Theater mask

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. Rome. 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.

Related works of art

cabeza de mármol de satiro fauno romano j bagot arqueologia
Figure of God Ares or Mars
terracota terracotta ancient grrek griego figura actor actor figure j bagot arqueoologia grotesco
figura de actor comico romano bronce j bagot arqueologia

Consell de Cent, 278
08007 Barcelona SPAIN
(+34) 93 140 53 26

Monday - Saturday
10h to 14h
16:30h to 20:00h

Uso de cookies

Este sitio web utiliza cookies para que usted tenga la mejor experiencia de usuario. Si continúa navegando está dando su consentimiento para la aceptación de las mencionadas cookies y la aceptación de nuestra política de cookies, pinche el enlace para mayor información.plugin cookies

Aviso de cookies