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Vine and the wine in Mosaic


1. The major personal attribute of Dionysus is the thyrsus staff often shown in his hand, at his feet or held by his followers. Branches of pine and ivy are principally used to decorate the thyrsus, as well as their fruits – pine cones and red berries – with which Dionysus is often crowned. Being evergreens, these plants were seen as an exception to the laws of nature because lost their leaves – this apparent ‘immortality’ connected them to Dionysus’ own resurrection miracles. Significantly, the real fruit of the pine tree was hidden away in the cone, and toxic ivy berries were used in beer consumed by the maenads (female followers of Dionysus) to provoke hallucinations. Such images also represent the pomegranate and fig trees and their fruit: the pomegranate was associated with the underworld because it was thought to come from Dionysus’ blood, ripened in winter and was linked to the myth of Persephone; meanwhile, the Mediterranean fig tree was associated with hidden life because the trees grew spontaneously, revealing hidden water sources. As Dionysus gave mankind wine and the vine, vines, grapes and drinking vessels are also often represented; this reveals a certain confusion between Dionysus and his Roman counterpart, Bacchus. Dionysus’ animals are the panther, the goat and the donkey.'attribut  (Source: Wikipedia).


2. It was “from Dionysian imagery that early Christian iconography drew inspiration in order to make the ‘Childhood of Christ’ cycle. Out of all the gods and heroes, it was the birth and childhood of Dionysus that most inspired artists; this phenomenon is particularly evident the Roman period... Hermes, seated with the haloed child on his lap, presents the young Dionysus for veneration by the group in the same way as Mary presents Jesus to the Magi... This is evidence of the ‘backwards influence’ of Christian images on Pagan iconography...


While tradition states that Dionysus was only admitted to the ranks of the gods after having performed a number of meritorious tasks, the presence of Theogonia in this image, accompanied by the personifications of ambrosia and nectar, foodstuffs of the gods, clearly shows Dionysus as a god from birth. The holiness of the newborn Dionysus, usually considered a mere mortal, is an echo of the polemic which divided orthodox Christians and disciples of Arius on the ‘consubstantial nature of the Holy Trinity’ – meaning the problem of Christ’s divinity from birth.” (Source: Janine Bally, Mosaïques antiques du Proche-Orient: chronologie, iconographie, interprétation, PU Franche-Comté)


Dionysus is the only god to have been born to a mortal: Homer and Hesiod present him as the son of Zeus and Semele, daughter of Cadmos, King of Thebes, and Harmonia. Prodded by a jealous Hera, disguised as her nurse, the pregnant Semele asked to look upon Zeus, the father of her child, in his godly splendour. Having sworn to do this, Zeus arrived with his bolts of lightning, the sight of which killed Semele on the spot. Zeus took the unborn Dionysus from his mother’s womb and sewed him into his thigh. As the term ‘thigh’ in this myth is possibly a euphemism for the genitals, Dionysus might have been directly issued from Zeus’ sperm (or perhaps his urine). To protect him from the vengeance of Hera, Dioysus was entrusted to his aunt Ino (Semele’s sister) and her husband, Athamas. Discovered by Hera, he was then given to the nymphs, led by the satyr Silenus, on Mount Nysa in Thrace – which the Greeks considered Asia. To escape Hera, he was transformed into a kid. After the killing of Pentheus, Hera, notorious for her grudges, decided to punish Ino and Athamas for having cared for Semele’s bastard child. She did this by driving the couple mad (Source: Wikipedia). 


3. Now an adult, Dionysius conquers the Indies with a troop of men and women carrying, in the place of weapons, thyrsus and tambourines. His return takes the form of a triumphant procession (reminiscent of Alexander the Great’s expedition) on a chariot pulled by Dionysian animals; usually these are panthers but, here, tigresses are shown.

