A Study of a Dionysiac Sarcophagus In the Los Angeles County Art Museum

A man dies. He winds his way down into the underworld to reach the banks of the river Acheron where he meets the ferryman Charon. He takes a coin from his mouth to pay the toll across. On the opposite bank he is greeted by a Maenad or perhaps Bacchus himself who offers him a kylix of wine. Drinking deep, the man is transformed and resurrected from death to a higher plane. Instead of living a miserable dream in the underworld he receives redemption from his god Dionysos, the Savior. In Roman imperial times there was a great resurgence of the "Mystery" cults of Greece fueled by the hope of a life after death. In funerary monuments there can be seen the tenets of the religion as well as how it views the afterlife. Within the Los Angeles County Art Museum stands such a vessel created to facilitate this journey to eternal bliss.
A gift from William Randolph Hearst, the piece is a sarcophagus from the Severan period of the Roman empire near the end of the second century detailing a procession of Dionysos, the god of wine, and his followers. Such a procession could be from Dionysos\'s messianic journeys or from his triumphal return from spreading the wine cult. Originally in the mausoleum of a wealthy family in Rome, the sarcophagus was in later times used as a planter for a flower bed(Matz, 3). This "misuse" of the piece explains the deterioration of the marble which necessitated extensive restoration in the 17th century(4). It is tub shaped with dimensions of 2.1 meters long and 1 meter wide, standing 0.6 meters from the ground. The shape is similar to tubs used for trampling grapes which had spouts ornamented with lions\' heads to vent the wine(3). Being shaped like a wine vat makes the sarcopagi a transformative force in its own right by symbolically turning the person interned within into wine !
bringing him closer to the god. Unlike other sarcophagi of the period the back of this piece has not been left unhewn, but instead a strigal pattern of repeating "S" shapes has been carved, suggesting that the piece may have stood in the center of the mausoleum.
Unlike other more famous and elaborate Dionysiac sarcophagi, such as the Seasons sarcophagi and the Triumph of Dionysos in Baltimore which portray specific pivotal events in the mythos of Dionysos, this piece gives us instead a somewhat generic slice of Bacchic life(Matz, 5). The style and portrayal of the figures, of course, predate the Roman empire; sarcophagi of this type were mass produced in shops based on patterns and drawings from Greek artisans(Alexander, 46). Dionysos himself is in the center holding his scepter, the thyrsos, in his left hand and pouring wine with his right while riding a panther, a sacred animal closely associated with the god(Matz, 4). Flanking him are two lion heads that represent Dionysos\'s attempts to escape death at the hands of the titans by transforming into a lion, among other animals, which then lead to his death and subsequent rebirth(Graves, 103-104).
To the right of Dionysos is Silenus, his tutor from his childhood, holding a vessel most likely filled with wine. The presence of Silenus reinforces the cult\'s belief in eternal youth. Next to Silenus is a Maenad, or female raver, playing a flute above Pan the goat god of the forest. Below Pan and the right lion head are two cherubs, one wearing a mask of Silenus while the other rears back in fright(Matz, 4).
On the left of Dionysos are two satyrs and another smaller image of Pan holding a cup of wine. Further left is another Maenad, this one playing a tambourine, who is being followed by a satyr. Below the left lion head there is another cherub, or putto, and a young satyr. Rounding out the left side on the end is still another maenad followed by a satyr. On the right end there is a satyr, playing the cymbals, following a half nude maenad. Completing the piece, in the background behind the main figures there are two kids(an animal Dionysos often transformed into), another pan and a small panther.
Through looking at the piece we can