The pagan god Dionysos, reclining in a cart being drawn by oxen, returns to a small, round temple. He is shown beneath an open gable and an arch with scrolls of leaves; lotus buds also appear in the arch, and immediately behind Dionysos’s cart there is a vine with ripening grapes. This is the autumnal season of maturation, the time of year associated with mystical fulfillment anticipating the yearly cycle of death and a future rebirth— separated by a period of wintry dormancy. The god, associated with wine, now returns to his temple, both his home and place of worship. These concepts, widespread in the ancient world, were naturally associated with the idea of resurrection, making this image an appropriate theme for a tomb.
The deeply carved block was the top section of a niche in a tomb in late Roman Egypt, as attested by the type of soft limestone used, the style of carving straight back from the surface, and the bold approach to the figures with their large heads and exaggerated, parallel drapery folds covering indistinctly rendered bodies. The lotus buds on the arch above Dionysos support the association with Egypt.
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 23, no. 31, fig. p. 32.
"Reawakening at Dumbarton Oaks: The Golden Glories of the Byzantine and Early Christian Worlds," Art News 45.10.1 (1946): 15-19; 57-59, esp. 19, fig. VI.
T. Whittemore, "An Epiphaneia of Dionysos on a Coptic Carved Stone," in Coptic Studies in Honor of Walter Ewing Crum, Byzantine Institute Bulletin 2 (Boston, 1950), 541-53, pl. 33-35.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 16, no. 35, fig. p. 29.
K. Wessel, Koptische Kunst; die Spätantike in Ägypten, 1 ed. (Recklinghausen, 1963), 42, 152ff., fig. 59.
A. Grabar, Byzantium: From the Death of Theodosius to the Rise of Islam, Arts of Mankind 10 (London, 1966), fig. 279.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 9, no. 30.
L. Török, "On the Chronology of the Ahnas Sculpture," Acta Archaeologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 29 (1970), esp. 174, 181 n. 86.
H. Zaloscer, Die Kunst im christlichen Ägypten (Vienna, 1974), 112f., fig. 35.
R. D. Gempeler, Werke der Antike im Kunsthaus Zürich (Zürich, 1976), 130f.
A. Effenberger, Koptische Kunst: Ägypten in spätantiker, byzantinischer u. frühislam. Zeit, 1. Aufl. ed. (Wien, 1976), 198, fig. 29.
F. R. Farag, "Is There Any Justification for the Existence of Coptic Art? Two Recent Critical Opinions," Kunst des Orients 11.1-2 (1976-77): 22ff.
A. Badawy, Coptic Art and Archaeology: the Art of the Christian Egyptians from the Late Antique to the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 166.
G. Vikan, "Meaning in Coptic Funerary Sculpture," in Studien zur frühchristlichen Kunst II, Göttinger Orientforschungen. II. Reihe, Studien zur spätantiken und frühchristlichen Kunst 8 ed. G. Koch (Wiesbaden, 1986), 15ff., pl. 4, 5.
T. K. Thomas, "Niche Decorations from the Tombs of Byzantine Egypt: Heracleopolis Magna and Oxyrhynchus, A.D. 300-500: Visions of the Afterlife" (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1990), 54f., 133ff., 245, (catalogue: 230ff.), fig. 88.
G. Vikan, Catalogue of the Sculpture in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection from the Ptolemaic Period to the Renaissance, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogues (Washington, D.C., 1995), 42-47, no. 17, pl. 17A-B.
G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 66, pl. p. 67.