV (Amenhotep II’s son). The subject is not as profane as we might imagine, because the wine (red) is mixed with the blood of the god Osiris, killed and cut into pieces by his brother Seth. Wine also encourages drunkenness and therefore love and sexuality.

The grapes are pressed in a large vat, where men tread the fruit for a long time. On each side small floral columns are represented, of which the open summits support beams. Hanging from these supports, leafy branches (probably actually cords) fall to the level of the men who hold onto them. The viewer must look to the middle of the fresco to see what happens next. Two men carry the full jars, which are then stacked in three rows. A kneeling scribe records everything, including the number of baskets brought to the winepress. In Egypt, the grape harvests took place at the very start of the summer, just before the rainy season in mid-July. The reappearance of the Sothis star (around the 18th July) was, for Egyptians, the sign of the near flooding of the Nile.

1c. Between 1907 and 1938, under the leadership of British Egyptologist Norman de Garis Davies, the Graphic Section of The Met’s Egyptian Expedition undertook a documentation project with the goal of recording ancient monuments as accurately as possible.

This facsimile painting copies the decoration painted on the left hand wall as one enters the tomb chapel of Nakht (Theban tomb no. 52), a scribe and astronomer who probably lived during the reign of Thutmose IV.


2.  This detail of a banquet scene shows two female guests and a girl serving a liquid from a small flask. She is shown in an unusual pose with her back turned toward the viewer. The consumption of alcoholic beverages was a key element in many celebrations.


In addition to social drinking, the participants of some festivals, such as the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, drank in excess to achieve an altered state of inebriation, disorientation, and sleepiness that was thought to enable communication with a deity or the dead. For this purpose, drugs might have also been served. Small flasks, such as the ones held by the servant on the left, might have held herbal concentrates that were added to wine to increase its effect. The accompanying inscription reads, "Make a happy day!" (Source: The Met).


3. For the Ancient Egyptians, ceremonies and beliefs linked to death made up a significant part of their lives. This preoccupation with death wasn’t just a key aspect of the average Egyptian’s religion; it was seen as an essential step for the pharaoh, who, as the gods’ brother, was expected to join them in the afterlife. 


The Egyptians believed that, after death, the deceased’s soul could be reborn, reaching eternal rest in the “kingdom of the dead”. The living were responsible for feeding their loved ones’ ka (their memory on Earth) and ba (their ability to leave the world of the gods and rejoin the living). The priest incites the deceased to eat the offerings.

4. Guests at banquets are usually depicted with fine clothing and elaborate jewelry, and in a state of eternal youth. The facsimile here shows the right part of one large banquet scene.

The largest figure depicts the deceased, the sculptor Nebamun, with his immediate family members, while other attendees are featured in smaller sizes to the left. Standing before him is a female figure—Henutnefret, his wife or sister—who hands him a bowl of wine with the words "Drink and make a happy day!" Attendees often consumed an excessive amount of alcohol during these celebrations.


5a. The Etruscans seem to have been great wine consumers and lovers of luxury. In the semi-mountainous region of Etruria, vines grew in abundance on the hillsides and were strongly cultivated. The numerous amphorae found prove that the wine produced by the Etruscans was exported throughout the Mediterranean basin. From the 8th century BC, Etruscan banquets, the customs of which were borrowed from the Greeks, were organised by the princes. The ceremony was much ritualised. To the music of flutes or lyres, male and female guests, lying on couches, tasted wine served by slaves.

These events rivalled each other in luxury. The wine vessels were made of precious metals and skilfully crafted. Conserved in pansus or stamnoi vases, the wine was mixed with water in a large pan (patera), terracotta vase or cauldron (lébès), then placed before the guests. One could then draw the wine with ladles (simpulae) to transfer it into carafes (œnochoes), before finally pouring it into individual cups. Sometimes, impurities were removed from the wine prior to consumption by means of a filter. (Source: Inrap)

5b. The komasts (participants in the komos procession*) enjoy the pleasures of the symposium with music, wine and games of kottabos**.

5c. This wall depicts a nude serving young man (as a cupbearer) next to the krater, a large vessel used for mixing wine that was often at the center of the symposium.


The individual that was buried choose to respond to the codes governing the symposium by depicting the idea that "the pleasure of wine drinking is unequivocally projected beyond life" (Cipriani, Marina. The Lucanians in Paestum. Vol. 1. Pæstum, Italy: Fondazione Pæstum, 1996).

* The word Komos generally refers to a noisy group of festive drinkers accompanied by musicians, characteristic of depictions of banquets and Dionysiac feasts. Featuring regularly on Attic vases from the 6th century BC.: Wine and the Arts, Objets d'art

** Kottabos was an Ancient Greek game of skill played during symposia and in bath houses. It was very popular in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. It’s a playful take on the libation performed at the start of each banquet, when a few drops of wine would be poured on the floor and a god’s name (usually Dionysus) invoked. In its early days, people would pour out the rest of their wine while saying a loved one’s name. Later, it became a game: the goal was to throw the rest of one’s wine into a cup placed on the floor or table, while saying the person’s name. If the drops of liquid reached their goal, it was a good omen. The winner was often given a modest prize: an egg, apple, cake or even a kiss… Skill alone was not enough: you needed a supple throw and good posture too.


