BMCR 2015.10.29

Tra la vigna e la croce: Dioniso nei discorsi letterari e figurativi cristiani (II-IV secolo). Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, Bd 47

, Tra la vigna e la croce: Dioniso nei discorsi letterari e figurativi cristiani (II-IV secolo). Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, Bd 47. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2014. 325. ISBN 9783515106313. €62.00 (pb).


The title of this ambitious study by Francesco Massa, an emerging scholar of ancient Mediterranean religions, situates its subject “between the vine and the cross”, those definitive and ostensibly antithetical emblems of Dionysus and Christ. By the time the two divinities met in the literature and art of late antiquity, the vine, with its inherent symbolism of fertility and exuberance, had been associated with the wine god for a millennium. In a much shorter span of time the cross, with its acquired historical references to Christ’s suffering and death, had become, at least in the textual sources, the quintessential sign of the Lord. Yet, while the two symbols share space in Massa’s title, they do not receive equal attention in his book, where the cross figures in but a few brief sections, and then only in instances that have explicit Dionysiac associations. There are good historical reasons for this imbalance. Although the cross is omnipresent in the writings of the Church Fathers, it is virtually invisible in the Christian iconographic record until the age of Constantine, toward the end of the period under Massa’s review (second to fourth centuries A.D.). Its emergence in the Church’s figurative repertoire is the terminus, rather than the focus, of this study. Massa’s subtitle sets us straight: the book’s true subject is, after all, Dionysus himself. It is his vine that spreads its riotous tendrils throughout Massa’s pages, just as it filled those intricate scenes of the vintage that once covered the carved surfaces of numerous third- and fourth-century Roman sarcophagi, including those of Christians. By then the symbology of the vine, incorporating grape-clusters, playful erotes, thiasoi of ecstatic women, and other affiliated Bacchic imagery, had become the lingua franca of both literature and art, both pagan and Christian.

The great value—and pleasure—of reading Tra la vigna e la croce is the subtlety with which Massa disentangles these promiscuous vines, identifying the multiple and sometimes contradictory uses of images held in common by two very different, but also startlingly similar, religious communities. The author’s task is complicated, first, by the polyvalence of Dionysus’ symbolism, in whose myths the vine is as likely to represent entanglement and destruction as fertility and joy; and, second, by the influence of another tradition (the biblical one) which was grafted by early Christian writers and artists onto that of Bacchus. In the Old and New Testaments, after all, wine, the vine, and the vineyard have symbolic and sacramental meanings peculiar to their own cultural contexts. But “the complexity of the relationship between Dionysus and the Christian sources” (p. 15) does not deter Massa. Indeed, that complexity is very much to his purpose, which is to trace the vicissitudes of this relationship “from opposition to cohabitation, and from religious competition to cultural mediation” ( ibid., my translation). In Massa’s account, early conflict ( scontro) between the two sects gave way to a vigorous encounter ( incontro), and though one of these sects eventually triumphed over the other, that outcome is best described as a case of sovrapposizione (which should, I think, be translated as “overlay” rather than “conquest”, inasmuch as each sect could equally be said to have taken over the other). Similarly, the process that led to this triumph was, in Massa’s preferred terminology, a matter of reconfigurazione (reshaping) and resemantizzazione (reinterpretation). Both cults, Christian and Dionysiac, were profoundly affected by this cultural exchange, but the book’s principal focus is on the identity that the Church forged for itself out of this welter of influences.

Massa’s book is the fruit—one could say the fermented wine—of his doctoral thesis (2011), which was co-supervised by Nicole Belayche (who also provides a preface to this volume) and Giovanni Filoramo. Naturally both Belayche and Filoramo figure prominently in the book’s citations, footnotes, and bibliography, as do over four hundred other scholars writing in Italian, French, English, and German. Half of these authors have contributed within the past two decades—i.e., since the publication of Thomas F. Mathews’ The Clash of the Gods (1993)—to the pertinent fields of Greek and Roman religion, patristics, and art history. The importance of Mathews’ book as a turning point in the scholarship of early Christian art is openly acknowledged here (pp. 24f.). Mathews wanted to replace an earlier scholarly orthodoxy, which had explained affinities between early Christian art and its Greco-Roman antecedents as the result of imitation or syncretism, with the new model of a “war of images”. Only such a conflict-model, Mathews thought, could properly account for important Christian departures from the late imperial iconographic tradition. Many of the scholars whose names appear in Tra la vigna e la croce have enlisted on either side of the controversy aroused by The Clash of the Gods. I think it would be fair to regard Massa himself as seeking a middle way. He rejects both sincretismo and guerra as fruitful constructs, positing a primitive Church that was acutely aware of its rivals but also actively and creatively engaged with them. This explains why, beginning with his subtitle, Massa recurs frequently to the term discorso, which signifies in Italian both “speech” and “conversation”. Emerging from its infancy, Christianity inherited patterns of speech ( discorsi) freighted with the religious symbolism of previous traditions. Through dialogue ( discorso) with those traditions—argumentative though that dialogue often was—Christianity gradually acquired its own proper accent or (to alter the conceit to a musical one) its own new “key” ( chiave, one of Massa’s favorite metaphors that is as vague as it is suggestive).

