The Dionysiac Frieze in the Villa of Mysteries

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever looked at a picture and wondered what it meant? A building in ancient Pompeii includes a strange, large painting full of humans, gods, and mythical creatures. In this lesson, explore the Dionysiac frieze in the Villa of Mysteries.

Background on the Villa of Mysteries

People in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii enjoyed wealth, prosperity, and culture. They built sophisticated structures and decorated their interiors with mosaics and paintings. Sometimes they also practiced secret rites and rituals that seem odd to us today. In Pompeii, in a building called the Villa of Mysteries, a large inner room features a painted frieze; a decorative wall panel that touches the ceiling. This frieze wraps around the entire room and depicts a strange scene full of color, pageantry, and violence. One of the figures portrayed is Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The frieze is thought to depict a ritual dedicated to him, so it's called the Dionysiac frieze.

Although many Roman homes had painted decorations, few survive because painted surfaces are fragile when exposed to the elements. We can explore the art in the Villa of the Mysteries today because of a singular natural event. In 79 AD, a volcano known as Mt. Vesuvius erupted, burying Pompeii in layers of ash. It wasn't until 1909 that excavations began to reveal its secrets.

The Dionysiac Frieze in the Villa of Mysteries

How the frieze was created

The Dionysiac frieze was created around 50 BC by a method called fresco, where pigment is added directly to wet plaster on a wall. The paintings wraps around all the walls of a large central space thought to be a dining room. Artists created its brilliant colors by using natural pigments, highlighted by a striking red background that's the result of the mineral cinnabar. The figures, a bit smaller than life size, are painted against a clever architectural backdrop that creates an illusion of space extending beyond the wall of the room. We almost feel like we could step into the scene and join them.

The word 'mysteries' in the villa's name refers to the activity in the frieze, which reflects secret initiation rites and rituals found in the ancient world. No one really knows what's happening in the frieze and the scene has multiple interpretations. Scholars have debated it for decades. Many believe it depicts a ritual preparing a young woman for adulthood.

Discussion of images in the frieze

In the first scene we see a woman in draped fabric. Maybe she's a bride. We'll be following her as she moves through the frieze. She pauses near other figures, among them a small nude boy reading from a scroll in front of a priestess. Is he foretelling what will happen to her?

First scene in the Dionysiac frieze, showing a young woman beginning the ritual and then carrying a tray
first scene of frieze

When our main character appears again, she's carrying a tray and wearing a wreath of leaves as she undergoes the ritual. She moves through the architectural passage painted on the wall, encountering mythological characters like Silenus (an aging satyr who is a servant of Dionysus) as well as younger satyrs and nymphs. Is the scene reflecting a loss of youth as she moves to adulthood?

Another section of the frieze, portraying the aged Silenus at the right and a reclining Dionysus on the left
Dionysus on frieze

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