Find out more: Gallery Followers of Dionysus  >>


4. In Book XIV of Naturalis Historia, a volume entirely focused on wine and the vine, Pliny the Elder describes the wine culture of the 1st century AD: “In Campania, the vine is married to the poplar; the vine embraces its spouse, winding itself lovingly around the branches which support its knotted stems, and in this way reaches the top. The vines are so high that the harvest worker insists that the landowner pay for his cremation and burial if he falls in the course of his work. In this way the vine can climb indefinitely: the two plants cannot be separated, but rather torn apart.” Sometimes the villa or domus was encircled by just one vine, issued from a single trunk; Pliny the Elder gives the example of the portico of Livia, in Rome, where the trellises covering the main path grew from a single vine which produced up to twelve amphorae of wine per year. He adds: “Here, we prevent our vines from growing, by pruning them so that the young shoots remain vigorous.” Voluntarily or not, Pliny shows his support for the long-standing legislation of Numa Pompilius, which forbade the making of libations with wine from unpruned vines.


He also quotes a scathing remark of Cineas, ambassador of Pyrrhus in the city of Aricia, where the gigantic vines produced a bitter wine. On tasting it, Cineas commented that “the mother of such a liquid indeed deserves a tall gallows”. If, in the twelve volumes of Res Rustica, Columelle touches on all questions relating to viticulture, in Volumes III and IV in particular, his comments on cultivation methods such as arbustive (high-level) vines are relatively complimentary. Betraying a certain disdain for the grands crus of the peninsula, he showcases those of Hispania (Spain), his motherland. It is thanks to Columelle that we know the average yield for a vine in this period: one coleus per jugerum, meaning around 30 hectolitres (3,000 litres) per hectare. Such yields are still considered normal for vineyards of quality. (Source: Wikipedia)


5. Born into secrecy in the first centuries after Christ, early Christian art used a range of iconography adopted from Pagan motifs, the symbolism of which was impenetrable to the uninitiated. Such images were kept even after Christianity was declared the national religion. The Paleochristian art form par excellence, mosaics often represent animals and plants whose role is not only decorative, but also symbolic.

An attribute of Dionysus according to the Ancient Greeks, the grape was adopted as the symbol of the blood of Christ for the Eucharist. Jesus’ sacrifice is also represented by the chalice, from which vine foliage is shown growing. The shoots prosper, encircling both people and animals – this symbolising the members of the Christian community, united in their love for Christ.


6-7. According to the Bible, Noah had a wife and three sons: Shem, Ham and Japeth. Following God’s orders, he built an ark in order to escape the Flood. As he and his family were the only humans spared, Noah and his wife are traditionally considered the ancestors of humankind. The Book of Genesis says that he lived for 950 years.

One day, Noah, who had drunk too much wine, was naked in his tent. Ham saw him naked, but not his brothers, who dressed their father without looking at him. Upon waking, Noah cursed Canaan, Ham’s son, and pronounced him Shem’s servant.


Some apocryphal texts explain that the patriarch’s disgrace was due to the intervention of the fallen angel Lucifer. In these accounts, Noah naively accepts the Devil’s help in planting his vines after the Flood. Lucifer begins by burning a sheep, a lion, a monkey and a pig in sacrifice. The vine shoots rot on being sprayed with the ashes. Faced with Noah’s surprise, Lucifer explains: “At the first drink of wine, men become soft and humble as sheep; at the second, they imagine themselves lions and boast ceaselessly; at the third, they imitate monkeys, dancing and saying foolish things; at the fourth, they wallow like pigs in mire and filth.” 

Find out more: Gallery The Drunkenness of Noah  >>


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The god Dionysos as a winged daimon riding on a tiger, end of the 2nd century B.C., House of Dionysos, Archeological Museum, Delos, Greece /  Dionysos riding a panther, 120-80 B.C., House of the Masks, Delos, Greece /  Epiphany of Dionysus, 2nd century, Dionysus Villa, Dion, Greece 

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Lykourgos attacks the nymph Ambrosia with an axe, while Dionysos looks on. Ambrosia is being transformed into a grape vin, 1st century AD, originally from Herculaneum (Ercolano) and now in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Napoli, Italy /  Peacock and Grapes, 6th century Khirbat al-Mukhayya, Mount Nebo, Jordan / Zebu (looking at a lion) and Grapes, 6th century, Khirbat al-Mukhayya, Mount Nebo, Jordan


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