Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Paintings of Pompeii 1: Villa of the Mysteries of Dionysos (Villa Item),' Last modified January 22, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=402.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum a few weeks back in connection with the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Rome (where I presented a paper from my upcoming book). The populations of both of these ancient towns were wiped out by the volcanic eruption of mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, and no subsequent building was done over the ruins. So these are among the best preserved ancient cities to see. One major result of the trip is that I now have about 1000 new photos relating to artifacts from the Roman era. Among these are many photos of mosaics and paintings or frescoes from Pompeii (and some from Herculaneum). So I’ll have a series of posts on some of these paintings (also drawing on some information found in Irene Bragantini and Valeria Sampaolo, La pittura pompeiana Naples: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, 2009).
The majority of paintings from Pompeii are now removed from Pompeii and preserved in the National Archeological Museum of Naples (Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli). However, some are still in their original find-spots (in situ). One of the most incredible wall-paintings from antiquity can still be found within a rather large home on the outskirts of the original town of Pompeii.
Mysteries of Dionysos
This home is known as Villa Item or Villa of the Mysteries, due to the paintings that decorated one of its banqueting halls. This banqueting hall may also have been used in connection with initiations in the mysteries of Dionysos (Bacchus). I have discussed the mysteries and Dionysos’ mysteries specifically on one of my websites, so I would suggest you read that first. Right now I’d like to supplement my earlier discussion of the mysteries by supplying photos of the paintings which seem to depict stages in the initiation process and related mythological scenes.
The paintings seem to depict both the devotees of Dionysos in various stages of participation in initiation rites and mythological scenes which intersect with the progress of initiation itself. The exact interpretation of these paintings is, of course, debated, but I will give a basic description with some consultation of M.P. Nilsson (The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistics and Roman Age [Lund: Gleerup, 1957], 66-78) and Walter Burkert (Ancient Mystery Cults [Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987], 95-96).
Scene 1 – Preparations (north wall, on your left as you enter):
A naked child reads from a papyrus scroll as two women of the house listen and a third woman carries a dish towards the next scene.
Scene 2 – Preparations and segue to mythical or revelation scenes (north wall, on your left as you enter):
A seated woman (with back facing us) uncovers a tray with her left hand while receiving liquid into a dish with her right hand, perhaps cleaning her hands (Burkert) or making an offering to the god (Nilsson). To her right is a mythical scene depicting a silenos playing the lyre, a boy playing a flute, and a girl suckling a goat. Further to the right, a partially clothed woman runs in fear (perhaps running from the flogging scene on the opposite side).
Scene 3 – Mythical scene with Silenos, Dionysos, and threatening winged female figure (east wall, straight ahead as you enter):
This may be a depiction of the revelation of the god Dionysos to the initiate. A drunken and scantily clad god Dionysos, accompanied by Ariadne, is seated in the centre as a Silenos shows something (or offers a drink) to a boy (satyr?) while another boy holds up a theatrical mask. To the right, a partially clothed woman lifts a veil to reveal the contents of a basket, likely the phallic symbol associated with initiation into the mysteries of DIonysos. A threatening mythical figure appears on the far right (see next photo).
Scene 4 – Flagellation and dancing woman (east and south walls):
A winged, mythical figure winds up to flog a woman (initiate-to-be?) with a rod or wand (thyrsos). The woman lays her head in the lap of another woman for protection from the threatening figure. To the right, a woman (same initiate who was previously flogged?) dances naked while playing finger-cymbals over her head and another woman holds a reed or wand (thyrsos), a symbol of the god Dionysos.
Scene 5 – Seated woman being adorned by cupids