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Vine and the Wine in Sculpture



1. Some of the most characteristic pieces of ancient Sumerian art are bas-relief sculpted plaques with perforations in the middle. Generally made of soft stone like limestone, these plaques are decorated with a sculpted narrative motif organised in several layers. The central perforation appears to serve to fix the plaque to the wall with a peg, probably in the votive part of a sanctuary. Ur-Nanshe was the ruler of the Sumerian State of Lagash, one of the city-states of the great alluvial plain of Southern Mesopotamia. He is considered the founder of the first Lagash dynasty, around 2500BC. The city’s inauguration by Ur-Nanshe was marked by numerous architectural projects. Sanctuaries were built in honour of each of the country’s major gods (Source: Musée du Louvre).


This is why, on the lower part of the image, the sovereign of Lagash is depicted surrounded by his sons and various high functionaries. Sitting with a goblet in his hand, Ur-Nanshe presides over a ritual banquet commemorating the temple’s construction. The king and his immediate entourage are probably drinking wine. The beer was very common in Sumer, mais le vin était la boisson d'une minorité de privilégiés.


This scene brings to mind a similar one, in which the king (perhaps the same?) is shown celebrating a military victory with his brothers in arms (The Standard of Ur  >>). In both images, the king is shown making a toast.

Find out more: Gallery Objets d'art >>


2. In the land of the Pharaohs, no one could reach the Kingdom of the Dead without a reserve of nectar. Wine is not as profane a subject as we might imagine, because (red) wine was mixed with the blood of the god Osiris, killed and cut into pieces by his brother Seth. As previously mentioned in the context of Ancient Egyptian frescoes, wine encourages drunkenness and is therefore linked to love and sexuality.


When the tomb of Tutankhamen (who died in 1352 BC) was discovered, archaeologists found 26 wine amphorae among the furnishings surrounding the mummy. The jars’ labels indicate the dates on which they were sealed, their place of origin and the type of product that they held. Notably, we learn that seven of the vessels came from the Pharaoh’s properties in the Nile Delta, and sixteen others from the royal domain of the House of Aten (the sun god’s name was used to indicate the vineyards of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten, who preceded Tutankhamen).

The wine’s vintage also featured on the amphorae, as well as the names of the chief winemakers. For example, a certain ‘Kha’ was responsible for the production of the domains of Aten and Tutankhamen, and is described as a ‘guardian of the secrets of the wine chamber’ – implying that this post was important and much respected. The following inscription features on one of the amphorae: ‘Year 4; sweet wine from the Domain of Aten; life, prosperity, health; from the Western river – winemaker: Kha’. Such notes also refer to the quality of the wine: some of the containers held wine of a ‘very high quality’.


Other tombs of the ‘New Empire’ period (from the 16th to the 11th century BC) are decorated with images representing the different stages of the winemaking process – from the trellising of the vine to the fermentation of the juice, via the harvest and the pressing of the grapes. The tomb of Amen’s scribe and astronomer, Nakht (TT52), located at Qurna, and the tomb of Sennefer (TT96) are known as the ‘tombs of the vines’ for this reason. The tombs and their decorations date from the 18th Dynasty (1550 to 1292 BC).


Source: INRAP (National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research, France)

Find out more: Gallery Antique Frescoes  >>


3. This type of rupestral bas-relief (i.e. rock carving) is typical of Hittite art. It is located in the central southern area of Anatolia, in the town of Aydinkent, historically known as Ivriz. It depicts the king, Warpalawas, offering (in salutation or adoration) a bunch of grapes to the weather god, Tarhunzas.


The Hittites considered the vine a tree of life : a symbol of vitality and fertility. In this, they prefigured the long-standing wine/life duality of Dionysian myths and, later, Christian imagery.

Vines were used in the foundation rituals of new palaces, the purification of cities and houses after funerals, and libation. Damage to vines was punishable by law. The state could also order the closure of parcels of land and offer compensation in case of fire.


