Wine was everywhere in ancient Mediterranean cultures. In fact, before modern purification techniques, it was often safer to drink fermented beverages like wine than it was to drink water. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
So it’s no surprise that the ancient Greeks knew how to drink wine. Groups of Greek men would gather daily to partake of the grape and discuss current events and philosophy. During these drinking rituals, they would honor Dionysos, the Greek god of both wine and theater. In fact, Dionysos was literally on everyone’s lips: the god was featured on elaborately painted wine mixing jars and drinking cups.
So before you pick up your own wine glass at the Chicago Food + Wine Festival, the Art Institute wanted to introduce you to a few ancient drinking glasses—and just a little art history—to get you in a wine-drinking mood.
Dionysos was often portrayed riding a donkey, which accounts for the shape and form of this rhyton, or drinking vessel. Cups like these were designed for maximum intoxication; the drinker had to down the entire contents of the cup before he could even set it down.
This bowl honors Dionysos in his dual role of the god of both wine and theater. When the drinker raises the bowl to his lips, it turns into a mask; the handles become ears, the bottom turns into a mouth, and round, wide eyes stare back at the viewer. It is thought that these eyes might represent the all-seeing gaze of Dionysos, who would watch over the drinker as he became intoxicated.
As you enjoy the festival next weekend, say a quick toast to Dionysos. And if you’re interested in learning more, head to the Art Institute for Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints.
Attributed to Douris (painter). Rhyton (Drinking Vessel) in the Shape of a Donkey Head, c. 460 B.C. The Art Institute of Chicago. Museum Purchase Fund.
Attributed to the Workshop of Nikosthenes. Kylix (Drinking Cup), c. 530–520 B.C. Anonymous loan.