The chief participants in this dialogue were, naturally, those whose forte was words; they are the focus of Chapters I, II, and IV. The voices on the pagan side are few, including Celsus (gleaned from the pages of Origen) and Philostratus, who are bolstered anachronistically by pre-Christian authors like Cicero, Diodorus Siculus, and, most eloquently, Euripides, the source that never stops giving. On the Christian side we have Justin Martyr, Aristides, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Arnobius, Firmicus Maternus, and John Chrysostom. To each of these Massa applies remarkably detailed and insightful exegesis; two of them, Clement and Chrysostom, share an entire chapter by themselves (IV). The conversation between the two sides began polemically, as Justin’s two Apologies or Origen’s Contra Celsum reveal. The Church Fathers, for their part, were expressly critical of the Bacchic myths, not because they were outlandish but because they too closely resembled similar events in the Gospel, including the Greek god’s birth from Zeus and a mortal woman, his wine miracles, his violent death and “resurrection”, and his ascension to Mount Olympus. Some Christians, like Justin, resorted to a theory of imitatio diabolica to explain these parallels; others, like Firmicus, employed the euhemeristic method of banalizzazione to strip Bacchus of his divinity. Meanwhile, the pagan tradition to which the Church Fathers responded was hardly fixed in its details. Massa argues that some of the very components of Dionysus’ biography that were most controversial (such as his sparagmos at the hands of the Titans) were still elaborated by his followers, particularly the Orphics, during this period, precisely in response to rival Christian accounts of divine suffering and rebirth. The discorso, in other words, even at its most argumentative, was never simply one-sided.

In spite of themselves, our Christian authors were more fully steeped in the wine god’s terminology than they may have wished to admit. Massa demonstrates how the language of Euripides’ Bacchae, in particular, permeated their discourse. Indeed, one of the most striking revelations to emerge from this study is the cultural longevity of that play. We know that the tragedy, first produced in 405 B.C., was occasionally revived for the stage in subsequent centuries, but it now appears that the Bacchae was never absent from the educated person’s reading list throughout antiquity. Massa offers evidence (Chapter I) that even the authors of the New Testament knew it, since there are compelling echoes of Euripides’ lines in the Pauline epistles, the Fourth Gospel, and the Book of Acts. Perhaps the most impressive instance of patristic intoxication with the Bacchae is Clement of Alexandria, who seems to have imbibed Euripides’ play almost as deeply as the Scriptures. Clement could argue scathingly against the devilish nature of Dionysiac worship, but he had a soft spot for good literature. Massa devotes more than twenty pages (167-189) to the Euripidean references that are to be found in the Protrepticus, the Paedagogus, and the Stromateis. They reveal Clement’s careful reading of the play and his unexpected sympathy for tragic characters like Pentheus, Tiresias, and the Bacchic women. But the most extreme case of a Christian author whose language was thoroughly Euripidean is the anonymous poet of the Christus Patiens, a cento narrating the Passion of Christ yet fashioned of entire lines from the Bacchae. The authorship and date of this pious pastiche are controversial, but Massa nonetheless devotes a final chapter (VI) to it as his crowning example of the overlay of the Bacchic tradition upon the Christian, and of the Christian reinterpretation of Dionysiac discourse. Whether or not the cento rightly belongs to the patristic period under review (almost certainly not), it is undeniable that the developments witnessed in the pages of a Church Father like Clement made possible the Christus Patiens.

Massa intertwines his treatments of Dionysus in patristic literature with chapters (III and V) on the god’s presence in early Christian figurative art. Here we find two dozen black and white photographs (of varying quality) accompanying descriptions of artwork mostly from the third and fourth centuries A.D., ranging from the simple catacomb frescoes of the earlier period to the grand mosaics of Santa Costanza. The artists who produced these works, Massa presumes, served both pagan and Christian clients, and so cannot properly be called “Christian artists”. They simply employed many of the same Bacchic images that had already served for centuries in various contexts, both sacred and profane. It was up to the paying customers, and subsequent viewers, to interpret these common images as they wished; in most cases, of course, they were not aided by any accompanying interpretive texts. There is a rare exception to this rule, the controversial ΟΡΦΕΟC ΒΑΚΚΙΚΟC pendant—of uncertain date—once preserved in Berlin but now lost, which featured a crucified figure identified by an inscription as “Bacchic Orpheus”. Here it is precisely the text (presumably Dionysiac) that baffles an understanding of the image (apparently Christian). Some scholars have dismissed this eccentric item as a modern forgery; others take its inscription at face value, interpreting it as a pagan cult object. Massa, in one of his boldest entries into a running debate, proposes a Christian provenance for it, presenting it as an important, albeit unique, piece of evidence in his overall argument for “cultural mediation” between paganism and early Christianity (pp. 152-155).

The “between”, then, of Massa’s main title is not a line of demarcation dividing two separate territories but a zone of interaction, a region as large as the ancient Mediterranean world and long enough in duration to comprehend, despite the subtitle, material from the fifth century B.C. (Euripides’ Bacchae) to the fifth century A.D. (Nonnus and Macrobius) and even beyond. At the centre is Dionysus himself, who caused a certain amount of upheaval (as that god always does) upon his entrance into Christian literary and figurative “discourses”, but who finally contributed positively to the creation of a new Christian identity. In return, Dionysus’ own theology received, perhaps for the first time, a coherent systematization at the hands of Christian apologists, preachers, artists, and poets. The Church Fathers turned Dionysus, whether he wished it or not, into a mirror of Christ—a process that, with quite different motives, scholars of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule and the British Myth/Ritual School were still undertaking in modern times. (And that development—the modern reinterpretation of Dionysus in a Christian “key”—would make for another fine book, if Massa should decide to write it.)