Wine and the Vine in Sculpture and Architecture
4,500 YEARS AGO, THE KING OF UR MAKES A TOAST!
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 drinking wine. 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.
WINE: COMPANION OF THE PHARAOHS
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)
THE VINE: A NATURAL BACKDROP
3. 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.
BACCHUS IN ROMAN FUNERARY ART
4. 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.
THE LAST SUPPER IN NOTRE-DAME OF PARIS
5. 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.
WITH NOAH, INVOLUNTARY DRUNKENNESS
6. 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.
THE SEASONS, Jean Goujon
BACCHUS REPRESENTS THE AUTUMN
7. 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.
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.
Seasons, unknown artist, 1735/36 - Rohan Palace, Strasbourg, France / 9
MASCARONS REPRESENT BACCHUS
8. 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.
9. In Strasbourg, in the Palais Rohan, the ground-floor mascarons of the southern façade are displayed on the intrados of the bay windows, as at Versailles. Bacchus, once more representing Autumn, is crowned with bunches of grapes knotted under his chin.
PRUNING AND HARVEST SCENES IN THE MIDDLE AGES
1. Treading of the harvested grapes in a wooden vat, Eglise de Fenioux, 12th centur; 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..
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).
WINE AND THE ARTS