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

  • DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence

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.






Develop Grit

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, who is identified by a headdress of grapes and vines, lounging on a cart drawn by two panthers. 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 dance and play music. Satyrs, male followers with both human and animal characteristics, try to interest the maenads. Winged cupids and bridled animals surround Pan 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, 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 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.

Conversation Starters


  • Look closely at the characters. Which ones stand out to you? What can you guess about them from their body language, or from their dress?
  • This scene is full of details and symbols. Look closely at the animals, dress, supporting figures, and other objects. What do you think is happening in this scene? Use visual clues to support your answer.
  • How has the sculptor depicted space? Which objects and people are closest to you; which are farthest away? How can you tell?
  • Is anything in this image out of proportion?


  • What or who do you think is the most important part of this scene? Why?
  • Tell the story of Dionysus’s conquest in India. Does it fit with your previous interpretation of the scene? Why or why not?
  • How can you differentiate the ordinary people from the gods or mythical characters in this composition?
  • This is a panel taken from a Roman sarcophagus, or coffin. Many people chose to have celebratory scenes like this represented on their sarcophagi. Why do you think this is so?


  • After a discussion using the conversation starters, research further information about Greek mythology focusing on Dionysus, Pan, Silenus, maenads, and satyrs. Synthesize this information with observation of characters and their relationships shown on this sarcophagus.
  • Read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Connect the plot, characterization, and settings from the book with this work of art. How are Dionysus and the other characters portrayed in both the book and the work of art? How does the work of art affect your interpretation of each character? Use evidence from the sarcophagus and text to support your assertions.
  • Imagine Percy Jackson, the main character of the Lightning Thief, as a part of the action in the scene represented on this sarcophagus.  Compose a mythical narrative in which Jackson interacts with the elements of this scene. Develop mythical settings, possible dialogue, rising action elements, climaxes, and resolutions.  
  • Create a brief script from the narrative above.  Present as a play to the class.
  • Continue imaginative adventures of Percy Jackson in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Investigate Greek and Roman art that could be included in a new adventure for Percy Jackson at MFAH.
  • Further examine the relationship between Greek and Roman cultures via the museum’s collection of art. How does Greek and Roman art convey universal themes such religion, justice, and the passage of time? Explain the relationship that exists between today’s society and works of art that reflect Greek and/or Roman culture.

Subject Matter Connection

This high relief sculpture is made of white Carrara marble. Use the Mohs Scale of Mineral Hardness to conduct a scientific investigation characterizing the scratch resistance of various minerals, such as marble  Test mineral hardness by scratching simple minerals with ordinary objects such as a penny, nail, and fingernail. Record results. Analyze data to formulate a conclusion explaining why marble would be the material of choice for this work of art. 

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.