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More Santo Stefano gorefest

By Elevenses, Santo Stefano, Talking art

Oh yes, the fresco cycle in Santo Stefano Rotondo is a real gorefest! The frescoes were created in around 1582 at the height of the Counter Reformation and meant to inspire Catholics to martyr themselves if necessary in the fight against Protestantism. There are reports of over-zealous would be missionaries flogging themselves to death in front of the frescoes so I suppose something worked.

santo stefano rotondo

Circignani and M. da Siena, The Martyrdom of St Cecilia, Santo Stefano Rotondo, 1581-2

Here’s St Cecilia. According to her legend, she was married against her will to a Roman pagan named Valarian. On her wedding day she heard angels singing and when it came to the moment that their marriage was to be consummated, she told Valarian that if he touched her that would not be good AT ALL. Angels can be pretty mean when it comes to looking after their own! On the other hand, she said, if he heeded her wishes he too could see angels. Somewhat surprisingly Valarian listened, had an angelic visitation and was persuaded to convert to Christianity. He loved it so much that he also converted his brother.

The enthusiastic new members of the flock preached Christianity whenever they could and were soon beheaded for their troubles. Cecilia, however, suffered even more. She was condemned to be boiled to death but after a day and a half in boiling water she wasn’t even tepid and an executioner was discharged to behead her. In many versions of the tale her severed head continued to preach for several days until she finally went to meet the angels who had so often sung to her. St Cecilia is now the patron saint of music.

The background to this fresco depicts the horrible sight of her husband and brother in law getting their heads chopped off. Just what you want in a church that has become hugely popular for concerts and weddings. St Cecilia must be delighted with all that music.

The story of St Cecilia is merely a warm up (sorry!) to the gorefest depicted in many of the other frescoes. How about this one of saints Bibiana, John and Paul?

Bibiana, John and Paul Santo Stefano Rotondo

Circignani and M. da Siena, The Martyrdom of Saint Artemius, John, Paul and Bibiana, Santo Stefano Rotondo, fresco, 1581-2

In the foreground, we see 3 dead saints on the ground and we know this because they have halos, there’s another saintly personage getting crushed, I was going to say to death but I feel he’s already a gonner (or at least I hope he is) and then in the background are heaps of cadavers and a burning ship with a cross that you can just about make out through the flames.

Many of the frescoes have similar scenes of genocide in the background which I think is meant to suggest the huge number of Christians that fell foul to the pagan regime and the number that were giving their lives for the cause during the Catholic Revival. It’s propaganda folks, but not as we know it.

But to the four in the foreground. The three on the grass in a nice neat row are Saints John, Paul and Bibiana. They have been intertwined apocryphally for centuries but the story of Bibiana is actually separate to that of John and Paul.

John and Paul, however, share a hagiography. These two saints were brothers and officers of the Roman army in the days of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine. They happily served in his daughter’s house until both she and her father died and Julian became Emperor. Julian returned to the cult of idols and paganism. Sigh!

Emperor Julian asked John and Paul to return to active service, they said ‘no thanks’ and they were decapitated secretly in their own garden to avoid an outrage. Julian then instigated a rumour that they had been exiled which didn’t go down too well because pagans started to get possessed by demons. When the son of their murderer was also possessed, the soldier went and prayed at their tomb at which point the demons fled his son’s body and he subsequently and unsurprisingly converted to Christianity, and wrote the story. Hurrah!

So who actually noticed that their heads have been severed from their bodies???

Before we get to squashed man, let’s talk about Bibiana. You might notice that squashed man’s eyes are quite literally popping out of his head looking at her but despite the best efforts of a very cruel lady, Bibiana remained a virgin when she was martyred.

There are two versions of the Bibiana myth; in both she’s the daughter of Christian parents and persecuted by Julian the Apostate hence the connection to John and Paul.

In the first myth Julian banishes her father, and her mother and sister subsequently die of natural causes and are buried in their house (under the floor boards?!) by Bibiana. Bibiana herself is subject to torture before she passes away. A couple of days later she’s laid to rest with her mother and sister by a priest called John (St John?) and the house was eventually consecrated as a church. It’s the site of St Bibiana in Rome.

In the other version, the two sisters survive their parents and are stripped of all their possessions. They don’t mind too much as they spend their days in fasting and prayer. Really peeved that hunger and deprivation had absolutely no effect on them, the Roman Governor summons them, and it is at this point that Bibiana’s sister falls down dead.

Bibiana, however, is tortured in this account as well. She’s held captive by a wicked woman called Rufina, who in tries to defile her virginity firstly by seductive persuasion and then by violence but that doesn’t work (I’m not sure what didn’t work or how it didn’t work but she remained a virgin). Enraged, the Roman governor ordered her to be tied to a pillar and flogged which was a torture that she endured with a smile on her face until she died.

Her body was then put in the open air to be torn apart by wild animals, but as you can see she was left intact and finally buried.

So who is pop-eye?  He’s Artemius, a Roman soldier also martyred under the reign of Julian the Apostate. He was renowned for his ability to cure maladies relating to the spine and testicles. Why has he suffered the indignity here of getting pulverised under a huge rock? Maybe to show a bit of immediacy; the fact that his bowels are spewing out and that his eyes have indeed popped out of head under the weight of the rock is meant to be a visceral reminder that the struggle was not yet over. Nice.

The video of the episode on St Cecilia can be viewed here.

The video of the episode on Saints Bibiana, John and Paul can be viewed here.

To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Santo Stefano gorefest: Saint Stephen

By Elevenses, Santo Stefano, Talking art

Those of you who haven’t caught me live on Instagram (yet!) might not know that there is almost always a shout out for GORE. So here we are at the start of a veritable gorefest. This fresco of poor St Stephen is a mere warm up to some of the other frescos in the same series that I’m going to show you over the coming weeks…you have been warned! Spoiler alert: it’s not very festive!!