4. The Siege of Lachish, which took place in 701BC, was fought between the Assyrian army and the Judean Kingdom. The Assyrians were victorious and the inhabitants of Lachish were massacred or deported, as shown here. This bas-relief was one of many to decorate the walls of the Nineveh palace of Sennacherib, the victorious Assyrian leader. It has since become part of the British Museum’s collection. In this image, the vine is a natural part of the decor. Here, the vine grows upwards; in a sense, it is married to the tree around whose branches its tendrils are wound.

Numerous other bas-reliefs reveal that many palm trees, fig trees and vines grew on neighboring hillsides.


5. At the Spring Equinox, Persepolis celebrates the Persian new year. In his Apadana, or throne room, King Darius the Great receives tributes sent by the empire’s conquered nations. The Armenian delegation offers wine and a horse, gifts representing the country’s greatest exports. Armenian wine was much appreciated.



6. These marble heads, from statues of Dionysius and the goddess of love and beatuty, were discovered in 2021 during an archaeological dig in the ancient city of Aizanoi, located in the Çavdarhisar district of the western province of Kütahya in Turkey. Aizanoi’s history goes back over 5000 years. The city developed during the Roman empire, its wealth stemming from the trade of wine, wheat and wool.

“During previous digs, we had found the bodies of statues, but no heads. We were very happy to discover these statue heads,” says Gökhan Coşkun, archaeology lecturer at Dumlupinar University and coordinator of the dig. “We know that the ancient Greek gods Aphrodite and Dionysius continued to exist under different names during the Roman era. These discoveries are important for us because they show that the polytheist culture of ancient Greece existed for a long time, without losing its importance in the Roman age,” the archaeologist adds.


7. This lintel fragment – dating from the second quarter of the 12th century – comes from the side door of Autun’s Saint-Lazare cathedral, by which worshippers would enter. It belongs to a scene depicting original sin. Some old descriptions allow us to reconstitute the image: Eve was situated between a representation of Satan (appearing as a serpent, but with only one clawed hand visible now) on her right, and Adam on her left. She is shown crawling on her hands and knees amidst the trees of the Garden of Eden, turning her head so as not to see the forbidden fruit, a pomegranate*, taken from the claws of the tempting “demon” hidden among the leaves of the Tree of Knowledge. Eve partly hides her nudity behind a vine which, according to some writers, may symbolise her descendants: the whole human race.


Today displayed in the Musée Rolin which adjoins the cathedral, the Temptation of Eve sculpted by Gislebert (also called Giselbertus)** has been through a lot: the lintel was demolished in 1766 and the sculpted blocks sold off as building materials. The artwork was rediscovered a century later, reused in stonework elsewhere. Its recent resoration has allowed us to learn that it was never polychromatic, contrary to previous beliefs. It is universally recognised as a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture. “Gislebert is not a Primitive, but a Romanesque Cézanne,” Malraux declared. For Malraux, if Cézanne were the founder of modern art, Gislebert had shaken up Romanesque art (see Le Musée Imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale, Librairie Gallimard, Paris 1954). Raymond Oursel also sings the praises of this “genius sculptor”, saying of this piece: “technical prowess and strange work, unique among Romanesque statuary thanks to the lascivious sensuality of the naked body, the feline pose, the unsettling voluptuousness emanating therefrom, all condensing into this decisive instant all the drama and temptation of the Fall.” (Bourgogne Romane, Zodiaque, 1886).


* Although it’s most often described as an apple tree, there is no indication of this in the Bible. According to different interpretations, the forbidden fruit might be an apple, a pear, a fig, a pomegranate like this one, or even a bunch of grapes (as depicted in Vézelay Basilica in Burgundy, Saint-Sernin Basilica in Toulouse, Abbey Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, Notre-Dame-du-Port Basilica in Clermont-Ferrand, Girona Cathedral in Spain…). The pomegranate has always been a symbol of fertility, wealth and power, no doubt due to its large number of grains; its flowers, meanwhile, symbolise burning love. The pomegranate is the Bible’s most-mentioned fruit: in the Song of Songs, the word “pomegranate” is used several times to describe feminine beauty.

