Sarcophagus Panel with the Indian Triumph of Dionysus, 180–195 AD
34 1/2 × 85 3/4 × 9 1/2 in. (87.6 × 217.8 × 24.1 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Lee and Joe Jamail in honor of Caroline Wiess Law
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
The Indian Triumph of Dionysus
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
The artist is unknown, but was probably male. Most artists who created distinctive sarcophagi such as this one lived in Rome, Ostia, and Athens, as well as near the quarries at Aphrodisias in Asia Minor. By the time of the reign of Hadrian (A.D. 117–38), sarcophagi had become the dominant artistic form of sculpture. The best Roman, Greek, and eastern artisans became attracted to the medium. In Greece and Asia Minor, there were several independent workshops producing sarcophagi.
This white marble panel, commissioned by a wealthy Roman follower of the mysterious cult of Dionysus, depicts the god’s triumphant return after spreading the “miracle” of wine to India and the East. At the composition’s center is Dionysus (1), who is identified by a headdress of grapes and vines, lounging on a cart drawn by two panthers. (2) Often associated with panthers, the mythological Dionysus transformed himself into a panther and punished two women who denied his divinity. His languorous pose and relaxed state of undress suggest sensuality. Around him, graceful female celebrants called maenads (3) dance and play music. Satyrs (4), male followers with both human and animal characteristics, try to interest the maenads. Winged cupids and bridled animals surround Pan (5) a forest creature with human torso and goat legs, as he looks back at Dionysus and guides the panthers pulling the cart. The old satyr, Silenus (6), rides his donkey beside Pan while balancing a bowl of fruit on his head, an amazing feat since he is usually depicted inebriated from the wine. Captives of Dionysus’ Indian campaign (7) sit on the back of an exotic elephant that has an extraordinarily long and elegant trunk. The scene on this sarcophagus unfolds in a progression from left to right, yet dramatically revolves around a center of action.
Roman sarcophagi were usually placed in alcoves and were therefore carved only on the front. Made of white Carrara marble, this panel is an alto rilievo or high-relief sculpture, a three dimensional sculpture that is not free-standing but is deeply carved on one side and completely flat on the reverse. On the front of this high relief panel, the figures appear almost unattached to the heavy, flat stone in the background. The swirl of the sheer robe of Dionysus, surrounded by the fluidity of the maenads’ veils and movements belies the weight and massiveness of the marble. The reverse side, not seen in this image, is left untouched.
Although cremation had been the most common funerary practice in the Roman Empire since the mid-1st century B.C., burial, especially in stone sarcophagi, began to be favored during the reign of the emperor Trajan (A.D. 98–117). Under the next emperor, Hadrian (A.D. 117–138), human burial in sarcophagi became an established practice throughout the Roman Empire. The sarcophagi of the Romans illustrate the international character of its vast empire, and increasingly adopted regional shapes and themes that corresponded to local artistic and spiritual preferences. Heroic or celebratory scenes from Greek mythology were prevalent. Reveling scenes, such as those including Dionysus (known as Bacchus to the Greeks) were popular as depictions of the anticipated afterlife.
• Identify the characters from Greek and Roman mythology depicted on this relief panel. Why were these particular characters chosen for the sarcophagus? Discuss the meaning of this scene. Is this a solemn or festive occasion?
• Why are the Indian captives and the elephant depicted relatively smaller than the other figures in this panel? What else on the panel seems out of scale?
• Look carefully at this relief panel. How has the sculptor depicted movement? In which direction do the figures move in this scene? How are the figures placed in relation to each other? Which ones appear closest? Which ones seem farthest away?
• Most artistic styles and trends during the time of the Roman Empire are identified with the reigning emperor of the time. Study the imperial dynasties of the Roman Republic, the Julio-Claudians, and the Antonines. How did these different dynasties and their politics influence art styles?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.