St Stephen was the first person to be martyred in the name of Christianity. He’s kneeling in his red robe arms held out to his sides, perhaps in a nod to Christ’s crucifixion, eyes to the heavens as he’s pelted at point blank range with stones, or possibly baked potatoes.

St Stephen protomartyr

N. Circignani and M. da Siena, The Martyrdom of St Stephen, Santo Stefano Rotondo, 1581-2

St Stephen, however, doesn’t seem to care much and nor does he seem to have noticed the vision of Christ and God in the cloud above which was what partially got him into trouble in the first place. St Stephen was a brilliant orator and held a lot of views that went against public opinion so when, in a court of law in Jerusalem, he claimed that Jesus’s death was murder, that Moses had foretold of Christ’s coming and that he could, by the way, see a vision in the sky of Christ standing at God’s right hand, things went badly. St Stephen was chased out of the court by an angry mob and stoned to death for his beliefs.

Santo Stefano

In the background to the right we have a group that the artist identifies with a ‘B’ as the apostles (there’s a guide to the lettering below the fresco). I imagine that this is a reference to the 12 apostles being dispersed, metaphorically if not geographically, after Stephen’s death because you can see some figures with halos being harangued by others brandishing branches.

Over to the left in the background is a man identified as Jacobus. He’s about to get beheaded. I think this could be James the Great who was the first of the apostles to be martyred and he did, according to the New Testament, get his head chopped off.

I’m not convinced, however, looking at the architecture, that this scene is representative of Jerusalem in the 1st century A.D. There is a reason for that. The artist, Niccolo Circignani, was more than likely asked to present Rome as the successor to Jerusalem. These frescoes were painted in 1582 at the height of the Counter Reformation so glorifying Rome and Catholicism was important.

And the catalogue of bodily horrors in the name of martyrdom that this fresco cycle represents was clearly part of that.

Yes, St Stephen is one of the least gruesome images in the series. For an idea of what’s to come, here’s a description by Charles Dickens. He didn’t mince his words when he wrote about the works in Pictures from Italy, published in 1846:

… St. Stefano Rotondo a damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle uppermost in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdoms of saints and early Christians; and such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects. So insisted on, and laboured at, besides, that every sufferer gives you the same occasion for wonder as poor old Duncan awoke, in Lady Macbeth, when she marvelled at his having so much blood in him.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. Or at least partially viewed as there was a technical difficulty and I was interrupted in full flow! To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

The Birth of Bacchus

By Bacchus, Elevenses, Talking art

Brace yourselves! The birth of Bacchus is a mental story!

I’m starting this blog with this gorgeous arcadian scene, featuring the nymphs of Nysa, or the Nysiads and, erm, a dead body in the foreground. It’s called The Birth of Bacchus.

Birth of Bacchus Poussin

Nicolas Poussin, The Birth of Bacchus, 1657, Harvard Art Museums

So basically, ignoring the dead person, these nymphs have been going about their business (also ignoring the dead person) when they are delighted and excited by a visit from the messenger of the gods, Hermes.

Hermes, has quite a big message – he has a baby for them to look after. Spoiler alert, it’s Bacchus.

The god pan is happily presiding over the scene playing his flute and then we have a couple of figures up on a cloud. The man sitting on the bed is Zeus. We know it’s Zeus because his attribute, an eagle, is sitting on the end of the cloud. He’s recuperating and happily accepting a drink by the cup bearer to the gods, Hebe. What’s he recuperating from? Drum roll…..GIVING BIRTH TO BACCHUS.

Here are two images of Zeus giving birth.

Karater depicting birth of Dionysus

Apulian red-figure krater, depicting the birth of Dionysus, 4th century B.C., National Archaeological Museum of Taranto

The Altamura Painter, krater depicting the birth of Dionysus, c. 460 B.C., National Archaeological Museum of Ferrara

Yep, Zeus gave birth to Bacchus out of his leg.

The Greek name for Bacchus is Dionysus. Dionysus means ‘twice born’. So Zeus didn’t gestate this baby but just kept him safe in his leg until he was ready to come out. Is there a back story? You bet there is!

Here’s Rubens giving us the drama…

Rubens Death of Semele

Rubens, Death of Semele, between 1630 and 1640, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Belgium

Obviously it starts with Zeus falling in love with a lovely young girl called Semele, getting her pregnant and making his wife Hera insanely jealous, which was her default emotion.

Now Semele is a mortal and so Zeus has to protect her from his full godly brightness for reasons which will become obvious.

Hera knows this and in her anger and jealousy, she disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse and pretends that she’s really worried about her because, actually, does she really know who she’s sleeping with? How does she know it’s Zeus and not some mortal taking advantage of her by pretending to be the god?

She advises Semele to insist that Zeus properly reveals himself. Here she is doing just that in this image from an illustrated version of Ovid’s Metamorphosis from 1677.

Illustrated Ovid

Illustration of Hera and Semele from an illustrated version of Ovid’s Metamorphosis from 1677

So, the seed is planted and the next night, as she’s running her fingers through his hair, Semele says ‘darling, will you do anything I ask?’. Zeus wakes up (!) and says that he loves her so much that he absolutely will and for good measure, he swears an oath on the river Styx.

You can’t break an oath to the river Styx.

Semele starts to state her request and as soon as Zeus realises what it is, he frantically tries to stop her saying the words that will kill her. She’s a woman on a mission so all Zeus can do is literally blow her mind.

You’ll notice an eagle with a thunderbolt at the end of this bed too. When your lover is the main man with thunderbolts at his fingertips, it’s pretty intense.

As Semele died, Zeus took the unborn child from her womb and stitched it into his thigh until he was born again and we come full circle to Poussin.

But what of the dead person?

It might be a reference to a slightly different myth concerning Dionysus’s birth.