** To whom are also attributed the door depicting the Last Judgement and a large number of the cathedral’s sculpted capitals; every stage of the work on these columns was led by him.


8. The depiction of vices and virtues, as well as zodiac signs and their associated fieldwork, is a classic part of art in the Middle Ages. The stone bas-reliefs in the western façade used to be painted, but today the stonework is bare. Here we can see the left gateway, known as the Virgin’s gate. On the jambs and lateral face of the trumeau, small bas-reliefs depict the monthly tasks of the poor and the rich: it’s an impressive summary of life in the 13th century.

The zodiac signs associated with work in the vines are Aries (pruning – see left, 4th row) and Libra (treading of grapes – see right, 3rd row).


9. In Notre-Dame, a sculpted cloister wall separates the déambulatoire (circulation zone) from the interior of the choir area where the canons go to pray. The cloister – or at least a part of it, decorated with haut-relief sculptures retaining their original colours – is almost the only structure remaining.

To the north, scenes depicting the childhood and public life of Christ, plus the first scenes from the Passion.

N-D de Paris, clôture sud du choeur


The function of this wall is obvious: to provide the canons with a minimum of calm. The worshipers of old were less numerous than the visitors of today, but, it seems, more noisy.



10. Noah’s drunkenness is involuntary, the effects of wine being unknown at the time. His drunkenness cannot therefore be interpreted as a sin. The Bible tells us that one of his sons took advantage of his father’s state to mock his nudity, while the other two showed due respect by covering him with a coat. If we remember that Adam marks the beginning of human prehistory and Noah the end, this episode can be read in parallel with the nudity of Adam (Genesis 3:7). 


Nakedness, symbol of moral fragility, becomes with Noah’s sons the object of a human virtue: that of delicacy.


11. In the courtyard of the Hotel Carnavalet (which hosts the museum of the same name), the facade between the first-floor windows is decorated with four large bas-reliefs of the Seasons. Each Season features its principal zodiac sign – Libra, for Autumn, is traditionally represented by Bacchus. 

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THE SEASONS, Jean Goujon

Jean Goujon is one of the most important sculptors of the French Renaissance. Breaking with French image traditions, he was one of the first artists to draw direct inspiration from Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, which he had personally studied in Italy.


12. In architecture, a “mascaron” is an ornament which generally portrays a human figure, sometimes frightening, whose function was originally to ward evil spirits away from homes. They often appear on the touchstone of window and door arches and lintels. They often reflect the history of the city; notably, Bacchus often appears in reference to the wine trade.


If mascarons had a slow start in Bordeaux in the 16th and 17th centuries, they became very fashionable in the 18th: a golden age for Bordeaux. This prosperity came essentially from the “port de la Lune” (port of the Moon), which was to become one of the principal ports of the kingdom. With the construction projects of the 1860s, mascarons reappeared on buildings along the new thoroughfares, the architecture of which often betrays a strong taste for the Louis XV style. Bordeaux has more than 3,000 of these architectural decorations, which appear on façades and fountains throughout the city. Around 1,000 date from the 18th century.

AUTUMN (BACCHUS), Seasons, anonymus, 1735/36 - Palais Rohan, Strasbourg, France / 13

THE DIONYSIAN UNIVERSE - From classicisme to naturalism, the road to baroque







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1/ HERMES AND THE INFANT DIONYSOS, Praxiteles, ca. 330 B.C., discovered in the ruins of the Temple of Hera, Olympia, in Greece, Parian marble de Paros, 212 cm - Archaeological Museum of Olympia, Greece.  2/ SILENUS WITH THE CHILD DIONYSOS, Marble, 187 cm, Roman copy of the middle 2nd century CE after a Greek original by Lysippos (ca. 300 BC) - Museo Chiaramonti, Braccio Nuovo, Vatican Museum.  3/ BACCHUS, Michel-Angelo, between 1496 and 1497, marble, 203 cm - Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy.  4/ BACCHANAL: A FAUN TEASED BY CHILDREN, Gian Lorenzo Bernini et Pietro Bernini, ca. 1616/17, marble, 132,4 cm - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

