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Art Criticism: Herm-Head of Dionysos

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Art Criticism: Herm-Head of Dionysos

            A detailed study of the Herm-Head of Dionysos gives us an idea of just how important Greek mythological Gods are, in general, and Dionysos, in particular, to art and how much he has inspired and influenced artists through the ages.

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            The Herm-Head of Dionysos is currently on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. along with hundred works Italian works in an exhibit titled, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples.

The 20-inch marble sculpture is believed to have been salvaged from the ruins of villas and theatres in the ancient Italian city of Herculaneum found at the base of Mount Vesuvius.

Herculaneum was severely damaged in the year 63 by a violent earthquake during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the same one that destroyed Pompeii (Herculaneum, MSN Encarta, par. 1). The city lay buried under 50 to 60 feet of lava, ash and mud for more than 1600 years until it was accidentally discovered in 1709.

Ancient tradition connected Herculaneum with the name of the Greek hero Herakles, or Hercules in Latin and consequently Roman Mythology (Herculaneum, Wikipedia). This indicates that the city was of Greek origin. Some historians believe that some forefathers of the Samnite tribes of the Italian mainland founded the first civilization on the site of Herculaneum at the end of the 6th century B.C. after which, the town came under Greek control and was used as a trading post because of its proximity to the Gulf of Naples. It is also believed that the Greeks who named the city Herculaneum. In the 4th century BC, Herculaneum again came under the domination of the Samnites. The city remained under Samnite control until it became a Roman municipality in 89 B.C. (Herculaneum, Wikipedia).

Besides the brief history above, little, if at all, is remembered about Herculaneum, its people and culture. As such, little is known about the works of art discovered there, including the Herm-Head of Dionysos, which is now on display at the NGA. The little that is known have been gathered through the general knowledge that we have now of art during the classical period under which it falls.

There are many examples of Dionysos herm heads but this is one of the most detailed of Dionysos existing today. This is surprising in that each feature was kept intact despite centuries under the rubbles and ashes, only emphasizing the quality of marble that renders it to become harder, more durable and weather-resistant.

In this herm-head, Dionysos, Greek god of wine and theatre, seems to be wearing a scarf flat around his head. Locks of hair from under the hem of the scarf fall on his forehead, ears and the nape of his neck. His long hair, almost as long as his curly multi-layered beard, falls below his shoulder. He has a stern expression, his features sharp. His unsmiling lips is framed by long curving moustache. There is no visible chip or crack that indicate that it underwent pressure of any sort through the ages.

This type of Dionysos herm is not unusual. There are examples known in terra-cotta and bronze, some wearing turban, others displaying wreaths of ivy on their head. This particular work, made of marble, typifies the classical three-dimensional art form of marble sculpture, which was a common mode of expression during that time as proven by the proliferation of marble statues against the number of wooden carvings from that period. Marble was more popular that other materials perhaps because of its translucent quality comparable to that of human skin and which gives it a “visual depth beyond its surface [which] evokes a certain realism” (Marble, Wikipedia). Marble is also relatively soft when first quarried, making it easier to work with and enabling the sculptor to refine, polish and render minute details.

As with marble sculptures from the classical period, the herm head was most probably shaped using mallet, chisels and hammer. This is followed by applying rasps, files and abrasive rubbing stones or sandpaper to smooth the surface contours of the form. After this, a very fine abrasive, tin oxide is used to achieve a high-lustre polish on the marble (Marble, Wikipedia). The qualities of marble make it easy to understand why it was a very popular material for sculpture, even more so when the artist’s intention was for a herm left outdoors and exposed to all elements that could render destructive to other materials like wood for example.

Herms, those pillars surmounted by the head of a god or goddess, were common in the ancient Mediterranean world, appeared first in Archaic Greece first as rectangular shafts bearing male genitals at about the mid-point,  horizontal bosses instead of arms, and the head of a Greek god on top (Mattusch 3).  Herms came into popularity beginning the 500 B.C. in Greece and were installed to serve as guardians at street corners, on boundaries, beside gats, and in doorways. The pillars are often described as apostrophic, or frightening away evil spirits. Herms were important elements of public religion. Destroying one was a serious offense in Athens.

In the beginning, only the head of the god Hermes was surmounted on the pillars. The word herm originally meant simply “pile of stones.” According to classical mythology, the pillar gave its name to the god, not the other way around. Thus, Hermes most probably began as a personification of these marker-stones. This reflects his aspect as the god of boundaries.