In this story Persephone gave birth to Dionysus, Hera decides the kill the baby and lures him to her with all the latest toys at which point the Titans pounce, rip him to shreds and eat him. Except for his heart. (I have no idea why I can’t find this story depicted in art). Zeus is really upset and decides that he remake his little boy by implanting the heart into Semele’s womb. She’s not dumb enough in this story to ask to see the god behind the mask and she gives birth to Dionysus but clearly can’t be trusted to raise him because in every story he’s raised by nymphs.

So birth, death, rebirth? Maybe that’s what Poussin was getting at?

Actually the dead person is a mystery. We know he’s Narcissus because of the flowers, and this weeping woman is Echo who was in love with Narcissus but there isn’t really a satisfactory theory to my knowledge as to why they’ve painting-bombed the birth of Bacchus, although their story does come next in Metamorphosis

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.


By Elevenses, Talking art, Themis

In ‘Maid in Marble’, my video introducing the art of Classical Antiquity, an excited young lady announces that the statue she’s modelling her head for is probably that of Themis – the goddess of law and order.

Themis, from the MET

Marble statue of a woman (Themis?),

Maid in Marble

Still from Maid in Marble, 2021, Beyond the Palette

Themis is one of the most ancient of all the goddesses; being one of 12 offspring between Uranus and Gaia, she is part of the Second Order of divine beings that became known as the Titans.

Here are her parents in the happy days of their marriage as part of a floor mosaic from the 3rd century A.D.

Uranus and Gaia floor mosaic 3rd century B.C.

Uranus and Gaia with children, floor mosaic, 200-250 A.D., Sassoferrato, Italy

Unfortunately things turned sour and Gaia decided to overthrow Uranus, and asked her kids, one by one if they would help her.

So, she called on Themis, who wisely counselled her mother to forget the crazy idea of usurping Uranus. Gaia listened carefully to this wise counsel and ignored it.

Her brother, Cronos, wasn’t quite as wise. He overthrew Uranus by castrating him and throwing his genitals into the sea. Which is how Venus was born.*

And then, of course, Cronos himself was overturned by Zeus.*

Whilst all this was going on, Themis was earning herself a great reputation for being just, wise and a bit of a prophet. When the Oracle of Delphi prophesised, she was either possessed by Apollo, Themis or Gaia. Or perhaps all three.  I would always hope for Themis. By the way, a little gem curtesy of Stephen Fry: the Greek for ‘divine possession’ is enthusiasmos – enthusiasm. To be enthused or enthusiastic is to be ‘engodded’, to be divinely inspired.

Here she is seated on the Delphic tripod, holding a cup in one hand and a sprig of laurel in the other completely confusing King Aegeas. He was so baffled by her prophesy that he had to go to his mate to ask him to explain. At which point his mate got him drunk and had him seduced by his daughter (who later gave birth to Theseus). That’s another rather complicated story.

Themis speaking through the Delphic Oracle

 Themis and King Aegeus, Athenian red-figure kylix 5th century B.C., Antikensammlung Berlin

Zeus, Themis, Athena, Mercury

Hermes, Themis, Zeus and Athena, Athenian red-figure pelike 4th century B.C., State Hermitage Museum

Here is Themis again, this time offering counsel to Zeus who by now is King of the gods.

You’ll notice it’s quite a cosy gathering. Actually, to some extent, this is a nice family gathering. In the centre is Zeus with Themis seated to the far left, then we have Hermes and to the other side of Zeus a little Nike or winged messenger and Athena.

Athena is Zeus’s daughter by his first wife, Metis. Themis is Zeus’s aunty on both sides; she is the sister of his parents, Cronos and Rhea (!) but at this moment she’s also possibly his wife. I say possibly not because they may not have married, they did, but who knows where we are in the crazy life of Zeus at this point other than he’s fathered Athena? He went on to marry Mnemosyne with whom he had the nine muses, and Leto the demure goddess of motherhood before he settled for the deranged and jealous Hera, who was also his sister. I bet family gatherings were excellent.

Back to his brief marriage to Themis. It might be the most normal thing Zeus ever did! They became close when he repeatedly called on her to help him make wise decisions about the conduct of men and gods and soon she was synonymous with the idea of divine law and Zeus couldn’t live without her in his life. Until he could and moved on!

Naturally they had offspring. Two sets of triplets in fact. The Horai and the Moirai.

The Horai were the goddesses of the seasons. At some point another one joined them. They were pretty cool ladies who oversaw the smooth running of time.

The Moirai on the other hand are often depicted as witchy type characters who personified a person’s fate. ‘Moirai’ means ‘parts’ or ‘shares’ so they dished out what portion of life an individual could have. One spun the golden tread, another measured it out and the final Moirai cut it. The fate of man wasn’t inflexible, however. If Zeus decided to play with that tread that was his prerogative.

So Themis was always working away in the background basically doing good work. She didn’t get naked and nor did she do anything grandiose or outrageous, therefore artists mostly weren’t interested in her narrative, but of course as the embodiment of justice and law and order, she is everywhere.

The Romans called her Justitia, and she became the only one of the cardinal virtues to have a signature look in ancient art. Scales, usually a sword and often a blindfold to signify her impartiality were standard attributes.

Occasionally, however, she was depicted with other attributes as in this work by Raphael.

An ostrich.

Justice with ostrich, Raphael

Copy of Raphael’s, Justice, 1508, Sala di Costantino, Vatican (accessed from

The ostrich was known in the Renaissance for its odd dietary habits (eating anything, including metal) and was sometimes linked with the sin of gluttony. That’s not, I don’t think, what Raphael was saying. The fact that it really did eat ANYTHING also imbued it with the fine quality of endurance and it became an emblem of justice during the Renaissance because, according to the famous 16th century iconographer, Cesare Ripa, “the ostrich ruminates its food as Justice should the testimony put before her”. Apparently they also have very evenly distributed feathers which is just the way that the law should be imparted. That’s according to the 5th century author Horapollo.

