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My Favourite Painting
The Seventh Scene, Villa dei Misterei

Michael Hulls: "This is painting as a 360º immersive, intoxicating theatrical experience, commemorating an arcane ritual of female initiation that we cannot fully understand and, as such, it sets my imagination racing to fill in the gaps. The pervasive, powerful eroticism of the inexplicit is matched by the sumptuous sensual colour scheme of the fleshy tones, yellowy golds and greens contrasted against the imperial purples and deep, rich Pompeiian reds. 

The transformational psychology of pain and pleasure is depicted in a dramatic unity of time, place and action. It's painting not as an object to hang on a wall, but the wall itself"

John McEwen comments on The Seventh Scene:

In Greek Mythology, Dionysus - also called Bacchus - represented the intoxicating power of Nature. As the first cultivator of the vine, he was god of wine, giver of joy, disperser of sorrow and oracular healer.

Pompeii's love of wine and bacchanals is indicated by the sanctuary built to Bacchus/Dionysus in the 3rd century BC. in 186 BC, the Roman Senate tried to extinguish the Bacchus cult, with its Greek origins and orgiastic associations, but the persecution seems not to have reached Pompeii.

The Villa of Mysteries, a lavishly appointed country house and probably working farm, was about a quarter of a mile north of Pompeii. The town and neighbouring Herculaneum were buried by the fallout after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, five miles away, in AD79. Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, the villa in 1909. It covered about 40,000sq ft and had at least 60 rooms.

The owner's business was probably wine. This is particularly suggested by the mysterious megalographia (pictorial cycle of life-sized figures), unique in Pompeii, which decorated the supposed dining room, hence the Villa of 'Mysteries'. There are 10 scenes, thought sequentially to show the initiation of a woman/bride into the cult of Dionysus, the principal figure in scene six. Scene seven shows the rite's completion.

The kneeling initiate has been whipped and is consoled by Bacchantes (maenads in ancient Greece), female followers of Bacchus/Dionysus. One holds a thyrsus, a ceremonial presentation stick tipped with a pinecone. The dancer ecstatically clashes symbols. The fresco has been extensively restored, but remains 'a stunning example of "saturated viewing"' (Mary Beard).

Published in Country Life, January 11th, 2017

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