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Dionysiac frieze, Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii

Video transcript

we're outside of the city walls in Pompeii in the villa of mysteries so this is called - the love mysteries because of this room that we're looking at it's a very mysterious room painted with figures engaged in something that we really can't figure out entirely the frescoes that we're discussing in this room exist in this large villa overlooking the sea filled with other frescoes from different periods of Roman wall painting so many of the houses in Pompeii are eclectic in their styles they incorporate styles from one period but then a new room perhaps is constructed or renovated and a new style is added so it's a bit of a mix just like you might have a bathroom in your house left over from the 1960s this villa had once had large windows that looked on to the sea but if we look towards the scene now it's actually very distant the eruption of Mount Vesuvius added a tremendous amount of Shore to the coastline and the villa of mysteries is now quite a distance from the beach it's quite a luxurious villa roman wall painting is fresco painted directly on to wet plaster and these are true fresco or what the Italians called buon fresco but the ancient Romans also sometimes added Sekou fresco to the top in other words the under layer was a mixture of lime plaster that was basically stained with a kind of watercolor that wouldn't remain on the surface but would actually stain the full depth of that new plaster but once that had dried sometimes finishing touches would be added with what is called secco fresco or dry fresco the colors are still very deep we see reds and greens and purples and blues these may not have originally been quite as deep when the excavations were first taking place this particular fresco cycle at oil and wax added to it I'll preserve it but it actually darkened the color the room is entered through a very small door and it has two windows and so that adds to the sense that this was a room that had a special purpose it's been a lot of debate about what these figures to pick these are large scale figures painted on three walls that we think depict a Dionysian cult ritual at this time what we call mystery cults which were religions that came from the east were not entirely okay the state religion was still the only official religion that was allowed right and so if you were involved in something like a dionyza cult or another Eastern cult you had to keep it somewhat secret so let's start by looking at the figures closest to the doorway where one would enter we see a woman with her hand bent against her hip she is fully dressed and it has an aristocratic heir to her and she seems literally to be entering in from the doorway she wears a veil and pulls the veil down around her shoulder and chest and because of the veil we think that she is a bride in fact we think that this entire ritual that's being rendered on these walls is about a mystical marriage to the god Dionysus he appears on the next wall before we get to him we see a small child a boy who's stark naked and seems to be reading intently from a small scroll we think that this is some sort of liturgy some sort of ritual behind him is a seated female figure and then next to her another female figure who seems to be carrying something which we really can't identify sometimes figures are grouped together but then other times figures are alone and seems to be very much in their own world there is a sense of continuous space though and continuous time they could be going about their own activities independent of each other when we look toward the feet of the figures we see a ground that they're standing on we have a sense of an illusion of space and this division of the wall into horizontal bands and the creation of an illusion of space is part of what we consider second style wall painting this is different than the flatness that we saw in the first style characteristic of second style wall painting it is as if the room itself is architectural II extended it's as if this wall breaks out and there's enough room on a platform for these figures to stand on but this is unusual in that we have such a dense frieze of figures and at this scale that's right in the next scene we see a group of figures around a table who are involved in some kind of ritual it seems although it's very difficult to identify exactly what some art historians have suggested that this is a kind of cleansing ritual you can see some sort of liquid being poured onto a tabletop there's a drape that's being lifted up the figure who's facing away from us look at the way that one of her hips pushes over the stool that she sits on there's a previewer illusionism extraordinarily successful and even though her back is facing towards us we are engaged with her we are looking towards that table almost the way that she is we have a sense of psychology of emotion of individuality the seated figure seems to be looking toward a standing drunken figure who we've identified as a salinas or a drunken older satyr figure well satyrs hung around with Dionysus and everybody drank a lot so no surprise there yeah he looks quite tipsy next time our three figures most people are struck by the one figure of the three that is standing she seems shocked there's a kind of recognition but also a kind of surprise and earful and fearfulness absolutely and of course that entire upper body is framed beautifully by that cloak that billows in back of her it's picked up the wind and look at the way it turns in space light and shadow are used exquisitely in order to construct that volume and back of her and she moves toward the right but she looks back to her left so there's a sense of reacting and moving away and her left hand her left forearm is foreshortened her expression looking over to the back wall bridges that gap we seamlessly move over the corner of the room without even realizing it this is really thoughtfully conceived she seems to be reacting to a mask held up by a figure on the next wall that's a young figure standing above another sign leanness now we're at the back panel where Dionysus sits and we can see he is absolutely drunk when we think about Dionysus we think about unbridled pleasure that's indicated in his body as he lounges across the lap of Ariadne his mortal lover he's got his own staff draped over him but look at the way that the body is beautifully articulated almost completely nude his drape is just falling away but there's a way in which his body's absolutely relaxed this is not the way the Greeks or the Romans represented their athletes but we do see often images of Dionysus in this post sleeping dreaming reclining drunken awakening I love the way that Ariadne immortal her hand is over his shoulder there's a kind of intimacy there he is enjoying himself and as we move toward the right we see a kneeling figure who is unveiling something under a purple cloth that has just been removed from its case that's on the ground right some have called this a basket of some sort art historians have spent a lot of time trying to determine what exactly is there many people think it's a phallus one art historian has suggested it might be a rendering of Mount Vesuvius which is visible from just outside this house next that we have a winged figure whose foreshortened moving towards us but looking over to her left and she's whipping a figure who's kneeling across the next corner the winged figures body has this wonderful torsion as she reaches back in order to really get a good strike with that whip so just like the back left corner the artist whoever it is and we don't have a name has been able to bridge that corner seamlessly and we know that the velocity of that whip will move our eye right over to its victim the woman's back is exposed her head is down in the lap of a woman that seems to be comforting her and beside them another woman who is nude who seems to be dancing look at the telegin s-- of this figure and the way that her drape creates a Crescent that frames her body just beautifully we have figures who are in groups together comforting each other or enacting something together and then a figure who is isolated or seems to be somewhat separated from that group the scene is then interrupted by a large window and concludes with three figures on the right we have a small angelic figure a kind of pootie that seems to be dancing and then another figure who's seated who's doing her hair being helped by a standing woman perhaps she's already gone through the ritual and as a bride of Dionysus or perhaps she's the next initiate we really don't know