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Balsamarium in the Form of a Dionysiac Figure


Roman
2nd-3rd century
18 cm (7 1/16 in.)
bronze
BZ.1963.31

Not on view


Permalink: http://museum.doaks.org/objects-1/info/36693

Additional Images
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Additional Image Base
Base
Additional Image Detail, face
Detail, face
Additional Image Detail, face
Detail, face
Additional Image Obverse
Obverse
Additional Image Profile, proper left
Profile, proper left
Additional Image Profile, proper right
Profile, proper right
Additional Image Reverse
Reverse
Additional Image Reverse
Reverse
Additional Image Three-quarter view
Three-quarter view
Additional Image Three-quarter view, right
Three-quarter view, right
Additional Image Three-quarter view, right
Three-quarter view, right


Description
Among the most expensive substances in the Roman home were fragrant oils and balms, fluids that demanded elaborate containers, such as this bust-shaped bronze urn. It is missing its lid and the handle that would have fitted into the two rings protruding from its head. As true balsam came from one of only two gardens in Palestine and was therefore a rare luxury, this vessel may have contained a less expensive substitute such as Arabic kataf. Both were used as unguents, not just to soothe the living, but also to anoint the dead.

It is tempting to see this latter function as a clue to the identity—perhaps dual identity—of the youth depicted. Like several of the young men represented on bust balsamaria, this one is dressed in a fawn skin. This garment is one of the attributes of the god Dionysos, also called Bacchus, a deity who in Roman times came to be increasingly associated with the cult of the dead. The heavy, curling locks falling over his ears and down his neck, as well as his meditative expression also recall images of the Emperor Hadrian’s young lover Antinoös, who was deified after drowning in the Nile in the year 130.

Portraits of Antinoös in stone often allude to his apotheosis by showing him in the guise of gods, like Dionysos/Bacchus, who were associated with rebirth or the afterlife. Most of the identified images of Antinoös take the form of highly classicizing stone portraits from the end of Hadrian’s reign. The large, sleepy eyes of this figure suggest that it was made during the Antonine dynasty in the second century or later, possibly modelled on one of the famous images of Antinoös.
J. Hanson


Bibliography
C. W. Clairmont, Die Bildnisse des Antinous : ein Beitrag zur Porträtplastik unter Kaiser Hadrian, Bibliotheca Helvetica Romana 6 (Rome, 1966), 14.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 29, no. 99.

L. J. A. M. v. d. Hurk, "The Tumuli from the Roman Period of Esch, Province of North Brabant, I," Berichten van de Rijksdienst voor het Oudheidkundig Bodemonderzoek 23 (1973), esp. 213, no. 82, pl. 17, (called "Bacchus like that found in Esch).

G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 34, pl. p. 35.


Acquisition History
Acquired from George Zacos (dealer) by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC, July 9, 1963;

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, DC.