Renaissance marble vintner’s oracular mask of Silenus



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A marble architectural revetment decorated in relief with an oracular mask of Silenus.

Silenus was the companion of Dionysos, god of wine, he was depicted as an elderly drunken figure with equine ears, wild flowing beard, furrowed brows and a pug-nose. Silenus was believed to have powers to see into the future when drunk and this sculpture shows him with an open mouth in the convention of an oracle.

Silenus’ association with Dionysos combined with his oracular powers meant that he could fore-see the correct time to harvest grapes. It is very likely that this sculpture would have formed an important feature or possibly a point of worship in a vineyard or other wine-related building.

The pierced band around the forehead of Silenus would probably have held a wreath of vines. There is an attachment slot on the upper side of the plaque above the head indicating that it was fixed into a wall or niche.

Parallels for this plaque are difficult to find, however its influence can be seen in Michelangelo’s statue of Giuliano de Medici, where the central mask on the cuirass is thought to be loaded with sarcastic humour: a man honouring Silenus would indeed have been a joke to most Italian Renaissance minds if able to interpret the symbolism.
In 19th Century Italy the mask also appears as a decorative device associated more directly with wine and vineyeards. (Please see links below).

Greek, circa 5th Century BC

19.5 x 20.4 cms

Intact with minor surface chips as seen in the photographs, (remnants of two 20th Century fixings on the rear).

Ex. collection: Mavor Moore, Canada (1919-2006); acquired during travels in Italy and Greece during the 1950’s and thence by family descent. A letter of provenance accompanies this item.
Mavor Moore was an important influence on performing arts in Canada during the mid 20th Century and wrote over 100 plays, musicals, documentaries and librettos for stage. He was also professor of theatre history at York University and chair or founder of numerous arts festivals and guilds.

For a Roman version of a Silenus mask (from Pompeii), please see:

For Michelangelo’s sculptural interpretation of a Silenus mask, please see:

As well as this sketch by Michelangelo from the Royal Collections which includes the equine ears disguised as scrolls in the Medici sculpture:

A sketch from the Townley collection, now in the British Museum, depicts an ancient gem showing an erote offering grapes to a Silenus mask above a grape-harvesting basket:

A 19th Century Italian vintner’s version of the mask:

Accompanied by a perspex display stand