The Dionysus mosaic at Paphos

Two images, created nearly a thousand years apart, but with a strange similarity. So what are they?


The first is familiar enough. The Adoration of the Magi, by Fra Angelico, c1433, is in the Museo di San Marco in Florence. It is a section of the predella of the Linaioli Tabernacle.  It does raise a few problems for the observer – who are all the people in the image? To the left is a bevy of the attendants of the Magi. Two magi are kneeling in adoration, presenting their gifts, while the third stands in the background, pointing to the star that showed them the way. A rather splendidly dressed Joseph stands haloed to the right, though who the other grand character standing with him is not clear. A donor? The grand clothing does represent the donors: the clothmaker’s guild.

  The second image is a fifth century Roman Mosaic discovered in 1983 at the ‘House of Aion’ near the site of ancient Nea Paphos, in Cyprus. It is the second in a series of five mosaics showing mythological narratives. Here Dionysus is shown as a child, sitting on the lap of Hermes. The infant god’s divinity is shown by the surrounding characters, which represent aspects of the life of the gods. The figure behind, with the blue Halo, represents Theogony, the birth and lineage of the gods. Behind Hermes are Nectar and Ambrosia, drink and food of the gods. Hermes is handing Dionysus to the aged figure of his teacher to be, Silenus, shown here as Tropheus, meaning educator.  Three Nymphs prepare the infant’s bath. Second from the left is Anatrophe, his nurse in infancy; on the left is Nysa, representing the mountainous area claimed to be the site of Dionysus’s birth.

  So is the similarity between the two images merely coincidence? There are many academics that don’t think so.

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