By the Hellenistic period, the repertoire of heads found on herms had expanded to include other gods and even famous mortals (Getty). People began to use the herms for non-religious, decorative purposes, often placing them on both sides of doors and hallways, and even in the gymnasium and the palaestra, and in private homes and gardens. Some were commemorative, others were purely decorative.

It is in the gardens where the head of Dionysos was often used for the herm. In fact, images of the wine god, along with band of revelers, appear in many garden sculptures and paintings.

 As the god associated with the fertility and abundance of the earth, Dionysos was considered a natural character for the garden. He was also the god of theatre, perhaps because the very first plays produced were part of harvest festivals dedicated to him. Thus, sculptures showing the exaggerated masks worn by actors proliferated as decorations for the garden.

In the classical Europe, villas were surrounded by gardens and town houses featured interior courtyards. These gardens were accented with fountains, carved reliefs, figurines that spurted water into pools, figurines, (Getty) and most commonly herms with the head of Dionysos.

In classical mythology, Dionysos (also known as Bacchus), the god of wine, is a major figure. Known as the Liberator, freeing one from one’s normal self, by madness, ecstasy, or wine, his mission was to mingle the music of the aulos and to bring an end to care and worry (Dionysus).

            Dionysos’ attributes included the thyrsos (a pine-cone tipped staff), drinking cup, leopard and fruiting vine. He was usually accompanied by a troop of nymphs called Satyrs and Mainades.

            The son of Zeus and Semele, he is described as being womanly or bearing character traits or features of a woman. This perhaps explains the statues and herms where Dionysos is wearing turban or scarf, his hair long and curly like that of a woman. Scholars associate the dio- element in his name with Zeus (genitive Dios); Nysa, for Greek writers, is either the nymph who nursed him, or the mountain where he was attended by several nymphs (the Nysiads), who fed him and made him immortal as directed by Hermes (Dionysus, Wikipedia).

According to the common tradition, Dionysos was the son of Zeus and Semele, the daughter of Cadmus of Thebes; whereas others describe him as a son of Zeus by Demeter, Io, Dione, or Arge (Dionysos, Theio). The same diversity of opinions prevails in regard to the native place of the god, which in the common tradition is Thebes, while in others we find India, Libya, Crete, Dracanum in Samos, Naxos, Elis, Eleutherae, or Teos, mentioned as his birthplace. It is owing to this diversity in the traditions that ancient writers were driven to the supposition that there were originally several divinities which were afterwards identified under the one name of Dionysus. Cicero distinguishes five Dionysi, and Diodorus three (Dionysos, Theio).

For the purpose of the analysis of the herm-head of Dionysos, we will stick to the common story apparently descended from Greek mythologians which makes Dionysos a son of Semele by Zeus, which runs: Hera, jealous of Semele, visited her in the disguise of a friend, or an old woman, and persuaded her to request Zeus to appear to her in the same glory and majesty in which he was accustomed to approach his own wife Hera. When all entreaties to desist from this request were fruitless, Zeus at length complied, and appeared to her in thunder and lightning. Semele was terrified and overpowered by the sight, and being seized by the fire, she gave premature birth to a child. Hermes saved the child from the flames: it was sewed up in the thigh of Zeus, and thus came to maturity (Dionysos, Theio).

After the birth of Dionysus, Zeus entrusted him to Hermes, who took the child to Ino and Athamas at Orchomenos, and persuaded them to bring him up as a girl. Hera was now urged on by her jealousy to throw Ino and Athamas into a state of madness, and Zeus, in order to save his child, changed him into a ram, and carried him to the nymphs of mount Nysa, who brought him up in a cave, and were afterwards rewarded for it by Zeus, by being placed as Hyades among the stars.

The involvement of Hermes in the story produced a number of artworks including one famous sculpture where Hermes carries the baby Dionysos.

According to the common myth, Dionysos first wandered through Egypt, where he was hospitably received by king Proteus. From there, he proceeded through Syria, where he flayed Damascus alive, for opposing the introduction of the vine, which Dionysos was believed to have already discovered. He proceeded to traverse all Asia and even the Amazon, continuously fighting enemies and proving his divinity. In all his wanderings and travels, Dionysos rewarded those who had received him kindly and adopted his worship: he gave them vines and wine. After he had established his divine nature throughout the world, he led his mother out of Hades and rose with her into Olympus (Dionysos, Theio).