6. Some distance from Pompeii, the Villa of Mysteries is an ancient 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. The scene presented in the foreground is strange: a woman dressed in an old-fashioned peplos (a woman’s wool tunic, in the Dorian style of Ancient Greece) watches a young boy, himself naked but for a pair of high boots, who reads a volumen (a scroll of papyrus sheets).

Another woman, wearing clothes contemporary to the frieze, sits behind the child. She holds a volumen in her left hand and rests her right hand on the boy’s right shoulder. Divine teacher, she is teaching him his art. The peplophoros (wearer of the peplos) represents Dionysus’s nurse, who always appears in such scenes, particularly in scenes showing the toilet and dressing of the hero. Even if Dionysus has never been represented as having learnt to read, the book gives an indication of the knowledge and higher circles of the Muses. Our priestess shows us her pedagogical activity as a profane mother-figure within the myth of Dionysus, this time identifying herself as the mother of the hero, Semele. 


7. This fresco from the 1st century BC comes from the lateral wall of a domestic shrine situated in the service atrium of the Centurion’s House in Pompeii, excavated between 1879 and 1881; the shrine’s remaining frescoes have been conserved in situ. In the upper part of this fresco, we can see a votive garland decorated with ribbons, on which sits a bird, motif often featured in funeral paintings and domestic shrines; on the left appears Dionysus-Bacchus, whose body is decorated unusually with a gigantic bunch of grapes. He is nevertheless still easy to identify by his features: the long loose hair falling to his shoulders and the ivy crown. In one hand he holds the sceptre of Dionysus: a stick decorated with vine leaves or grapes, topped with a pine cone decorated with a ribbon; with the other hand, he sprinkles his panther with wine from a cantharus, a two-handled drinking vessel.

A mountain covered with cultivated vines is represented in the background. In the bottom part of the fresco, a long snake – recurrent image in Pompeian shrines – uncoils itself in the direction of a cylindrical altar; the snake represents the genius loci, the good spirit of the home. The serpent was actually a positive symbol, linked to the underworld beneath the ground and therefore associated with fertility, among other things. Dionysus was considered the protector of Vesuvius. It is highly likely that the Pompeiians did not understand the volcanic nature of Vesuvius and therefore saw it as a protector of the town and its prosperity. The vines of this area produced Vesuvinum (source: Pliny), a famous wine which, with Pompeianum, contributed to the richness of the town.

* Household shrines of any kind were known generically as lararia (s. lararium) because they typically contained a Lares figure or two. Lares were divine witnesses at important family occasions, such as marriages, births, and adoptions, and their shrines provided a religious hub for social and family life.

Find out more: Gallery Nectar of The Gods >>


8 et 9. The rhyton is an ancient horn- or cone-shaped drinking and pouring vessel, made of metal, clay or glass. They are often decorated with an animal (or sometimes human) head. While used for ordinary drinking, rhytons also served for libations during some religious ceremonies and rituals.

This fresco represents two Lares (guardian deities) pouring wine into a pail (situla) using a rhyton. This is a sacrificial scene. The head of the family is shown making an offering while a musician plays; meanwhile, two smaller figures carry various objects and a pig for the sacrifice. Over time, the rhyton lost its use as a pouring vessel and served instead as a recipient, as in this banquet.

Find out more: Wine and the Arts, Objets d'art >>

Silène vieux avec un canthare et un thyrse, Villa Getty, Los Angeles, fresque, 1-79 ap. J.-C.
Femme (Ménade ?) tenant un plat, fresque, 1-79 ap. J.-C.
Dionysos tient un kantharos et Ariane lève un rhyton, Villa Getty, Los Angeles

Villa Getty, Los Angeles, painting fragments likely decorated the same room, 1-79 A.D.: Old Silenos with Kantharos and Thyrsos /  Woman (Maenad?) Holding a Dish /  Dionysos and Ariadne ( lifts a ceremonial drinking horn called a rhyton, while Bacchus carries a kantharos, a wine cup)

aa3d3913-5284-4fa2-a02a-6e88dbb2703b_3263 alt.jpg

Roman fresco, Une femme boit sur en balcon, 9 BC.-14 AD , Getty Villa, Malibu, California, United States /  Banquet, A man recling to drink from a rhyton. Probably from Pompeii, 50-79 AD., British Museum, London  

Tombe de Ramose, Cortege funeraire, Vallée des Nobles, Thèbes, Egypte

Funeral cortege, earthenware containers for the tomb of Ramose, “Governor of the City [Thebes] and Vizier”. Dynasty XVIII, during Aménophis III (1390/52 BC) and Akhenaton (1352/38 BC),Valley of The Nobles, Theban Necropolis, Egypt

PS Wine and Papyrus Treasures of Amun Tom of Rekhmire Dynasty 18 v BC 1479 1425 Thebes (2)

Wine and Papyrus for the Treasuries of Amun, Tomb of Rekhmire, ca. 1479-1420 B.C., Thebes - The Metropoltan Museum of Art, New York

PS 30.4.118_EGDP022609 Winemaking, Tomb of Ipuy.jpg
PT 30.4.124_EGDP017841.jpg

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, facsimiles : Wine Making, Tom of Ipuy, ca. 1279-1213 BC. /  Deceased censing and libating to the deified Mentuhotep and Ahmose-Nefertari, with the Hathor cow emerging from the mountain; Tomb of Ameneminet. Mentuhotep II and Ahmose-Nefertari are shown posthumously, not as living beings but as images. 


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