On the other hand they put their heads in the ground and so could be symbols of ignorance.

This work was only found a few years ago in 2017 during a fresco restoration. It’s one of only two figures that Raphael painted using a new technique with oil paints.

* a video about Venus is available here, and one about Zeus overthrowing Cronos is available here.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Michelangelo’s (pissed up) Bacchus

By Elevenses, Michelangelo Bacchus, Talking art

Gazing into the glazed eyes of Michelanagelo’s Bacchus in the Bargello in Florence a few years ago, a friend said to me that you kind of have to love him, even if he looks a bit dodgy. Unusually, I couldn’t quite agree. I was more with the poet Percy Shelley who wrote that the god of wine looks ‘drunken, brutal, and narrow-minded, and has an expression of dissoluteness the most revolting’. A virtuoso piece of sculpting though.

Bacchus Bargello Michelangelo

Michelangelo, Bacchus, 1496-7, Bargello, Florence

Michelangelo’s Bacchus can barely focus on his cup and he definitely looks as though he could sway off that marble podium at any time. His tummy is protruding, shoulders slumped, and whilst there is evidence of some firm musculature beneath that naked torso, his body appears softly rounded, and somewhat feminine.

His left hand loosely grips an animal pelt, quite probably that of a leopard as they traditionally pulled his chariot, and bunch of grapes that are being slyly nibbled by the little satyr sitting on the tree stump behind him. The pay-off is that Bacchus is practically leaning against the satyr for support. You can practically smell the wine on his breath and see the red stained lips and teeth.

At some point he also made the sartorial decision to adorn his head with vine leaves and little bunches of grapes which resemble curls. If you’ve read the Elevenses blog ‘The art of the Bacchanal’ you’ll know that ivy was more commonly used as Bacchus’s crown. It was supposed to act as a defence against drunkenness. Could have been helpful here?!

Standing a little over two metres high, he is in fact, the embodiment of drunkenness. I haven’t tried, but I imagine wobbliness is pretty bloody hard to achieve in marble.

Which begs the question: who commissioned this and did they actually want a pissed up Bacchus with a slightly sleezy air or something less challenging – after all Bacchus here is a nasty reminder of the effects of drink.

The first question is easy to answer. The consensus is that Michelangelo was commissioned by Cardinal Riario in Rome and began working on the statue in 1496.

The answer to the second question is less clear because we don’t have the paperwork detailing the commission. Regular payments were made but as far as all the evidence suggests, the statue was never actually delivered to the Cardinal but instead displayed in the sculpture garden of Riario’s banker and Michelangelo’s friend, Jacopo Galli.

One theory is that the drunkenness was a problem. This is way past the ruddy cheeked conviviality of many other depictions of Bacchus. Alcohol was the pathway to hell and so it was unseemly in the extreme to have a statue, albeit of the god of wine, that appeared to represent total inebriation, especially if you were a man of the cloth.

Or perhaps it wasn’t quite antique enough. The 16th century saw a lot of excavation and everyone was mad for the statues of classical antiquity.

Michelangelo Bacchus 1496

Michelangelo had just pulled off a magnificent stunt in which he created a marble cupid, roughed it up a bit, and allowed it to be passed off as a genuine antique. This is, in fact, how he met Cardinal Riario who bought the piece believing it to be antique. When he found out that it was merely a fabulous fake, he was initially furious but, once he had his money back, he recognised the extraordinary talent of Michelangelo and invited him to come to Rome. This is when he commissioned Bacchus.

It would definitely seem that Michelangelo was attempting a similar outcome with Bacchus as he did with Cupid (now lost). Word on the street was that the artist himself mutilated the statue to make it look more antique, knocking off the raised hand and cup and chiselling away the penis (ouch).

In this sketch by Marten van Heemskerck of Bacchus in Galli’s sculpture garden, dated to the 1530s, you can see that both are already missing. By the 1550s, however, the hand had returned, reattached by the artist using cement, but the penis was never in evidence.

van Heemskerck Bacchus

Drawing of Bacchus in the sculpture garden of Jacopo Galli by Maarten van Heemskerck, c. 1533–1536

Did it look antique? Some contemporary commentators definitely thought so, others weren’t sure. Perhaps the slightest doubt wasn’t good enough for either Michelangelo or Riario? Perhaps it just wasn’t the kind of antique Riario was looking for.

Finally, there’s the fact that it may have been considered too effeminate. The issue was that this led to suggestions of homosexuality. Which was forbidden. But rife. Michelangelo was probably gay. Nevertheless you couldn’t promote it in a statue in the late 15th century.

So drunk, not antique enough, too effeminate? All of the above? Who knows?

Michelangelo I imagine was somewhat upset at the time. But for us today, it’s testament to his daring and genius. Would I want Michelangelo’s Bacchus in my garden though? Definitely not.

And the big (or little) question is: where’s his penis?

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Villa dei Misteri

By Elevenses, Talking art, Villa dei Misteri

Ah, the Villa dei Misteri or the Villa of Mysteries. What could be more exciting than a fresco series depicting Bacchic rituals involving a mystic marriage between a mortal woman and Bacchus?

If the frescos depict the ritual that actually took place, it was quite an event! But the frescos themselves are amazing. Created in the 1st century B.C., they are rare survivals of wall painting – Vesuvius saw to it that so much was destroyed but the ones that weren’t smashed to smithereens were brilliantly preserved by volcanic ash.

Villa dei Misteri

The first fresco shows a noble Roman woman entering the space just as we would. She’s demure and wearing a veil but I’m going to say that this is about to change because she’s the initiate about to go through the Bacchic ritual.

As she approaches the lady sitting on throne, perhaps a priestess, a young boy very studiously reads from a scroll. He seems to be being encouraged by the priestess – just look at the way she places her hand around the back of his neck; it’s really tender and very naturalistic. He’s probably reading the declaration of the initiation, and judging by the fact that she has more scroll in her hand, it’s quite long.

