Pair of Busts of Silenus

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Roman

Pair of Busts of Silenus, 1st century B.C./1st century A.D.

Bronze, silver and copper
1: 17.8 x 14.6 x 8.6 cm (7 x 5 3/4 x 3 3/8 in.); 2: 18.7 x 16.2 x 8.9 cm (7 3/8 x 6 3/8 x 4 1/2 in.)
Katherine K. Adler Memorial Fund, 1997.554.1-2

The Greek imagination was populated with a number of strange creatures. When their thoughts turned to wine, Greeks pictured mischievous young satyrs, the half-human, half-horse creatures who frolicked, danced, and chased hapless maenads. Satyrs symbolized the suppressed hedonistic desires of mankind, which were unleashed by the intoxicating elixir of the wine god Dionysos. These creatures are mature satyrs, or silenoi, and they once decorated the sides of the curved headboard of an elaborate couch used by diners at the lavish banquets that were popular pastimes for privileged members of society. Because wine was served at these festive events, creatures from Dionysos’s entourage were popular subjects for such furniture attachments.

The craftsmanship of this pair of attachments is superb. Each is made of two pieces that were cast separately and fastened together. The right arm of the left silenos is lost, but the right silenos retains his separately made left arm. It and the wineskin slung over the corresponding shoulder were molded as one piece. The sclerae, or whites of their eyes, are silver, as are their teeth; furthermore, their lips were once inlaid with copper. Their furrowed brows and slightly parted lips suggest that something troubles them.

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2013, p. 71.


These part-human, part-goat silenoi (sing. silenus) represented the hedonistic desires of mankind released by the magical elixir of the wine god Dionysos. Each figure is made of two pieces that were cast separately and fastened together. The whites of their eyes and their teeth are silver. Further, their lips were once inlaid with copper. With these additions, the silenoi took on a very lifelike appearance. Only short, thin struts of metal anchor the lush wreaths that encircle their heads. These magnificent silenoi once decorated the sides of the curved headboard of an elaborate couch used by diners at the lavish banquets that were popular pastimes for members of high society.

— Permanent collection label

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

The Art Institute of Chicago, Ancient Art Galleries, Gallery 156, 1998 - July 11, 2009 and September 20, 2009- February 2012.

A Case for Wine: From King Tut to Today
July 11 – September 20, 2009. Regenstein Hall, The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago, Of Gods and Glamour: The Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, Gallery 151, November 11, 2012 - present.

Publication History

Treasures from the Art Institute of Chicago. (Chicago, 2000) AIC, p. 73, ill.

Art Institute of Chicago Annual Report, 1997-8, p. 12

Alexander, Karen B. 2012. "From Plaster to Stone: Ancient Art at the Art Institute of Chicago." in Recasting the Past: Collecting and Presenting Antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago, by Karen Manchester, p. 33, 39. Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press.

Manchester, Karen. 2012. Recasting the Past: Collecting and Presenting Antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago, pp.76-77(cat.15), 112. Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press.