Wednesday, 6 July 2011


Heh. After my post on the death of Orpheus last week, Danielle said he prefered to see more of the Maenads who killed him. 

 Arthur Wardle (1864-1949): The Bacchante

The Maenads (or Bacchantes) of legend were human women who worshipped Dionysus (later known as Bacchus). Their name means "the raving ones." Basically they were the nightmare vision of femininity as the classical Greeks saw it: what happens if you let women out from under proper patriarchal control. They'd roam the hills in packs, dancing, drunk on wine - the gift of Dionysus - and in a state of religious frenzy, killing any animal they came across and eating their raw flesh. Sometimes they preyed on men and children too. Wildly promiscuous, they constorted in orgies with satyrs - because human men just couldn't keep up. 

So ... drunk, horny and violent - what Victorian artist could resist, you'd think?

Auguste Léveque (1864-1921): Bacchanalia

Actually, if you go looking for Bacchantes in art, you'll find that most of the wild orgy scenes are painted in earlier, less prudish eras. The bacchanale seems to have been just a bit too full-on the for Victorian audience. Offensively unfeminine, I suspect. Not nice enough. Maenads certainly exist in Victorian art, but they tend to be depicted with a quite inappropriate delicacy:

John Collier (1850-1934): The Priestess of Bacchus

Um, very dignified.... 

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912): Bacchanale

Less dignified, but only because of the skipping...

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905): A Bacchante

Oh, come off it! - this one looks like she's sipping tea with the vicar!

Lawrence Alma-Tadema : A Dedication to Bacchus

Okay, better. It's still a bit staid, but it's an awesome picture, one of Alma-Tadema's greatest. Go on - click to enlarge in all its glorious detail.

Where Victorian artists do tend to concentrate is on the aftermath of the Maenads' frenzy - exhausted women having a nice lie down and maybe a grape or two. It's a lot less threatening to the viewer.  

Paul Merwart (1855-1902): Bacchante with Grapes

Auguste Clésinger (1814-1883): A Bacchante

 Jean-Bapstiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) : Bacchante with a Panther

 Henrietta Rae (1859-1928) : A Bacchante

Enough with the grapes!

  Lawrence Alma-Tadema: The Women of Amphissa

Another beautiful picture from LA-T: a group of maenads wake up with a belting hangover and the women of the town where they've collapsed - having watched over them all night - bring them breakfast. It's rather sweet actually.

I'm finishing with a photograph from a theatrical show, Euripides' Bacchae. It's well out of the Victorian/Edwardian era but I think it captures the true spirit of the Maenads. And it's not at all sweet or staid.

Max Waldman: Dionysus in 69


Jo said...

Not one mention of True Blood! How restrained :)

I like the baby riding the leopard. My own big-cat-obsessed cherub would approve of that one.

Janine Ashbless said...

I did like the maenad in True Blood. She had serious charisma. I'd have so fallen under her spell!

PiecesOfMe said...

ahhh great post!!

you know I LOVE them :-) they are so fascinating...and totally fit into my type of woman: well almost...what did jo just whispered? jewish, lesbian and shizophrenic??? no idea what she is talking about^^

i once joined a modern bacchanal..which endet that way that nude people (including me) where running from a tractor^^

Jo said...

Daneille, I can't believe you wasted that story in a comment!! BLOG POST.

Pressure him, every one, it's hilarious.

Janine Ashbless said...

OMG!!! Tractor story! Tractor story!!! I want to hear it, Danielle!