This part of the fresco feels very calm. This continues into the next two scenes.

villa dei misteri

Firstly we have a lady carrying a tray of something or other. No one is quite sure what – perhaps bread or cakes. She’s wearing a crown of myrtle which is associated with Aphrodite the goddess of love, and seems to be carrying some laurel which, in terms of a crown, would signify a triumph or victory but it was also used as seasoning so perhaps she’s the cook rather than a serving girl…

Alternatively she could be the initiate with an offering.

Whoever she is, she’s not engaging with the other figures in the fresco but is interacting with us.

Not so the next group of figures who are absorbed in a shared activity. Again, we aren’t exactly sure what they’re doing but given the girl on the right is pouring water on a purple robe that is being lifted very carefully by the seated women, and assisted by the woman on the right, it might be some kind of cleansing ritual. Whatever is happening, it’s clearly a delicate operation that involves cooperation between the women as the one on the left is looking pretty intently at the one on the right. Notice how the girl to the right is also wearing a myrtle crown.


As is the chap in the following image. In fact that’s all he’s wearing. The purple robe that is being dropped gives some continuity and he’s providing us with a sound track to the narrative as he plays the lyre, lost, I think in his own thoughts. Perhaps that’s how he hasn’t noticed that his robe has fallen off? He may very conceivably also be Silenus, Bacchus’s great friend and teacher; in which case he’s not lost in his own thoughts but completely wasted.

The musical accompaniment continues with a young man or perhaps a satyr playing the panpipes and another suckling goat. This is where it starts to get weird, and this woman knows it!

She’s just to the right of the goat-suckler but actually she’s looking across to the next wall and something is clearly really freaking her out.

Is this the initiate? Is it someone else? We don’t know for sure but we do know that she’d rather hot-foot it out of there. Notice the way that her body is turned in the opposite direction to her face as though she is about to run; it feels as though she might bound off that platform, which looks so real, and escape through the room. Her hand is held out as though to push back what she’s seeing and her face (and upper torso) is brilliantly framed by her billowing cloak which adds to the dynamism of this character. There’s a truly excellent use of light and shadow here which adds a brilliant sense of volume or three dimensionality to this figure; the hand is foreshortened, the way her face is painted brings a sense of her personality and psychology. It’s really accomplished.

OK! But what is it that she’s seen?

villa dei misteri

She appears to be looking over to the first group of figures on the back wall and perhaps in particular this pretty grim mask that one of the youths is holding up. This is a Silenus mask, used in Bacchic rituals. Silenus (again) proffers a drinking cup to his young friend, but notice how he’s possibly not drinking but looking into the bowl. Notice, too, how the mask lines up with his face so that he can see his reflection and the mask behind him. It reminds me of the gorgon at the bottom of the drinking cup that we saw in the Greek Symposium. This is what you become…

villa dei misteri

Then we come to the true protagonist in this fresco. A pissed up Bacchus. He’s in the centre of the back wall slouched on Ariadne’s lap, thyrsus propped against his chair; if he’s taking another ‘spiritual’ wife, he’s not going to remember much the next day but that’s how it was with these ceremonies. Remember the maenads? Well, this is what they went through!

It’s probable that the ladies to the right of Bacchus are preparing or unpacking a liknon basket. These were baskets that were used to separate grain from chaff but were also used as cradles and Bacchus was supposed to have been found in one by Silenus, hence they are associated with him. We can see the ubiquitous purple robe again; other things that may have been included in the basket were fruits, a wooden phallus and possibly a Silenus mask. That’s already being bandied about!

The idea is that these objects brought about an awakening and that the initiate would be ushered or perhaps more accurately ‘propelled’ into the retinue of Bacchus…

…which obviously involves a good whipping whilst your sisters comfort you, look on rather sternly or just dance around playing the symbols.

Again, the artist has bridged the corner brilliantly and I’m thinking that whipping is going to hurt by the way she’s pulling back the whip to get a really strong stroke in there.

Rather wonderfully, after this scene, there is a window. It might be fanciful to imagine that this is a metaphorical enlightenment – am I bringing in ideas from the Christian faith where they aren’t appropriate? Anyway, the window creates a gap and the final scene is much calmer again and really rather beautiful.

A cupid figure holds up a mirror to seated woman who is looking out at us whilst another woman, dressed in purple, is, interestingly looking down at the mirror. One of them is probably the initiate but which one? Is the other a new bride being prepared for the ritual to begin again?

So many questions.

What we do know is that these were created by a truly majestic artist and that this would be a place to go back to if you could time travel wearing an invisible cloak to witness some truly interesting scenes!

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

The art of the Bacchanal

By Bacchanal, Elevenses, Talking art

The art of the Bacchanal? Yes, the spotlight for this week’s Elevenses is on Dionysus or Bacchus as the Roman’s called him.

If the Greeks were fond of the slightly obscure and nuanced story of Hephaestus and how wine facilitated a reconciliation between him and his mother (see last week’s post and video), the Romans were more straightforward.

One of their favourite depictions was the drinking contest between Bacchus and Hercules (or Dionysus and Heracles if you’re thinking Greek). Here they are on a very fancy 23-karat gold bowl which was part of an extraordinary 18th century find when a house in Rennes was demolished.

Rennes cup Bacchus and Hercules

Bacchus & Hercules (detail), Roman gold offering bowl, ca. 210 A.D. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Bacchus is in the centre crowned with ivy (not vine leaves as is often mistakenly stated). Ivy was supposed to defend against drunkenness and at one point the berries were even thought to be a hangover cure (maybe because they’re poisonous and make you vomit?).

[The link between Bacchus and ivy, by the way, made its way over to England where old English Taverns would display ivy above their doors indicating the high quality of their drinks. I would say that self praise is no praise at all but it obviously worked so what do I know?]

