The Dionysus mosaic at Paphos 2
 
  The image of the adoration of the Magi was fairly familiar by the fifth century, particularly on the walls of catacombs and carved on sarcophagi. Here are two fourth century examples.
 

Catacomb of Marcellinus, Rome.

Lid of the sarcophagus of Crispina.
 

The matching attributes of Christ and Dionysus/Bacchus have occasioned much debate. Understandably, the connection is not popular in the Christian world, and the character of the two does not match: after all, Dionysus was a lascivious, drunken rioter. The matching attributes are incidental, some would say coincidental. According to legend, Dionysus was born around about the feast of Saturnalia (late December), the son of a god and a virgin. Among his talents was the ability to turn water into wine. He travelled to the underworld for three days, then returned. He died on a tree, then rose from the dead.
   The Dionysus mosaic was on the floor of a grand dining room, and the sophisticated guests would be well aware of these parallels. Just as today, the Christian reference in the pagan image would not have been lost on them. Neo Paphos was the most important pagan site on Cyprus, with a temple to Aphrodite. Since Constantine Christianity was the belief system of the empire, but paganism had not gone away. Indeed, it has been suggested that Christian monotheism had influenced residual paganism, with devotion to a single deity, such as Dionysus, rather that to the entire pantheon of gods.
    So, what was the purpose of the mosaic? Some have suggested that it was intended as a humorous parody of the story of the Magi, for the amusement of the pagan guests.
  Very telling is this extract from the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Paphos.
 
   And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus: Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith. Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand. Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord. Ch 13 v 6-12.

As far back as c40 AD debate raged across the island. The prudent deputy, Sergius Paulus, was clearly prepared to listen to both sides. The centuries passed, but the debate continued.  Could this, therefore, be the function of the mosaic to initiate debate, as the guests lay on their couches eating their sumptuous meal?

 

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