Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.11.10


Thomas H. Carpenter, Dionysian Imagery in Fifth-Century Athens. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. Pp. 157, 47 ills. ISBN 0-19-815038-5.


Reviewed by Guy Hedreen, Department of Art, Williams College, Guy.M.Hedreen@williams.edu.

Thomas Carpenter's new book on Dionysian imagery in Greek art takes up where the last one (Carpenter, Dionysian Imagery in Archaic Greek Art [1986]) left off, but, while the two books share certain characteristics (the author's exhaustive knowledge of Athenian vase-paintings is evident in both), the conclusions reached in the new book are often quite different from those of the older one. The first book gives the impression that Dionysian imagery is largely of nonnarrative, decorative, or symbolic value, related primarily to the use to which most of the objects bearing the imagery (painted vases) were probably put -- wine-drinking. The one other aspect of the imagery that was extensively explored was the possible allusion to contemporary civic, political, or religious activities. Archaic Dionysian imagery seemed to have little 'myth' in it. The second book gives a different impression: fifth-century Dionysian vase-painting has a good deal of narrative content, and the potters' quarter is largely indifferent to literary, religious, and political fashions. The reader interested in Dionysian myth will find more to think about in the second book, which reaches important conclusions about Dionysian imagery and its relationship to Athenian ideology, cult practice, and literature. The difference between the two books is due in part of course to differences between the sixth- and fifth-century material, but it also appears to me to be due to changes in the way in which the author thinks about the creation of vase-imagery.

One measure of the change is the number of pages devoted to 'method': in the first book, less than two full pages introduced the reader to the author's methodological assumptions or interpretive framework; in the new book, an entire chapter (chap. 1), fourteen pages, is given over to those matters. It is in part a summary of what is known about the creation and reception of Athenian art (again, primarily vase-painting), a useful summary insofar as it is written by someone who knows the literature on vase-painting well. The chapter does not reveal as much as it could about the author's own methodological predilections. To give one example, Carpenter writes (p. 10) "I do believe some new approaches elaborated during the past several years have yielded promising results," but never tells us which ones he means. It is clear, however, that he has given a good deal of thought to questions of approach in the new book and arrived at some conclusions. One gathers, for example, that he presumes more autonomy from literary, religious, and political influence in the creation of vase-imagery than many scholars. More significantly, the thinking-through of the issues has resulted in an admirable internal coherence among many of the conclusions of the book.

Chapter 2 concerns the role of Dionysos in the Gigantomachy. It includes a useful discussion of the iconographic sources of some aspects the Gigantomachy metopes from the Parthenon. Carpenter pulls together the visual evidence (primarily vase-painting) for an influential reworking of the visual tradition sometime around 500 or 490 B.C., an interesting art-historical exercise. Possible historical connections are explored (Battle of Marathon) and the potential iconographic influence of the Panathenaic peplos is also considered in the light of the recent work of Mansfield. But one of the most welcome aspects of the discussion is the observation that, while the Gigantomachy may have had important civic overtones in public art, it was treated much less reverently or patriotically in vase-painting. The detailed discussion of the elements of irony or parody in the vase-paintings, which may have been aimed at a sympotic context, is a useful counterexample to recent commentary on Athenian mythological iconography that is concerned with little other than possible public political allusions.

