Wining and dining at WAM; Understanding symbolism in art.

Author:Woods, Stacy

Byline: Stacy Woods

Wine consumers often lament that they do not know much about wine outside of knowing that they like it.

I feel the same about art appreciation. I love spending time browsing and admiring the works of art hanging on the walls of a museum or in someone's home, but readily admit that I have no idea how to assess a given piece.

In a way, wine appreciation resembles art appreciation. Is it high quality for the genre? Why is it prized or famous? What makes it special? What is the artist trying to convey by painting a particular scene such as a banquet or food and wine?

It takes knowledge of history and sociology to truly understand the intention of the artist. Antonella Doucette, a trustee emerita and docent at the Worcester Art Museum, and Susan Stoops, curator of Contemporary Art at the museum, go beyond the canvas to explain the symbolism and history of food and wine scenes found in the art world.

Ancient Art

Whether depicted separately or together, food and wine have been popular subjects since ancient times. The Worcester Art Museum owns many pieces that feature scenes involving the two.

Ancient painters usually depicted mythical stories. A good example is the museum's Greek amphora, a vessel dating back to 500 B.C, attributed to the Rycroft Painter. It displays a scene of Dionysus, the god of wine, being carried by a chariot. The figures depicted could be identified by symbols. Dionysus is identified by a crown of vine leaves and his drinking cup.

The amphora would have been used as a container for wine. During the 1930s the art museum and other institutions excavated Antioch (present day Antakya in southeastern Turkey) which was devastated by an earthquake in A.D. 526. There, they unearthed and then acquired some of their greatest treasures.

The mosaic "The Drinking Contest of Dionysus and Heracles,'' A.D. 100, is owned by the museum and depicts Dionysus with his crown of vine leaves. His cup is empty and Heracles is challenging him to another round.

Middle Ages

In wine-producing countries such as France, Greece, Italy and Spain, grapes could be grown far and wide. Wine was an abundant beverage found on the tables of peasant, farmer and merchant alike and therefore was featured prominently in scenes of everyday life, particularly in the Middle Ages. Some of the most famous paintings in the world feature wine in some way, shape or form.

The most obvious examples are the biblical depictions painted by Italian artists in...

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