But back to Bacchus. He carries a drinking horn in one hand and a staff or thyrsus in the other. The thyrsus usually has an acorn on top (as it does here) or sometimes it’s covered in grapes, vine leaves or ivy and is generally thought to symbolise fertility, hedonism, prosperity – all the good things in life! Speaking of all the good things  in life, everyone needs a panther ready to pull their chariot – there he is just below Bacchus, and what is life without good music? Nothing, I’d say so there’s an aulos player to the left, and a panpipe player on the right with a few maenads thrown in for good measure. Although Bacchus is in the centre, the other protagonist on this plate is the muscle man, Hercules, to the right. He’s still standing for now, but the way that he holds out his empty bowl to Bacchus suggests that everything might be about to go horribly wrong for him.

I might suggest that this image is the pair of them a few hours later. This is a pavement mosaic of the same scene, one of five that decorated a dining room in a 2nd century Roman villa. Dionysus is, dare I say it, possibly slightly unfocussed, but he’s finished his cup whilst Hercules, in an Herculean effort, is still downing his wine – remember that you had to drink the same amount at the same speed. Symposium rules applied to the gods, too.

I’m very glad to see that flute girl is back – unusually wearing  more clothes than the men. The older chap to the right is Silenus, Bacchus’s great friend and teacher. The child in the centre is Ampelus (a child personifying the vine) who looks, in fact, as though he is clapping Bacchus thus crowning him the victor, at least of this round. Who knows whether that’s the end or not???

Mosaic drinking competition between Hercules and Bacchus

Mosaic from Antioch, The drinking contest between Heracles and Dionysus, 2nd century A.D., Worcester Art Museum, Worcester

What we do know is that Bacchus is always going to be the winner because this is an allegorical victory of wine over physical strength. The Romans loved this story (albeit one that they possibly made up as it doesn’t feature in Greek art or literature) and used it, as these two examples show, in diverse mediums.

I suppose at the end of the day the Greek tale of Hephaestus actually tells a very similar story but at least they dressed it up a bit!

Now, speaking of dressing up, or down(!), there are some other figures who are often depicted with Bacchus and I want to end by talking about them.

Say hello to the maenads.

Maenad at Bacchanal

Dancing maenad, detail from a Paestan red-figure skyphos, ca. 330-320 B.C., British Museum, London

Here’s one who’s being very dramatic on the side of a drinking cup and I think the only thing holding her up is a thyrsus.

Who were maenads? Well, they were mortal women who were made mad in the service of Bacchus – maenad literally means madness or frenzy. Many stories suggest that this all happened against their will. Did it? I’ll tell you their duties and you can decide.

Most of their work focused around maintaining grape vines, harvesting grapes, and preparing wine.

Maenads tending grapes

Chiusi Painter, Attic black-figure cup depicting sileni and maenads collecting the harvest, late 6th century, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

But when the time came for a Bacchanal or a Dionysian cult ritual, the craziness was ramped up to the max. Think lots of drinking, energetic dancing to exhaustion, more drinking, stripping off and dancing naked, more drinking, orgies, more drinking – all to the point where you believe that you have been possessed by Dionysus himself.

Once possessed, you were connected to the divine because Dionysus was of course a god. So it was an unusual way to seek a religious experience perhaps, but were women forced into it?

Poussin Maenads Dancing

Nicolas Poussin, A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term, 1632-3, National Gallery, London

I have a feeling that the Maenads or Baccantes (generally considered a Roman word for Maenad) in Poussin’s work are fine. I feel we are at the start of proceedings here with a bit of light dancing in front of the statue or ‘term’ of Pan the god of the wild whose name also means ‘everything’ but came to be associated with lust. Forced into it? Not these ones…

P.S. What’s the difference between a nymph and a maenad? Nymphs weren’t mortal but mythological creatures who helped raise Dionysus and honoured him willingly and without getting falling-over pissed.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Tipsy Hephaestus Releases Mother from Chains

By Elevenses, Hephaestus and Hera, Talking art

‘Tipsy Hephaestus releases mother from chains’?? Er, yes! Which is why he’s often celebrated on Kraters (vessels used to mix wine with water) even though he essentially bound her in the first place. All clear? No? Read on…

Hephaestus on a horse Attic krater

Attributed to Lydos, Krater depicting Hephaestus, ca. 550 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

krater depicting Hepaestus

Attic krater depicting Hephaestus, ca. 440-430 B.C., Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden, Netherlands

Hephaestus is the one on the horse, looking (unusually) dashing in both depictions as he heads to Olympus. But this is the end of the story. The tale actually begins at the moment of Hephaestus’s birth. He was, shall we say, not the most attractive of babies. Actually, even his own mother was unbeguiled by him even though it was probably her fault that he wasn’t the cutest.

Hera had decided that she wanted another child. But she wanted this child to be her own. And when I say ‘her own’ I mean no father, no turkey baster, no donor, no nothing. As she was a goddess, it was in her power to produce life from her own body with no male intervention and that’s exactly what she did.

Why did she want this? Somewhere in the archives, there is an Elevenses all about Athena who was said to be Zeus’s favourite child because he kind of spontaneously gave birth to her out of the top of his head, hence he was her only parent. Once the pain subsided, that worked pretty well for him. Athena was a bit of a superstar of the Greek pantheon and Hera was jealous.

Athena emerging from Zeus's head

19th century German copy of an ancient Greek vase depicting the birth of Athena

When Hephaestus was born, however, she was so horrified and mortified, that she chucked him off Olympus.

The poor little lad fell and fell and fell for an entire day – that’s how high Olympus is – but instead of dying before he’d even got going in life, he eventually plopped into the sea, completely crippled but alive. That is why, by the way, he’s depicted on a horse, although his injuries aren’t featured and he’s looking pretty healthy to me, especially on the Leiden krater.

