Rock Me, Ama-Bacchus
Updated: Jan 10
The Roman god Bacchus (also known as Dionysus to the Greeks) has been reimagined throughout the ages—with each society and individual creator putting its unique stamp on this legendary bad boy of wine, fertility, and ecstatic revelry.
Dionysus gets an early mention in Hesiod’s Theogony, the eighth-century Greek poet’s “who’s who” of A-List deities, complete with each’s weird and wonderful beginnings:
And Semele...was joined with [Zeus] in love and bore him a splendid son, joyous Dionysus,—a mortal woman an immortal son.
From the start, Dionysus is described as “joyous.” And why wouldn’t he be? He’s got the big boss god as his dad and a hot, down-to-earth princess as his mom. The best of both worlds!
There’s a little more to the story, though. Turns out that after Zeus slept with Semele, his understandably jealous wife Hera threatened Semele into convincing Zeus to come clean about his divinity (which he’d been hiding up that point!), and this, in turn, led to Semele’s tragically inevitable spontaneous combustion...but it’s all good because Zeus was able to rescue the unborn Dionysus by more-or-less transforming his thigh into a makeshift womb before giving birth to his son on his own. (Don’t ask. They’re gods.)
This image, from a fourth-century B.C. krater (a large vessel used for diluting wine with water), shows the freakish miracle known as “the second birth of Dionysus.” Notice the ivy crown, which he’ll don in countless future depictions. I was surprised to discover that his step-mother Hera wanted him dead and how his nursemaids saved his life by hiding him under a protective layer of ivy. In the krater scene, It doesn’t quite look like he’s jumping into her arms, does it? (Not to get too Freudian, but you can kinda see how starting your life with an incinerated mother and murderously bitter stepmother might lead you to indulge in some escapist partying.)
This first-century B.C. bronze sculpture of an adolescent-looking Dionysus seems consistent with Hesiod’s “golden-haired” description. At the very least, the hair suggests flowing, curly, ivy-like locks.
While I’m hardly an expert in sculpture analysis, I can’t help but detect a hint of femininity in the thick lips and high cheek-bones.
Let’s jump ahead now to fifteenth-century Italy during and the High Renaissance. Dionysus is now Bacchus, but all educated and inspired artists would have been familiar with the evolving legacy of the superstar of spirits. Collectors, commissioners, and connoisseurs of art tended to be the most wealthy and politically-connected people—bankers, cardinals, popes, and other "virtuous" citizens. One of Michelangelo’s earliest works (right) is his sculpture of Bacchus, commissioned by Cardinal Riario.
A lively debate could he had over whether Michelangelo’s Bacchus would fail a sobriety checkpoint or charm his way out of it. His stance is off-kilter, and he’s raising his glass with a special kind of bravado that only a stimulated nucleus accumbens engenders. On the other hand, the sense of movement in the feet suggests a dancing motion—more of a skip than a stumble. Perhaps, despite his intoxication, he’s holding his own.
Breaking from the ancient tradition of surrounding Bacchus with a gang of suck-up satyrs and manic maenads (see Andrea Mantegna’s 1470s engraving, left), Michelangelo’s lone-wolf—dog-pelt and panisc by his side—is almost comically heroic. The night is still young, and he’s just getting started.
Michelangelo achieved a complex portrayal of a young man who’s simultaneously letting loose in that Hesiodic “joyous” way and maintaining control of his faculties (at least for the moment in time in which this scene takes place). True to the Renaissance ideal of controlled beauty, Bacchus creates the party, and also dominates it.
Unlike antiquity-obsessed artists and commissioners of Michelangelo's day, many of whom attempted to mimic and even pass off new works as actual relics, the American abstract artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011) wasn’t concerned with replicating the “rough-hewn” pedestals of the classical period. Neither was he interested in representations of wine, ivy, or even people. His Bacchus painting captures the inner emotional fire of the Bacchanalia. Why bore your audience with painted actors pretending to be wasted when you can draw the viewers directly into a dizzying trance?
Unlike Michelangelo, who created his Bacchus as a youth, Twombly’s Bacchus is one of the final works of an old man. Yet despite his physical limitations, achieving a sense of ecstatic climax was hardly impossible. Inspired by Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” and the occasional jolt of actual wine, his frenzied, twirling vermillion brush-strokes might appear to be a goofy delight—or the painful aftermath of too much goofy delight, depending on the viewer’s state of mind and past associations.
Red, of course, can be the color of passion. But I can’t help but circle back to Semele’s death, burned by the fire of her deceptive lover’s thunderbolts. What felt silly and easy to laugh about now feels eerily real.
I read and relied heavily on Luba Freedman's Michelangelo's Reflections on Bacchus https://www.jstor.org/stable/1483763?seq=1 and Nicholas Cullinan's and Nicholas Serota's Ecstatic Impulses: Cy Twombly's 'Untitled (Bacchus)' https://www.jstor.org/stable/1483763?seq=1