Among the women associated with Dionysos, most famous in ancient history was Ariadne. He was associated with other divines as well as mortals and said to have produced offsprings with them. But what makes Dionysos’ role in mythology a very important one are his characteristics as both an inspired and inspiring god. The notion of his being the cultivator and protector of the vine was easily extended to that of his being the protector of trees in general (Dionysos, Theio). But that does not stop there are he is also seen as the promoter of civilization, a law-giver, and a lover of peace.  As the Greek drama had grown out of the dithyrambic choruses at the festivals of Dionysos, he was also regarded as the god of tragic art, and as the protector of theatres.

All these qualities and importance render why herms and statues, even temples, of Dionysos proliferated in the classical era. Like most classical art works, the divine statues and herms first originated in Greece. Romans followed the tradition after a while, inspired by Greek models. As a result, however, controversies arose that the Roman works were merely derivative copies of the Grecian art, with earlier art historians describing them as mechanical copies of lost Greek masterpieces. However, in her book Hellenistic and Roman Ideal Sculpture: The Allure of the Classical, art scholar Kousser argues that the Roman works “were appreciated as sophisticated and allusive works of art which explicitly acknowledged their place within a revered tradition. The divine figures analyzed here did not simply follow but referenced, appropriated, and transformed their Greek models. Their complex visual rhetoric rendered them both recognizable and authoritative, fitting ornaments for the eclectic, aesthetically sophisticated society of the Roman Empire. These images of the gods – often monumental in scale, expertly crafted, prominently displayed throughout the empire, and far from uniform – were central to Roman visual culture.” She further maintains that the “most highly valued statues in the Roman world were not exact copies of Greek models but emulative yet creative Roman originals.”

Kousser, however, admits that Roman divine sculptures departed from their Greek models, but writes that the most striking changes came in transformations of their broader contexts – as images based on Classical cult statues were commissioned to decorate Roman baths, homes, and funerary monuments – rather than in minute alterations of visual formula.

To drive her point about the originality of the Roman statues, Kousser goes as far as to exemplify the Roman methods of education, “with their stress on the imitation of approved models, conditioned viewers from their earliest years to appreciate works of art which emulated and adapted canonical forms.” She cites Raffaella Cribiore who said“[t]he principle of imitation inspired ancient education from beginning to end.”

These pedagogical methods, according to Kousser, encouraged educated Romans to judge works of art by their ability to make use of earlier models in an allusive and inventive fashion. This led to the transformation of what is familiar into a characteristic example of the artist’s own work.

            Thus established the creation of Roman divine statues and herms with heavy reference to Greek art and mythology and ushered in the transformation into classicism throughout Europe, which gave way to the proliferation of sculptures and paintings featuring Greek mythological figures, and emphasizing their importance in art as well as religion, not only in Greece and Rome in the classical era, but beyond until the modern times.

Taking into consideration its proximity from and long-standing history with Greece, plus Kousser’s argument stated above, it would not be surprising to find the Roman city of Herculaneum to be abounded by statues and herms deifying the Greek gods and goddesses, the remnants of which are now found in several museums all over the world. The Herm-head of Dionysos, which probably stood in one of the more elegant gardens of Herculaneum, where, the owners must have believed, drove away evil spirits with its stern-looking face, and at the same time adorning the garden itself. It would not be surprising if the Herm-head came other statues that represented the revelers of Dionysos, as it was the custom in those days, all of the, much like the herm-head carved from marble to withstand the changing of the weathers and other outdoor elements. Who would have known that this particular marble Herm-head of Dionysos would withstand the test of lava and ashes through history? Or perhaps, the sculptor intended the herm-head for such.

Works Cited

“Dionysos.” Theio Greek Mythology. 2000. 22 November 2008. <http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Dionysos.html>

“Dionysus.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 20 Nov 2008. 22 Nov 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dionysus&oldid=252904248>.

“Herm of Dionysos.” The Getty. 2007. 21 November 2008. < http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=9917>

“Herculaneum.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 2008. 21 November 2008. http://encarta.msn.com

“Herculaneum.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 20 Nov 2008. 22 Nov 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Herculaneum&oldid=252941528>.

Kousser, Rachel Meredith. Hellenistic and Roman Ideal Sculpture: The Allure of the Classical. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

“Marble sculpture.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 9 Nov 2008. 21 Nov 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marble_sculpture&oldid=250634298>.

Mattusch, Carol. “Two bronze herms: questions of mass production in antiquity – sculpture.” Art Journal. New York: College Art Association, Summer 1995.


Cite this Art Criticism: Herm-Head of Dionysos

Art Criticism: Herm-Head of Dionysos. (2016, Oct 05). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/art-criticism-herm-head-of-dionysos/

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