Anyway, when he plopped into the sea at the bottom of Olympus, Thetis (possibly Achilles mum) scooped him up and nursed him. She looked after him into his adolescence, when his skills as a blacksmith became ever more obvious. He wasn’t strong or dashing but Hephaestus became the often sought-after blacksmith of the gods. At some point, however, he found out that he’d been thrown off Olympus by his mum. That must have been a tough day. So it might be surprising that he subsequently sent Hera one of the most beautiful gifts that she’d ever received. Perhaps she didn’t know who it was from, or maybe she thought that she had a very forgiving son, but when she unwrapped the beautiful throne, she had to sit in it straight away.

Hephaestus's magic throne

Attributed to the Kleophon Painter, Attic Skyphos (wine cup), ca. 430 – 420 B.C., Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo

Here she is on her throne. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that there’s a satyr (flute girl was clearly demoted – see last week’s talk on the Greek symposium) blowing an aulos into her face. And frankly she looks as though she’s flinching but she can’t do much about it because she’s stuck.

Hephaestus made a throne that he knew his mother wouldn’t possibly be able to resist, and when she sat in it, she was bound by invisible chains and unable to move. Revenge is a dish best served cold, right?

So why does he appear so often on kraters? It’s a sort of nod to the benefits of wine. In the story, Ares or Mars (to use his Roman name) was sent to force Hephaestus to release Hera. It didn’t work. He even denied he had a mother. But when Dionysus or Bacchus was deployed to get him tipsy and persuade him to come and set her free, the wine did the trick.

In the full image on this cup, he’s riding into Olympus to do just that.

Hephaestus rides into Olympus to release Hera

What I love about these cups is that they give us a great insight into the way the ancient Greeks saw their gods and imagined their trials and tribulations and successes. We see all of this today as a great story, but it was more of a lesson for them; be it a warning or an encouragement.

With that in mind, I wonder what will become of aulos boy when Hera gets free???

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

The Greek Symposium

By Elevenses, Greek symposium, Talking art

Ah, the Greek Symposium. All politics and philosophy you might think. Er, no. The ancient Greeks indulged in drinking rituals that would rival anything the boys on a rugby tour might throw at you. And I’d say that they even upped the ante!

kylix symposium scene

Kylix depicting a symposium, 5th century B.C., Berlin State Museum, Germany

As the men are illustrated around the edge of the cup, so they would recline around the edge of the room, two to each couch, with numbers ranging from 6 to 30.

The evenings started off very respectably with a banquet at which it is entirely possible that alcohol wasn’t served at all. The ancient Greeks had clearly learnt the art of lining their stomachs. After dinner, the men (yes, it was a bit of a boy’s club) had their hands washed by slaves, the floor was swept (by slaves), the room splashed with perfume (by slaves) and as if those slaves weren’t busy enough already, they often had to make time to adorn the men with garlands.

Then they’d start drinking.

At the beginning of this process, one incredibly important ritual had to take place; there would be a number of toasts to divinities; one imagines that Bacchus was always included. No one could decline to participate and everyone had to keep pace.

After these toasts, the wine would be diluted with water in a vessel known as a krater.

Krater to mix water and wine

Attributed to Lydos, Krater (bowl for mixing wine and water), ca. 550 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

The banqueters had to decide what percentage of water to put in and anything less than 50% was considered dangerous. I love the thought of the wrangles between those who wanted more or less water – I’m thinking punishments may have been doled out for anyone considered too conservative? Or am I getting carried away by my limited knowledge of ferocious rugby drinking sessions? Anyway, once mixed, the ‘fun’ would begin. Each guest would have to drink the same amount, with everyone else, so they’d choose the size of the cup that would be used and off they would go round after round. As they drank, each man had to take a turn singing a song.

symposium fresco man holding lyre

  Symposium scene from the Tomb of the Diver necropolis frescoes in Paestum, ca. 475 B.C., National Archaeological Museum of Paestum, Italy

Some would be little love songs, and the performer might accompany himself on a lyre.

Here’s one such fellow, although I think he might be more interested in the bearded gentleman he’s sharing a couch with. This is a fresco from a rare Greek wall painting that has survived from circa 475 BC. It’s called the Tomb of the Diver (another fresco depicts a man diving).

Other men might have been more interested in the Flute Girl who accompanied more bawdy, rousing songs on a flute.

She’s looking quite demure here and rather professional as she plays a double flute or an aulos. The reality is that her aulos playing could well have sounded shocking because, in truth, the flute girl was hired for her looks and sex appeal rather than her musical expertise. With that in mind, she may well have worn far fewer clothes than depicted here. If you’re wondering what’s behind her, it’s her flute case.

The poor flute girl was I’m sure veritably molested by the end of the night – that was part of her job description I think, as sobering a thought as that thought might be, but there was at least one man that she was safe from…

Flute girl

Attributed to the Brygos Painter, Flute girl depicted on lekythos (perfume bottle), ca.480 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

There was an ancient Greek book called Epidemics in which all sorts of phobias were recorded. One of the more unusual entries related to a gentleman who stated that he suffered from a fear of flute girls. I suppose this might relate to the fact that he was rubbish at singing or wasn’t interested in groping her (or worse), in any event the evening ended for him as soon as she started playing because he became so ill.

Assuming, however, that you didn’t suffer flute girl phobia, the evening would offer plenty of chance for silliness and games.

monster eye kylix
gorgon at the bottom of your cup

Nikosthenes, kylix (drinking cup) with monster eyes and a gorgon, ca. 530 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

Assuming you didn’t suffer flute girl phobia, the evening would offer plenty of chance for silliness and games.

I mean, wouldn’t it be absolutely hilarious if you turned into a monster with crazy eyes every time you drank? Look at the eyes on this. This is Dionysus in the centre holding a rhyton or a wine funnel with satyrs and maenads on either side.

And as you drained your glass, imagine if a monstrous gorgon was gradually revealed, such as this one.