See more: Dionysus / Bacchus, God of Wine in Greek and Roman Mythology >>

Roman funerary art

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 1/ DIONYSUS AND ARIADNE, Sarcophagus, 190-200 - The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, United States. 2/ THE TRIUMP OF DIONYSUS, Sarcophagus, ca. 190 - The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, United States

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3/ THE TRIUMPH OF DIONYSOS AND THE SEASONS, Marble sarcophagus, ca. AD. 260-270 - The Met, New York. 4/ DIONYSIAC ECTASY, Sarcophagus, 2nd century, from Perga, ancient Greek city in Anatolia - Archaeological Museum, Antalya, Turkey

1. Carved in high relief, Dionysus approaches the sleeping Ariadne on the island of Naxos where Theseus, whom she had rescued from the Minotaur's labyrinth, had abandoned her. He is surrounded by his attendants, including satyrs, maenads, and multiple figures of the half-man, half-goat deity Pan. To the right, beside the sea (indicated by waves and a small dolphin below), Ariadne lies with her head in the lap of Thanatos, god of death. Eros draws Dionysus (panther at his feet) towards the maiden, who will be released from her death-like state and marry him. The faces of Dionysus and the satyr to his left have been destroyed.

2. The triumphal march of Dionysus (or Bacchus, as he was generally known in Rome) through the lands of India was equated in Roman thought with the triumph of the deceased over death. At the left, Dionysus rides in a chariot pulled by panthers. Preceding him is a procession of his followers and exotic animals, including lions, elephants, and even a giraffe. A bird's nest is concealed in the tree at the far right; on the same tree a snake is pursuing a lizard. Many of the animals depicted had special significance in the mystery cult of Dionysus.

3. The central figure is that of the god Dionysos seated on a panther, but he is somewhat overshadowed by four larger standing figures who represent the four Seasons (from left to right, Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall). The figures are unusual in that the Seasons are usually portrayed as women, but here they are shown as sturdy youths. Around these five central figures are placed other Bacchic figures and cultic objects, all carved at a smaller scale. On the left end, Mother Earth is portrayed reclining on the ground; she is accompanied by a satyr and a youth carrying fruit. On the right end, a bearded male figure, probably to be identified with the personification of a river-god, reclines in front of two winged youths, perhaps representing two additional Seasons.

This sarcophagus is an excellent example of Roman funerary art, showcasing all the skills of the workshop where it was carved. The marble comes from a quarry in the Eastern Mediterranean and was probably sent from there to Rome, where it was carved. Only a very rich and powerful person would have been able to commission such an object. The sarcophagus was probably made for a member of one of Rome’s old aristocratic families. The subject - the triumph of Dionysus and the Seasons - does not appear to hold any particular signification for the deceased (source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC).

4. This ecstatic scene depicts satyrs and maenads, Bacchus’ usual companions. Satyrs are ambivalent creatures, half-man, half-goat, who live out in the wild. Together with the maenads, they form the “Dionysian cortege” which accompanies the god. The maenads are not priestesses, but occupy an important position in religion and worship. They participate in the mysteries and festivities honouring Dionysus. Embodying the orgiastic spirits of nature, the maenads take part in frenetic dances which plunge them into mystical ecstasy. The Bacchants (Roman name for the maenads) sometimes behave like wild, ferocious beasts.


