Floor Mosaic Depicting Dionysos's Discovery of Ariadne on Naxos

  • Roman, probably from Syria
  • Roman
  • 3rd to 4th centuries
  • Stone tesserae in mortar
  • H-352 W-357
Catalogue Entry

The central panel of this extraordinary mosaic depicts a scene from Classical mythology, the moment when Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, first sees his future wife, the Cretan princess Ariadne. It seems to have been a popular subject for floor mosaics in Syria during the third and fourth centuries A.D.1

Five figures stand in a hilly landscape, each identified by an inscription. On the left is the elderly, white-bearded Maron (5*:A6),2 who personifies the agricultural bounty of Thrace, the birthplace of Dionysos and a region celebrated in antiquity for the high quality of its wine. In his role as a member of the god's immediate circle, Maron is represented here not in Thracian clothing, but in the guise of Silenos, a mantle slung around his hips and a leafy wreath around his head, the top of which is bald. With the thyrsus (wand) he holds in his right hand, Maron points toward the princess.

To Maron's right is a young, unbearded Dionysos (-286_C8C),3 whose cult celebrated the fertility of nature in a series of orgiastic rites. In the hand of the god's outstretched right arm is a flat, circular object with a dark rim. With his other hand, he pulls together the fluttering edges of his himation in front of his lower torso. In addition to wearing his customary leafy wreath, the god also has a nimbus encircling his head, which is not one of his usual attributes.

In the upper right corner, Satyros (C*<=:8C)4 approaches from the distance, his lower body obscured by the hill he is traversing. The skin of a fawn, whose paws are tied around his neck, flutters up behind him. In his left hand he holds a panpipe and his right hand is raised in a gesture of speech.

To the right of Dionysos is a chubby, nude Eros (.:AC),5 who points where the rest are already looking, toward the sleeping figure of Ariadne (*:2*-62),6 who slouches diagonally across the lower picture plane, her left hand supporting her head. She wears a peplos and a himation, the latter completely encasing her lower body, except for her right foot which protrudes from beneath the hem. Ariadne's regal heritage is at once evident by the amount of jewelry she wears and its size; it includes a pair of pendant earrings, a fibula at each shoulder, and two thick bracelets and two thick armlets of gold. Overcome with despair because Theseus has abandoned her on Naxos after she helped him kill the Minotaur and escape from Crete, Ariadne is unaware of the arrival of Dionysos. Yet soon the two were to become husband and wife, and it is said that upon their marriage Dionysos gave her a bridal crown of seven stars which, following her death, he flung into the sky to create the constellation Corona Borealis. The story of Dionysos's discovery of Ariadne on Naxos remained so popular throughout antiquity that those steeped in Dionysiac lore would have quickly recognized the scene, even in the absence of inscriptions.

Surrounded by a running wave pattern that may allude to the island setting of the story, the main scene is framed on each side by a long, rectangular border with a central figural vignette. To the sides of the vignettes are three-dimensionally rendered meanders. In the corners are figural busts. From the orientation of the main panel, the vignettes above and below it, and the busts, the best vantage point for viewing the composition was from the bottom of the central composition. The two vignettes on the sides are oriented so that the bottom of their scenes is turned outward from the central panel. The vignette at the top, in which the central figure is a replacement, shows three men in a canopied boat, perhaps on the Nile or Orontes River. The scene to the right, also heavily restored, features a shepherd, his right leg covered by a himation. He sits on a rocky outcrop, playing his panpipe as a pair of horned cattle search for grass. Along the bottom is an offering scene, in which a veiled woman extends a pair of lighted torches toward a man who is about to slit the throat of an animal before a fire. The sacrifice takes place in front of a temple-like structure with a pedimented facade that sits on a three-tiered platform. On the left side is another bucolic scene, of a shepherd sitting on the ground as a pair of goats graze nearby.

Three of the figures in the corners wear wreaths that identify them as members of Dionysos's retinue. In the upper left corner is Bakche (+*??*),7 who personifies the frenzied female followers of Dionysos. In the upper right is Pan (9*6),8 the half-goat, half-human son of Hermes, a god of pastures, whose bestial abandon is characterized here by his wildly askew hair. In the bottom right corner is a bust of Lyde (4=-0),9 who wears gold fibulae, or pins, at her shoulders. In the lower left is Thiasos (12*C8),10 who personifies the entire group of maenads, thyiads, satyrs and silenoi that Dionysos's retinue comprises. The setting of the central panel in a hilly landscape; the smaller outdoor scenes, three of them among hills; and the presence of the rustic deity Pan may allude to the pastoral setting of Dionysiac revels, where delirious maenads were often pursued by lustful satyrs, or to the countryside of the Syrian province the mosaic came from, which was largely farmland.

Inscribed between Ariadne and Satyros is 9*5>248C *,:8238C 0:,*C*<8 (Pamphilos Agroikos Ergasato, "Pamphilos made this [image of] Agroikos"), making this one of the rare instances in which a mosaic was signed. Based on the choice of syntax and the conventional nature of the scene, it has been suggested that this inscription, which also appears on another mosaic,11 identifies the executor of the mosaic rather than the author of the design.12 It has been further argued that the use of the adjectival noun, Agroikos, and the likeness of the similarly inscribed mosaic to another known to have come from Antioch, in which Dionysos is labeled Agros, may well indicate a common source for the works.13

One of the most compelling aspects ofthis mosaic is its apparent transformation from a purely pagan image to one with Christian overtones. At some point in the mosaic’s later history, a bloody would that recalls the right ribcage injury sustained by Christ at the hands of the Roman soldiers who crucified him was added to Dionysos’s left side. Apparently at the same time the red wound was added to Dionysos’s side, a flat, vessel-like object was placed in his right hand. The identification of the object is uncertain, but it may represent either a shallow bowl for wine, previously the province of Dionysos but which in Christian iconography represented the blood of Christ, or a dish on which was served the bread that symbolized his body, both of which were consumed by Christ’s followers in communion with their god. None of the other mosaics from Syria with this scene depicts a wounded Dionysos, nor has anything been placed in his right hand, which is simply extended in the Classical gesture of speech.

The exceptional craftsmanship of its execution combined with the unusual occurrence of the artist’s signature suggests that this mosaic was originally commissioned by a wealthy and literate Greek resident of Syria in the later years of pagan influence there. One is left to wonder, however, when the mosaic and the god who inspired its imagery were transformed by a few small changes into the most powerful figure of Christianity.