Part 15 of Joy and Tranquillity digital guide

George Vasey describes ‘Athenians Celebrate Bacchus’

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This black-and-white print captures a moment of ecstatic joy, and it references an ancient festival celebrating the god of wine, known as Dionysus to the Ancient Greeks and Bacchus to the Romans.

In the centre of the image, a goat is being brought to be sacrificed while semi-naked Athenians are wearing masks and vine leaves. They dance in abandon under a Bacchus statue, who is depicted as a young child holding a bunch of grapes.

In the background to the left of the main action, two women hang effigies of the god on tree branches. At a tree further in the background, a naughty goat can be seen damaging the bark of a tree.

While Roman literature portrays these festivals in simplistic terms – as a space of partying and drinking – they also served an important religious function. By losing their sense of self, people could unite with the divine through their ecstatic state. This would lead to physical and mental elevation. Dionysus was a cause for joy among mortals, as he made all sorrow disappear and brought sleep and forgetfulness of daily suffering.

From festivals to sports arenas, night clubs and carnivals, societies throughout history have designated spaces for ecstatic release as an important release valve from the stresses and strains of everyday life.

About the speaker

Photograph of George Vasey

George Vasey

(he/him)

George Vasey is a curator currently working on projects with Wellcome Collection and Leeds Art Gallery. He has curated exhibitions and projects in public, academic and commercial contexts. He has previously worked as a curator at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland and as a curatorial fellow at Newcastle University. In 2017 he co-curated the Turner Prize. His writing has been published in Art Monthly, Art Review, Burlington Contemporary, Frieze and Mousse, as well as numerous artists’ catalogues and books. He regularly teaches and has mentored artists, writers and curators for various organisations.