Relief with theatre mask

A tragic theatre mask is represented on this marble fragment. According to the classification devised by TBL Webster, it corresponds to the young Dionysus type. The profile of this person can be seen in the fine chiselling of the stone. The long hair, with locks carved individually by the artisan, is of note. The emptied eyes and the half-open mouth create the expression of astonishment characteristic of the masks used in plays of tragedy.

The theatre was a literary, artistic, philosophic and political representation which definitely influenced the development of Greco-Roman thought. The god who was honoured by these representations was Dionysus (in Greece) or Bacchus or Dis Pater (in Rome), the god of wine, of transformation and of eternal life. Dionysus was a Greek divinity whose remote origins were perhaps in the East where he embodied sensuality and the sensorial in general: grapes were transformed into wine, the senses were altered and a higher state was reached both through catharsis in the performances as well as through the ecstasy brought on by drunkenness.

Although the masks used in the theatre were made from perishable material, a number of these objects have been conserved, made from different materials and of different sizes. In rich Roman villas they acquired a purely decorative function especially in the peristyles with their gardens, where blocks of marble (oscilla) and ornamental reliefs showed a mask of the young Dionysus accompanied by another mask of a slave or a sileni, alluding to tragedy and comedy, two different theatrical genres which also referred to the real joy and sadness in life. A marble of these characteristics can be found in the Centrale Montemartini in Rome (inv. 2128), where three masks together at an altar can be seen, and where the Dionysian mask with its long curls stands out for its beauty. It was also usual to find tragic masks as acroterion or holding up roofs, perhaps with an apotropaic function as well as an ornamental one, as can be seen in the Museo Vaticano Gregoriano Profano (inv. 59).

Dionysus was also considered to be a divinity who could guarantee eternal life. He was the son of Zeus and a mortal, Semele. He managed to survive while still in her womb, when his mother perished in a blaze of fire brought on by looking directly at the god Zeus in all his glory. Zeus rescued his son, sewing him into his thigh until the nine months of gestation were completed. For this reason Dionysus is known as the “twice-born”. And this is also why the motif of the tragic or Dionysian mask appears frequently in funerary contexts, decorating the frontals of great Roman sarcophagi. In the Museo delle Terme (inv. 121657) a clear example of this typology is conserved with two tragic masks in profile between erotes and ribbons. In Berlin (Wörlitz Schloss) there is a fragment of a relief of funerary character where the tragic mask has great prominence. It is very possible that this relief was from one of the sides of a sarcophagus.


- AURIGEMMA, S. Le Terme di Diocleziani e il Museo Nazionale Romano. Roma. 1970. Cat. n.404.
- HELBIG, W. Führer durch die öffentlichen Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom. Die Städtischen Sammlungen. Die Staatlichen Sammlungen II, 4. Aufl. 1966. Cat. n.1694.
- HERDEJÜRGEN, H. Die dekorativen römischen Sarkophage. Stadtrömische und italische Girlandensarkophage. Die Sarkophage des 1. und 2. Jahrhunderts. Berlin. 1996. Cat. n.61.
- PAILLER, J. M. Le monde de Bacchus. Anabases. n. 4. 2006. p. 231-236. - TAYLOR, R. Roman Oscilla: An Assessment. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. n. 48. 2005. p. 83-105.
- WEBSTER, TBL. Monuments Illustrating Old and Middle Comedy. Bulletin of the Institute of Classic Studies, 3rd edition. University of London. London. 1977. p. 13-19.

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