The gorgon joke was particularly effective as, of course, the drinker’s face that would have originally been reflected in the wine was slowly replaced as the wine was drunk. I feel this would become more apt as the evening went on!

As would flicking things. You get drunk, you flick things. Great game, as depicted both in the Tomb of the Diver fresco and on various drinking paraphernalia. This game was known as kottabos and basically once you’d finished your cup, you’d flick the dregs at a target saying the name of your beloved. If they hit the target, happy days, if not, that wasn’t so good. You’d want to try that one early in the proceedings! The chap here has his next drink lined up – he’s flicking with his right and cradling another cup with his left.

kottabos game

Kylix (drinking cup), Kottabos, ca. 500 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

kottabos tomb of the diver
Drinking cup symposium conga

Brygos painter, kylix featuring drunken revellers, Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, Germany

And (almost) finally, there’s dancing. Of sorts. Unfortunately for the neighbours, this doesn’t seem to have been confined to the house where the symposium was taking place. Oh no, the guests would emerge, conga style, accompanied by the flute girl and try to rouse participants from other houses. Out of control!

And this is how the evening ends!

tondo from Bygros Painter kylix

Brygos painter, kylix featuring drunken revellers, Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, Germany
Photo credit: akg-images / André Held

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Release the Kraken

By Elevenses, Kraken, Talking art

Last week was all about Behemoth and Leviathan, but is the Kraken the same as Leviathan? In some mentions in popular culture, they are interchangeable but I did some digging and as you can see from these images, they are indeed similar but not quite the same…


Behemouth, Leviathan and Ziz, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana


Kraken, 2011, Wasted Talents Blogspot at

As you can see from these images, they are indeed similar but not quite the same.

Leviathan (the ‘fish’ to the right of the first image) is wrapped around an island, the Kraken IS an island.

The image of the Kraken is from a website called wasted talent – the strapline is ‘Corporate Artists wasting their talent by day, and unleashing their art super powers by night’. Love it!

The story goes that in around 1,000 AD a bishop was travelling from Norway to Greenland, spotted an island, celebrated mass on it and was very surprised to find that, after returning to his boat, he turned to take a last look but it had disappeared.

Anyway, said bishop was lucky to escape because this island was, in fact, what King Sverre of Norway termed in 1180 AD, ‘The Kraken’.

So the story of the Kraken is a Norse myth that actually has nothing to do with ancient Greece at all, no matter what you were led to believe in the Clash of the Titans.

The Kraken was described as a huge creature with tentacles and eyes the size of dinner plates. Some stories claim that the tentacles of the Kraken are more than a mile long which would make sense if it was mistaken for an island.

Kraken 1650 image of creature devouring boat

A kraken attacking a ship, c. 1650, getty images

Accounts of what the Kraken liked to eat were varied. According to the more bloody thirsty legends, the giant beast would rapidly ascend from the depths to wrap its monstrous tentacles around a ship, pulling it under the waves where it could devour the sailors.

Or it would swim around and around the vessel to create a maelstrom and sink the ship that way. Is that reminiscent of anything? Remember Charybdis?

Some say that it was more interested in fish which was such a terrifying prospect for the fish that they would swim near to the surface of the water, basically trying to escape. All that did was enable brave sailors to profit by making an easy catch. Nice choice, the Kraken or the fishing net! But the real kicker for the fish was that once the Kraken had eaten and digested them, it would poo out its waste but this waste would be so irresistible to the fish (seriously who came up with this theory?) that they were attracted back to the vicinity of the Kraken so that the cycle was put on repeat.

Much of this was noted, albeit rather less sensationally, when the Kraken made an appearance in scientific journals, which it did quite frequently. The first is dated to around 1250 and describes the Kraken in great detail. It also comments on the monster’s unique feeding habits but has a slightly different twist; it claims that the Kraken would regurgitate food particles from its mouth into the sea. Fish would be attracted to the food and swarm to feed. The Kraken could then scoop up the school of fish in one gulp. Is that less disgusting? Not sure.

When Swedish botanist and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus first undertook the task of classifying all living creatures on Earth, he also included the Kraken. The 1735 edition of his Systema Naturae has an entry for the Kraken, which he categorized as a cephalopod and named Microcosmus marinus. Subsequent reprints omitted the Kraken entry which was a shame. Perhaps that’s because, in another work, Linnaeus noted that the Kraken was a ‘unique monster that inhabits the seas of Norway, but I have not seen this animal.’

Nonetheless, it appears again in a description by the Danish historian and bishop, Erik Pontoppidan in his Natural History of Norway from 1755 which includes, by the way, mention of a ‘strong and peculiar’ scent that is particularly alluring to fish.

Pontoppidan didn’t go overboard (pardon the pun) in his claims about the terrifying nature of the Kraken, which, unfortunately cannot be said for Pierre Denys de Montfort. Granted he had figured out that, surprise, surprise, the Kraken was either a giant squid or octopus, and indeed he is known today for his pioneering inquiries into the existence of the gigantic octopuses.

Montfort turned out, however, to be a bit of a sensationalist. He claimed that ten British warships that had mysteriously disappeared one night in 1782 must have been attacked and sunk by giant octopuses. Unfortunately for Montfort, the British knew what had actually happened to the ships, and called him out on his claims. Suffice to say, his career went down the pan and never recovered.

de Montfort giant octopus attacking ship

Pierre Denys de Montfort, a colossal octopus, 1801

Not so for Jules Verne who’s original edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea included this illustration which pays homage to the Kraken.

So what was reported by the bishop who took mass on the island all those years ago? The description of the ‘emissions’ and the numerous tentacles suggest that it might well have been an octopus or a squid, and indeed several have washed up on northern shores over the centuries. As they are soft-bodied cephalopods, however, they wouldn’t leave behind fossil evidence so who knows?

Jules Verne giant squid

The crew of Nautilus battles a giant squid in Jules Vernes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, illustration from original 1870 edition

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.