“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
Look at her.
Looking is what you're meant to do: the sculptor intended for you, the viewer, to observe this beautiful female figure, to take in what you can see of her.
A young woman, uneasily asleep, not quite lying, not quite sitting: leaning. She appears to have sat down on an uneven surface (a rock, maybe) to rest, and to have fallen asleep there, maybe from exhaustion, not too comfortably, resting her head on one arm and sort-of-covering it with the other. She's fully dressed in what appears to be a himation (a toga-like garment worn in Ancient Greece), although it has slipped a little, just revealing part of her breasts and part of her stomach. Her position is carefully designed, to invite our gaze to an extent, but with boundaries: the garments, masterfully rendered, are bunched up across the most private area of her body and her legs are crossed - there are limits to what we may see.
Who is she, and why are we allowed to see her at this vulnerable moment? Short answer: she is an important heroine of Greek mythology and our glance of her asleep puts us - for an instant - in the shoes of a major Greek god.
On display in the Vatican Museums in Rome, she is a second-century AD Roman-era copy of a Greek sculpture from four or five centuries before, the second or third century BC. The original is lost, and may have been of marble or bronze. Scholars say that it was the work of the school of sculptors in the kingdom of Pergamon in Mysia (which is now in western Turkey), but none of that is certain. There are several versions of this figure in various museums (including superb ones at St Petersburg and in Florence), so the idea that they derive from a lost original is quite convincing, but we cannot really be sure what that original might have been. The copy, probably discovered in or near Rome around 1500, is made of marble from Paros in the Cyclades, a fine material that was widely exported across the Roman Empire.
Let there be no doubt: the views that informed ancient Greek and Roman sculptors do belong to their own eras and might in some ways be objectionable nowadays. From a modern point of view, this image of a girl, vulnerable, asleep and partly exposed, has an air of voyeurism, even of objectification about it. Most of us would not like to be seen like this. That said, the ancient viewer would immediately recognise this figure and associate her with a story. It's worth noting, by the way, that female nudity is absent in Greek sculpture before the fourth century BC, and even after that it is largely limited to the goddess Aphrodite, whose domains include female beauty and eroticism. Our statue is not one of Aphrodite, but likewise refers to notions of female beauty and male desire.
So, who is this Sleeping Beauty?
It's Ariadne. She is one of the more interesting female characters in Greek myth. Too many girls in that set of tales are just the lust-interest of one god (usually Zeus) or another, making convenient mothers to so many demi-gods. Ariadne is a bit different. She is the daughter of the Cretan king Minos. As her father receives an annual tribute of Athenian boys and girls to be fed to his wife's bastard son, the half-bull, half-human Minotaur, she falls in love with the Athenian champion and prince, Theseus. She takes the initiative, helping Thesus overcome her monstrous half-brother, by giving him the string that will help him escape the labyrinth after slaying the monster.
Theseus, having promised to marry her, takes Ariadne with him on his journey back to Athens. They stop in Naxos for rest and supplies. Ariadne goes ashore to stretch her legs and somehow ends up asleep. There are essentially two versions of what happens next. Some say that Theseus desperately searches for her, is divinely prevented from finding her and eventually leaves. Others claim that he abandons her deliberately, leaving her to search around Naxos in increasing despair, until, exhausted, she falls asleep. Choosing between those versions makes a big difference to what you might think of Theseus, one of the founder heroes of Athens.
Ariadne's fate, however is sealed. She's alone and asleep on Naxos - but not for long. She is found, just as we see her in that sculpture, by Dionysos (his Roman name is Bacchus), the god of wine, who was born on the island and frequently visits it. He sees Ariadne and falls in love instantly, so he wakes her and marries her in an exuberant celebration. As she is a mortal, she eventually dies, but Dionysos takes her from the Underworld, grants her immortality and brings her to Mount Olympus to be his spouse for eternity.
Quite a turn of events: following the desperation of her lonely abandonment, she becomes essentially a deity in her own right, partner to Dionysos, who is also the god of ecstasy, of celebration and, to be clear, of sex as an enjoyable activity. Ariadne is to be the mother of many of his children. Her wedding crown is placed permanently in the night sky, as the constellation corona borealis (the Northern Crown).
The Vatican statue shows her at that key moment, after Theseus has gone and before Dionysos wakes her, vulnerable and alluring, but also tense and strong. It puts us, the viewers, in the position of Dionysos discovering her, a moment of change for her, but also for him and thus for the world, as seen through the lense of myth. The observation of a specific, personal, moment, as well as the play of perspective, putting us in the position of Dionysos or his retinue, make the Vatican Ariadne a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture.
You can see the statue itself in the Vatican Museums on our Exploring Rome tour, and depictions of Dionysos and Ariadne as the divine couple, a popular motif in art ever since, crop up on many of our tours and cruises of the ancient world.
Moreover, you can also visit some places directly associated with the myth: Ariadne's 'home' at the Palace of Knossos on Exploring Crete, Theseus' city on our tour of Athens, and of course the place where Ariadne's fateful slumber took place, alluring Naxos, on Cruising to the Cyclades. In each case, you're sure to discover many more stories like the one of Ariadne...