Part of chapter 2 is devoted to the identification of the Thracian elements of the iconography of Dionysos and his followers in the Gigantomachy, laying the groundwork for chapter 3. In the third chapter, Carpenter advances the argument that a group of vase-paintings (those depicting Dionysos in the Gigantomachy, the Return of Hephaistos, the madness of Dionysos, and the punishment of Lykourgos) are linked in early fifth-century vase-painting through the employment of Thracian boots and, to a lesser extent, the Thracian riding cape. The most innovative and important part of the chapter is the argument that representations of Dionysos ripping apart a fawn pertain to a particular story, the madness that Hera inflicted on Dionysos. The pictures have been much discussed over the years for their potential metaphoric content as nonnarrative representations of Dionysian psychology; Carpenter's argument cuts right through all of that (p. 38): "the scene is not an existential statement but rather a narrative account of the madness sent by Hera." The madness of Dionysos and the punishment of Lykourgos may well have occurred in Thrace. The Gigantomachy too appears to have been fought in northern Greece, or so it was thought, and I suppose that Dionysos' Thracian clothing would thus be significant in representations of the battle (he got out his ancestral duds). But the attempt to show that early fifth-century representations of the Return of Hephaistos imply that the story was set in Thrace is less convincing. The sole evidence of the geographical association is the occurrence of Thracian boots in the pictures; the literary sources traditionally associate Hephaistos with the islands of the Aegean, Lemnos or Naxos (Hedreen [1992] 19-22). Carpenter himself points out (p. 19) that Thracian boots and cloaks first appear in Athenian art in representations of riders, and that the boots are worn by many of the horsemen in the Parthenon frieze. They are appropriate to riders, which is what Hephaistos is doing in most representations of his return. So too the fact that silens wear Thracian boots in some red-figure scenes is better understood in the light of the wide range of new equipment and clothing that silens acquire in late sixth- and early-fifth century vase-painting than as evidence that the silens originated in Thrace.

Carpenter's modus operandi is to look for possible narrative interpretations of Dionysian imagery before resorting to the hypothesis that the imagery must be a transposition into the key of myth of some real ritual activity. The approach serves him well in chapter 4, where he advances the important argument that the women who are associated with Dionysos in Athenian art (with two exceptions) are nymphs, connected directly or indirectly with stories about the god's birth and upbringing. They are not mortal women. His argument is based on the kinds of attributes the women carry and on a detailed study of the names of the women when they are written on the vases. Though there is more to be said on the subject (see below), his general conclusion, that the women who are associated with Dionysos in Athenian art are nymphs, seems right.

Part of chapter 4 provides the groundwork for the most important argument of chapter 5, namely, that the women depicted worshipping Dionysos on the so-called Lenaia vases are nymphs, not mortal Athenian women. Iconographically and prosopographically, the imagery of women reveling and worshipping on the Lenaia vases is related above all to earlier imagery of nymphs in visual narratives about Dionysos. (One also needs to read the discussion in chap. 6 of the mask-idol of Dionysos in vase-painting to get the full argument.) This is a very important observation, given the amount of previous scholarship on the Lenaia vases based on the premise that the imagery directly reflects some real ritual involving women. In its main points, the argument strikes me as correct, though it will have to be modified in view of the important observations of Sarah Peirce, The "Lenaia Vases": Women, Sacrifice and Mysteries in Dionysiac Religion (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). In chapter 5, Carpenter also advances the new and convincing argument that representations of female figures in Dionysian contexts with their heads thrown back very often depict women singing, and are not indices of ecstatic possession as often thought.

The lengthy discussion in chapter 5 of the famous krater in Ferrara depicting ecstatic worship before two deities is an illustration of Carpenter's scholarship at its best. A comparison of his discussion with the well-known programmatic analysis of the same vase-painting in Bérard, Bron, et al. (1989) 23-34, is instructive: the general methodology is similar (compare Carpenter's statement, "[artisans] more often than not looked to other visual images rather than to life to find their models" with the similar conclusion of Bérard, p. 34), and the conclusions are compatible in that both analyses down-play the importance of precise identifications of the main figures, but Carpenter's relatively more exhaustive method and remarkably wide-ranging knowledge of vase-painting allow him to draw somewhat more definite conclusions.

Carpenter's interpretive method is less persuasive in his detailed argument in favor of identifying figure D in the east pediment of the Parthenon as Dionysos (chap. 6) than in the case of the Ferrara krater. Interpreting any aspect of a pediment of the Parthenon requires greater attention to the contextual information provided by the pediment as a whole complex representation than interpreting most vase-paintings. Carpenter's discussion of the identity of figure D focuses too much on the iconographical history of the figures of Dionysos and Herakles. It does not take into account fully enough aspects of context and framing that are peculiar to the east pediment. The iconographical history of the Birth of Athena, for example, is not much help because it does not prepare us for the inclusion of celestial deities in the wings of the pediment or for the moment in the story that was most likely depicted in the center. If the designer of the pediment could depart from the Archaic model in those ways, then there is no good reason to think that he might not have departed from it in others, such as by including Herakles. To identify figure D, it seems to me, one has to have some idea, some hypothesis, about how all the elements or figures fit together as a unified visual narrative. The spatial and temporal dimensions of the representation are critical. If the celestial deities at either end of the pediment, for example, are indications of place or topographical location, and not just of the time of day of Athena's birth, then the setting of the pediment includes not just Mt. Olympos but the entire earth from edge to edge. If so, figure D, adjacent to and facing the rising sun, would make good sense as Herakles, because Herakles is more at home along the edges of the earth than virtually any other mythological figure. The spatial and temporal aspects of the east pediment are subjects of considerable debate in themselves, they are not settled and thus they do not provide the keys to a definitive identification of figure D. I merely wish to suggest that they have not been given enough consideration here, and that the identification of figure D is less certain, more problematic, and more complex than Carpenter's account suggests.

