A Roman Marble Torso of Dionysus, ca. 1st century CE



Preserved from the base of the neck to the mid-thigh is the surviving portion of what will have been a full sculpture of the youthful god of wine, Dionysus. Carved in the round, he is portrayed standing in contrapposto, an asymmetrical stance first used in sculpture in ancient Greece from the 6th century BCE.  Here, the god stands with his weight resting on his right leg. His left leg is slightly advanced and bent at the knee. His arms fall in opposing directions creating a naturalistic twist to the strong, lithe torso. With this weight shift, the slim hips and well-modeled shoulders slope gently, highlighting well-articulated pectorals, the musculature of the lower abdomen, and his pronounced iliac crests. The pose is sensitive and relaxed, with a wonderful sense of movement.

Dionysus’ long serpentine tendrils of hair – which infers his identity – fall to his shoulders. In antiquity, the head of this sculpture would have most probably been complete with a full wreath of vines and berries in his luxurious curls. He would also be holding a characteristic attribute such as a thyrsus (staff) or oinochoe (cup). To the right thigh of the figure is a marble addition, which is remnant of a support, such as a tree trunk or pillar.

Background:  The bad boy of Mt. Olympus, and perhaps the most colorful of the Olympian gods, the youthful, beautiful Dionysus (Greek), or Bacchus (Roman), was the god of wine, merriment, and theatre. Homer describes the god as the ‘joy of men,’ and Hesiod likewise describes him as ‘much-cheering.’ This is no doubt because Dionysos is credited with giving man the gift of wine. Indeed, when King Midas of Phrygia found the god’s chief follower and drinking partner Silenus rather worse for wear in his garden following a drinking bout, the king gave him nourishment and returned him to Dionysus. In gratitude, the god granted Midas a wish. The king requested everything he touched would turn to gold, but as this included food and water, the king almost died of starvation and thirst until Dionysus reversed the gift by telling Midas to wash in the Pactolus river.

In mythology, Dionysos traveled widely, even as far as India, and spread his cult throughout Greece, indeed he was known as being of an eastern origin himself. Orgiastic rituals were held in his honor, where the participants were taken over by a Dionysian frenzy of dancing and merriment to such a degree that they transcended themselves. It is believed that theatre sprang from this activity as, like Dionysos’ worshippers, actors strive to leave behind their own persona and become one with the character they are playing. Indeed, priests of Dionysos were given seats of honor in Greek theatres.

Cornelius C. Vermeule III et al. Sculpture in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, 1977), p. 22, no. 27. (Graeco-Roman, Antonine period, 140-190 AD)
LIMC III/1 (1986) 436. 444–445. 450 s.v. Dionysos (C. Gasparri); LIMC III/2 (1986) nos. 125. 200. 278–279 s.v. Dionysos;Boardman 1995, 74, fig. 65; Signani 2011, 72 (inv. no. 420802); De Angelis d’Ossat 2011, 138–139 (inv. no. 8606); Maischberger − Scholl 2012, 229–230 (no. 129); Coliva et al. 2011, 164, fig. 124; 208, fig. 70; 230, fig. 217
Z. Newby; Greek Myths in Roman Art and Culture, Imagery, Values and Identity in Italy, 50 BC-AD 250, Cambridge University Press, 2016. P.87.

Condition:  Fragmentary as shown.  Expected minor chips, nicks, and abrasions overall with remains of incrustation and root marks throughout, the torso is intact and in very good condition overall.

Dimensions:  Height:  26 1/2” (67.31 cm) with stand.  

Provenance: Private Maryland collection, acquired in the 1950s and thereafter to his widow.

Category: Over $10000, Sculpture, Stone

Type: Roman