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Plate with Silenus

Early Byzantine
29.3 cm x 29.3 cm (11 9/16 in. x 11 9/16 in.)

On view


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Additional Image Detail
Additional Image Detail
Additional Image Detail, lower body
Detail, lower body
Additional Image Detail, proper right side
Detail, proper right side
Additional Image Detail, torso
Detail, torso

According to ancient Greek folklore, the woods were inhabited by bestial creatures known as silenoi and satyroi. Lustful and lacking self-control, they often overindulged in wine, which led to the pursuit of nymphs or, as here, deep sleep. We see a flabby, hairy silenos about to be rudely awakened by a satyr aiming a horn at the sleeper’s ear. In contrast, the alert viewer enjoys the age-old joke, which may illustrate a farce, although the precise source is unknown. The invocation of Dionysos in festivals such as the Brumalia, which celebrated the first pouring of newly fermented wine at the end of the harvest season, had faded since Classical times, but masquerading as Silenos and pouring libations to Dionysos continued. This plate was made during the reign of Justinian (527–65), as attested by impressed stamps on the back. Though the empire was Christian and the emperor was concerned with theological controversies, ancient Greek mythology continued to be learned and enjoyed.

Only the central section of the plate remains. Its original rim probably added another 20 to 30 cm overall. Like a number of other show plates with pagan and literary subjects, it was made for the delectation of diners whose education had been based on the Greek classics. Additionally, the viewers would have appreciated the carving of the figures and drapery and the delicate chasing of details as the plate was passed or carried around the banquet table. As a tour de force of silver work, the sheer costliness of such a large silver plate, and the contrast of the drunken and sleeping old silenos with the youthful sprightliness of the satyr, may have appealed to the erudite Byzantine sense of humor, about which little is known.

- J. Hanson, S. Zwirn

L. A. Matsulevich, "Vizantiiskii Antik i Prikem'e," Arkheologicheskie Pamiatniki Urala i Prikamia 1 (1940): 153-54.

———, trans. D. Huxley, "A Summary: Byzantine Art and the Kama Region," Gazette des Beaux-Arts 32 (1947): 123-26, fig. 6.

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 56, 63, no. 132.

R. J. Gettens and C. A. Waring, "The Composition of Some Ancient Persian and Other Near Eastern Silver Objects," Ars Orientalis 2 (1957): 83-90, esp. 89, no. 18.

Erica C. Doss, Byzantine Silver Stamps (Washington, DC, 1961), 73, no. 10.

M. C. Ross, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Vol. 1, Metalwork, Ceramics, Glass, Glyptics, Painting, (Washington, D.C., 1962), 9, no. 8, pl. 5.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 16-17, no. 59.

C. Mango, "The Byzantine Collection," Apollo 119 (1984): 21-29, fig. 3.

J. M. C. Toynbee and K. S. Painter, "Silver Picture Plates of Late Antiquity: A.D. 300 to 700," Archaeologia 108 (1986): 15-65, no. 41.

G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 74, pl. p. 75.

Exhibition History
Washington, DC, Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, “Ancient and Medieval Metalwork from Dumbarton Oaks,” Dec. 16, 2005 – April 1, 2007.

Acquisition History
Collection of Professor Ludwig Pollak (1868-1943), Rome.

Collection of Dr. Margaret Burg, England and Scarsdale, NY.

Purchased from Dr. Margaret Burg, England and Scarsdale, NY by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., April 1951.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.