5/ THE TRIUMPH OF , Sarcofagus, Carrara marble, early 13rd century, discovered in 1880 on Saint Just hill, Lugdunum Roman site - Lugdunum Museum, Lyon, France

5.5. “Bacchus and Ariadne are shown standing in a chariot drawn by two panthers, driven by the god Pan (centre). In the foreground, curly-haired captives, riding an elephant, are surrounded by other exotic animals (including camels, giraffes, and a lion); at the far right, a drunken Hercules, leaning against a satyr, grabs at a nymph. […] But why depict this scene, which is hardly mournful, on a tomb? Should we see this procession as an allegory of the journey to the afterlife, or as a symbol of man's triumph over death? According to Paul Veyne, these types of beautiful images painted on tombs were meant to soothe, to reduce anxiety over what might lie beyond the grave: 'Before a sarcophagus decorated with mythological images, what is the viewer's first reaction? Their fear is eclipsed by the marvellous, the fabulous, the voluptuous and sheer carnal humanity'” (source:  Musée Lugdunum, Lyon).

See more: Dionysus and his companions: a triumphant procession >> 


Foulage de la vendange dans une cuve de bois cerclée, Eglise de Fenioux, XIIème siècle
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Maraudeurs dans la vigne, chapiteau peint, église romane, XIIème siècle - St Pierre de Mozac, Puy-de-Dôme




Scène de vendange, chapiteau roman, XIIème siècle, provenant de Moutiers-St Jean - Musée du Louvre


 1. Treading of the harvested grapes in a wooden vat, Eglise de Fenioux, 12th century; 2. Doorway arch, zodiac calendar and calendar of the seasons, harvest, from a 12th-century Roman church, Civray, Poitou; 3. 12th-century column decoration, Roman church, St-Pierre de Mozac, Puy-de-Dôme (INRAP - the Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives – believes that the scene shows the pillage of grapes, picked by others before the vineyard owners have the right to harvest their own fruit); 4. Roman pillar decoration, 12th century, from the former Benedictine abbey of Moutiers-St Jean (Côte-d'Or), demolished in the 19th century and since conserved in the Louvre.


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1. Libra and September, zodiac calendar, third door arch, 1130-35, Saint-Lazare Cathedral, Autun; 2. Zodiac and work calendar representing March, peasant pruning the vines, central tympanum of narthex, 1120-1130, Vézelay Basilica; 3. Grape harvest, medallion from a series of quadrilobed medallions showing an agrarian calendar establishing a vertical correspondance between the signs of the zodiac and the tasks of each month, left-hand foundations of Saint-Firmin gate, 1220-1230, Amiens Cathedral; 4. Arch of main door, Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice (1235-1245). 


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1/ Retable (detail), 17m high, carved wood, Josep Sunyer (Catalonia), 1699. St Peter sits at the centre of this imposing retable, embodying the power of the Church. To his left is St Paul, holding the sword with which he was decapitated; St Andrew is on the right, with the cross which featured in his own martyrdom. They and the other apostles are shown witnessing St Peter's triumph – Eglise Saint Pierre, Prades (Eastern Pyrenees), France. 2/ Retable (detail) with twisted columns wrapped in vines and grapes, Jose Benito Churriguera, 1665-c.1725 – San Esteban Convent church, Salamanca, Spain. 3/ Retable (details), c.1785 - Eglise Notre-Dame de l'Assomption, Cordon, Faucigny (Haute-Savoie), France

Retables are panels or panel structures made of marble, stone, stucco or wood. They are generally painted or decorated with historical or figurative images and decorative patterns which are often made of gold. Placed vertically behind the altar in churches and Christian chapels, they are very eyecatching structures.


Twisted, or helical, columns are characteristic of Baroque retables; such columns are often used to highlight the vertical aspect of the retable by drawing the eye skywards. God the Father is often depicted at the top of these structures. The columns (as here) are sometimes decorated with bunches of grapes, branches and vine leaves, alluding to the body and blood of Christ.

2. The retable of the  San Esteban Convent church in Salamanca (Spain) covers the church's entire apse. It's the work of Jose Benito Churriguerra, a Spanish architect and sculptor who would lend his name to a type of Spanish Baroque known as “churriguerresque”. Luxurious and exuberant, this style sets itself apart with an apparently unlimited taste for ornamental excess.


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