Vine and the Wine in Antique Frescoes

PRIMITIVE TOMB OF USERHAT, ROYAL SCRIBE DURING AMENOTHEP II Dynasty XVIII, 15th BC. - Theban Necropolis, Valley of The Nobles, Western Thebes, Egypt / 1a

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GRAPE HARVEST, TOMB OF NEBAMUN Dynasty XVIII, ca. 1422-1411 BC. - Theban Necropolis, Valley of the Nobles / 1b

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TOMB OF THE LEOPARDS 480-450 BC. - Etruscan necropolis, Tarquinia in Lazio, Italy / 3

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THE INFANT DIONYSUS AND HIS MOTHER SEMELE (at the forefront) 70-60 BC., Fresco (detail), after restoration - Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Italy / 4

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BACCHUS AND VESUVIUS 1st century, bef. 79 AD, Fresco, 140 x 101 cm - Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Napoli, Italy / 5

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1. 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.



2. 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)



3. 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. 



4. 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 >>



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BANQUET 1st century CE. Fresco from Herculaneum (Italy). Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Napoli, Italy / 6

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