Chapter 7 looks at the relationship between two important late fifth-century Athenian plays (Euripides' Bakchai, Aristophanes' Frogs) and fifth-century Athenian representations of Dionysos and his followers. The aim is not to determine what sort of influence the literary sources might have had on subsequent artistic production, a question that has been addressed before, but to explore a rather less-well-studied question, the possible impact of earlier artistic representations on the imagery of the plays. There is not much discussion of the Frogs, for Carpenter finds few points of contact between the image or actions of Dionysos in the play and in art. But the Bakchai is another matter: Carpenter suggests that the motifs of snake-handling and tearing apart small animals may have been drawn from the visual tradition, in which they were established elements. And he argues that the connection of Dionysos and Rhea in the play is a reflection of the mythical tradition according to which Dionysos was cured or purified by Rhea of the madness sent to him by Hera. Both arguments are illustrations of Carpenter's method, to look for the origins of Dionysian motifs or imagery first in the preexisting artistic tradition, or in the narratives about the god, and not in contemporary religious practice. That approach puts him in the minority of iconographers who write or have written about Dionysian imagery, but it has yielded important observations and has made some old questions seem interesting again.

There are places in this book where I think Carpenter might have taken his argument further. In explaining the scenes of nymphs around idols of Dionysos, Carpenter needs to be more explicit about what the action is. His interpretation of the images departs fundamentally from that of most previous studies, and thus I think the reader is entitled to a fuller explanation of what they depict than is offered here. The main action is the worship of Dionysos and so, as Carpenter notes, the images can be brought into connection with accounts such as HHymnDionysos 26.3-10, in which the nymphs who raised Dionysos became his followers and worshipers, though the images are not directly derivative of the poetic accounts. But the images raise further questions: the fragmentary cup-painting by Makron of the delivery of baby Dionysos to the nymphs (Athens, Acrop. 325, pl. 20A) depicts the babysitters worshipping at an altar, which Carpenter identifies as an altar of the nymphs. But perhaps the nymphs are already worshipping their charge Dionysos, and so the altar is an altar -- the first altar -- of Dionysos? Is it the very altar at which the ecstatic worship of Dionysos is taking place in another, even more famous cup-painting of Makron (Berlin F 2290, pl. 20B)? Or, to put the question another way, are the women who worship an idol of Dionysos in that image the very same nymphs who are receiving him in the fragmentary Athenian cup-painting?

