Theseus and Ariadne

Name: Theseus and Ariadne
Location: Greece/Lowe Art Museum
Date: 2nd to 1st century BCE (330-31 BCE)
Material: Marble
Size: 10 x 11 1/8 x 7 in. (25.4 x 28.3 x 17.8 cm)

This work is a Hellenistic marble double-headed bust that portrays a helmeted, youthful male on one side and a female wearing a headband on the other.  The head that is presumably Ariadne’s has what looks like a crown, which is an indication of royalty, around wavy, pulled-back hair. The male on the bust is wearing a helmet, and Theseus is often shown bearing a helmet in many visual comparanda.

This bust (on the left) of Theseus depicts the hero wearing a helmet.

Although not all of the original features are easy to see on the double-headed bust, the most evident features are the lips and eyebrows, both of which are important in determining facial expression. However, both of the faces on the piece are mostly neutral and do not express much emotion. Both of the noses have suffered a degree of damage, and the left half of the male’s face seems to have been worn down by time. The heads are connected behind the ears, and the partial sculpture features a janiform bust, that is, two heads looking in opposite directions. This piece may have come from a herm, a sculpture with a head and shoulders set atop a square pillar that was often used as a boundary marker in Classical Greece, and as a decorative item of furniture in post-Classical times. Such herm may be indicated by the slight angular transition between the sides and the backs of the heads.

Theseus and Centaur: here Theseus can be seen wearing a helmet as well.

The identities of the characters depicted on the bust have yet to be confirmed, but unnamed scholars suggest that the heads are those of Theseus and Ariadne, characters in a Greek myth popular in that time period. Ariadne was a Cretan princess who fell in love with Theseus, a Greek hero who slayed the Cretan Minotaur, a half-bull and half-man monster. The Cretan Minotaur lived in the Labyrinth, and Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread so that he could find his way through the maze. Ariadne is shown wearing a crown over her wavy, pulled-back hair in a number of visual comparanda (as shown below), which may explain why scholars believe that the identity of the female on the bust may be Ariadne. This bust of Ariadne (on the right) depicts the royal wearing a headband around wavy, pulled-back hair.

In addition to already being of royal blood, Ariadne marries Dionysus, who gave her the corona borealis, a crown to immortalize her.  Since janiform heads denote complementarity, it would only make sense for the identity of the male character to be that of either Theseus or, less possibly, Dionysus [really unlikely with the helmet]. One may speculate that the identity of the male figure is that of Dionysus because Ariadne is his wife, so the complementarity in the bust would be that of husband and wife. However, Dionysus is generally not shown wearing a helmet in other works of art. Since Ariadne helped Theseus find his way through the Labyrinth, the relationship demonstrated by this sculpture would be that of helper and hero. Evidence that lends support to this assumption is that Theseus is commonly depicted wearing a helmet. Neoclassical artists, for example, were convinced that Theseus would have worn a helmet, as seen in work by Canova, such as Theseus and Centaur. The difficulty with identifying these characters with certitude lies in that there are neither inscriptions on the bust nor distinctive symbols, so the aforementioned observations and explanations remain hypothetical.

Herms being used decoratively in gardens.

It is suggested that this double-headed bust was possibly part of a herm. Herms originated as sculptures of human bodies, showing no body parts aside from heads and sometimes genitalia. They were commonly found in entrances to places such as temples and homes, beside doorways, and they indicated territorial boundaries. The usage of herms may lend insight into the etymology of the word. The most common head found on herms is that of Hermes, the god of travelers, trade, commerce, and roads as well as the messenger of the gods. The Herm of Hermes (see below) in the J. Paul Getty Museum (second half of the 1st c. A.D., Getty Villa, 79.AA.132) is an example of one of these herms.

The Greeks placed herms on roads in order to ward off evil and, according to the Greek traveler Pausanias, used them to venerate their gods. They were used as grave markers as well. Later on, the Romans appropriated herms and used them as decorations in the gardens of villas.

There is some evidence presented by Hetty Goldman in “The Origin of the Greek Herm” that suggests that herms were additionally used as important figures in Dionysian marriages, which were practiced by the cult of Dionysus. Although this bust most likely does not portray Dionysus, it is interesting to think about the use of the herm in this way, especially when accounting for the fact that Ariadne, one of the supposed subjects, is Dionysus’s wife.

An example of a janiform bust portraying young and old Janus

Janiform heads come from the Roman god Janus, the guardian of gates, passages, and doors. When Janus himself is portrayed, one head represents him looking into the future and the other into the past, one looking forward and the other behind, respectively. The significance of the janiform style is the portrayal of opposite as well as complementary concepts or figures. Within Greek and Roman art, herms can represent a variety of complementary relationships, such as old and young, divine and mortal, god and follower, male and female, and husband and wife. There is a double-headed herm consisting of Herodotus and Thucydides, who at first are not strict opposites, but were both historians referred to as the “Father of History.” Janiform heads could consists of Dionysus and a Maenad, one of his followers. Another common type portrays young and old Janus, who looks different ways and into different times.

The coin below portrays a janiform head of Zeus and Hera, who are the married couple on Olympus, on one side. All of these examples make it easy to contextualize this double-headed bust as being Theseus and Ariadne, being portrayed as hero and helper and even possibly placed opposite as lovers.  Moreover, the janiform style stresses the symmetry in this bust, and symmetry was of aesthetic importance to the Greeks.

More Comparative Images:

Description of Interactive Activity

The janiform bust will be bisected in the middle in order to separate the object into two distinct faces. Once split, there will be a flat side on each of the halves. On the flat side of the Ariadne half, there will be a stylus-like device with a spherical tip to represent the ball of thread that Ariadne gave to Theseus to help him get through the maze. Viewers will use this device to get through the maze that will be carved on the flat side of the Theseus half. There will be different colored pins throughout the maze, almost like adding annotations in a physical fashion, and an informative note on the Ariadne half containing segments of information (e.g., the blue pin will match the blue note) about the Theseus and Ariadne myth.

The janiform bust embodies complementarity, and this activity will emphasize the complementarity of the characters depicted on the bust. Viewers will have to use the device on Ariadne’s side to get through the maze on Theseus’s, much like Theseus had to use the ball of thread that Ariadne gave him to find his way through the Labyrinth. While finding their way through the maze, viewers will have the opportunity to learn about the myth. Thread unwinds, and the colored pins will represent the unwinding of the story while revealing facts about this work of art.


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