In the case of Ariadne, Carpenter has revised his opinions as they were presented in his first book. He is now inclined to think that some black-figure scenes may depict the story of the union of Ariadne and Dionysos, whereas in his first book he was skeptical that any black-figure vase depicted the heroine (Carpenter [1986] 23-24). Cambridge 48, for example, is now thought to depict Dionysos reclining with Ariadne, not a maenad (Carpenter [1986] 114), which I think is correct (Hedreen [1992] 44-47). He still believes that a hypothetical late-sixth-century epic Theseid may have had something to do with the rise of Athenian imagery depicting Dionysos and Ariadne together. That is a departure from his general tendency, a tendency that seems right to me, to view with skepticism most arguments of sudden external influence from literature on vase-painting. In the new book, Carpenter also still tends to speak of most sixth-century Athenian vase-imagery of Dionysos and Co. as nonnarrative imagery, the only exceptions being depictions of the return of Hephaistos and the Gigantomachy. But the chief merit of his new book lies in the recognition that fifth-century Dionysian images hitherto understood to be nonnarrative -- to represent real Athenian worshipers or to function as simple visual metaphors of the experience of Dionysian religion -- often can be understood as visual narratives of traditional tales about Dionysos. In the light of his new study, a narrative interpretation of sixth-century Athenian Dionysian vase-imagery seems even more promising.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the book is a lack of a detailed discussion of the relationship between vase-paintings and satyr-plays. The natural place for such a discussion would have been chapter 7, where even Aristophanes' Frogs, which has virtually nothing to do with Athenian visual art, receives its due. Carpenter devotes less than two pages (pp. 27-28) to the question of how Dionysian imagery might be related to satyr-play, and then simply reiterates his conclusion (that the vase-paintings are likely to be independent) at several later points in the book. The problem does not lie in Carpenter's conclusion, for at this point in the history of the question, given the absence of critical kinds of evidence pertaining to how vase-painters learned their subjects, one's view of the relationship between satyr-play and vase-painting is almost a matter for faith. And his assumption that most vase-paintings of Dionysos and the silens were not directly inspired by particular satyr-plays seems to me to be more productive than the view that all original fifth-century Dionysian vase-images must be derivative of lost satyr-plays. The difficulty lies rather in the way in which the problem is presented and defined. The phenomenon of armed silens is really more complex than Carpenter suggests (pp. 27-28). The Gigantomachy is not the only possible occasion on which silens took up arms: silens who are dancing the pyrrhic may be competitors in some kind of competition at a festival (Hedreen [1992] 109-110). Moreover, the question of whether or not warrior silens were inspired by a particular satyr-play about the Gigantomachy is not the important one. The really interesting question is the relationship between the kind of humor found in early red-figure Dionysian vase-painting and that found in early satyr-play. Carpenter seems to be satisfied with the observation (p. 28) that, in early red-figure, "one can first detect wit, parody, and a subtle sense of mockery". I would agree that early red-figure vase-painters appear to have explored a number of different forms of humor in their work, but the particular kind of humor that we are talking about here -- travesty, especially mythological travesty -- appears to limited in art to Dionysian imagery and, in literature, to satyr-play. The Isthmiastai of Aischylos and vase-imagery of armed silens dancing the pyrrhic have nothing directly to do with each other in terms of influence, but employ the same type of humorous situation, namely, silens as contestants in public athletic or musical competitions. Thus familiarity with the genre of satyr-play may help in the identification of the kinds of comic situations underlying some unusual red-figure Dionysian vase-paintings. A well-known vase by Douris (London E 768, pl. 16a), for example, depicts a silen wearing boots, petasos, and a Thracian cloak, holding a kerykeion, and acting suspiciously. In keeping with the emphasis in chap. 3 on possible Thracian connections, Carpenter takes the principle element of this image to be the allusion to Thrace. The kerykeion, however, calls to mind several contemporary red-figure vase-paintings of Hermes interacting with silens: a krater in Basel by the Kleophrades Painter (ARV2 1632,49 bis) with rather unusual images of Hermes, playing his lyre, encountering a silen making wine; and Berlin F 2160, the name-vase of the Berlin Painter, depicting Hermes striding unsteadily with wine-drinking paraphernalia and silens in possession of the messenger god's musical instrument. One can construct a narrative around all three vase-paintings: while playing his lyre Hermes encounters a silen making wine, the silen agrees to teach the god the art of wine in exchange for the musical instrument, the silen and his friends then get Hermes drunk and steal his kerykeion and even his clothing. Part of the situation is familiar from the satyr-play Ichneutai, in which the silens learn about the newfangled musical instrument, the lyre. The red-figure images do not necessarily rely on any particular satyr-play, but the humor in them is more readily identified if one is familiar with the kinds of comic situations often found in the plays.

In short, this is a wide-ranging, well-informed, interesting, and, in parts, important study of Dionysos in Greek art. Because it tends to emphasize the independence of the artists from other discourses about Dionysos, it may not be readily embraced by those who advocate synthetic views of ancient Greek cultural production. But the author's very thorough knowledge of Dionysiac vase-painting and his many sensible arguments make this a book to be reckoned with.