Wining and Dining at WAM; Understanding Symbolism in Art.

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 15th and 16th centuries.

During the Renaissance, particularly during the Baroque period,

banquet scenes were very popular because they were a sign of prosperity.

In most places during this time drinking wine was safer than drinking


"So many of the Italian scenes feature banquets and

celebrations where the wine is flowing. It was part of the culture. The

Etruscans were party animals!'' Doucette explains.

There was a social distinction between the drinking classes,


"In places where wine was scarce or had to be imported, the

poor man's drink was beer,'' Doucette says. "If you

were poor and you drank, it was considered degrading. However, if you

could afford a luxury beverage such as wine you were considered


To have wine, one would have to have wealth and most likely power

and high standing in society. Wine became the luxury beverage of the

wealthy rather than the drink of everyman.

Were they serving what we might consider to be fine wine?

"You can tell by the tone of the scene,'' Doucette

says. "A very rustic scene would display a very rustic container,

which most likely would contain very rustic wine or maybe beer. In a

much more elegant scene you see much more elegant containers and

glassware where luxurious fine wines would be served.

"What you can really tell from these paintings is the social

condition. Wealthy people who were drinking were admired for their

luxury. Poor people were depicted as brutes, almost less than human.

However, after a few drinks both the poor man and the wealthy man are

under the table. Under the table, we are all equal,'' she


The paintings of the poor people would hang in the homes of the

wealthy Burghers. "They wanted ... to remind themselves how much

more cultured and sophisticated they were,'' says Doucette.

Yet, even though these paintings of impoverished villagers were popular,

many Dutch artists became very well known for their paintings of

feasting and banqueting.

Doucette says that these paintings became prevalent in the 16th

century when French and Italian wines were flowing through the Dutch

ports. These scenes would "show all of the bounty that a well-to-do

Flemish household would display during the 1560s. The Flemish were very

of proud of themselves for their agrarian and mercantile success. ...

These signs of prosperity were a mark that God has favored


In "The Banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra,'' painted

by Dutch artist Jan Steen in 1675, the wine is flowing and is the focal

point of an elegant feast. "It's a celebration of wealth and

good taste,'' Doucette notes.

Cleopatra appears to be under the influence as she slides down into

her chair with her wine glass perilously slipping from her dainty

fingertips. "Cleopatra tried to impress Anthony with her wealth by

dissolving a priceless pearl in a cup of vinegar and drinking the

content. No wine there after all, but a pretty expensive and unappealing

cocktail,'' she says.

Drinking to impress. Does this make Cleopatra the first wine snob?

Exotic food and wine represented luxury, but also pleasure. It was

sexy! Doucette points out Flemish painter Joris van Son's

"Still Life'' painted in 1658. "The painting depicts

not only the necessities of life, represented by a loaf of bread, but

also the niceties of life, which are embodied by figs, peaches,

pomegranate, oysters and wine.'' All of these products

represent not only prosperity, but life, sensuality, reproduction and

fertility. They are an invitation to the pleasure of the senses and

pleasure itself.

Wine is the prelude to love in Jacob Jordaens' "Bacchus

and Venus.'' In this painting, the power of life and love is

enhanced by wine. "Sine Baccho friget Venus (Without Bacchus, Venus

grows cold).''

It's a symbol that has carried over into the modern art era.

Contemporary Art

I highly recommend that before the current Wall at WAM is replaced,

you go into the museum through the Lancaster Street entrance and proceed

to the Renaissance Court on the Salisbury Street side of the museum. You

will most likely be swallowed up by the current installation,

"These Days of Maiuma'' by Robert and Shana


The wall displays an elaborate and provocative depiction of life,

celebration, bounty, pleasure, gluttony and waste, all of which show a

parallel between contemporary and ancient desires.

Susan Stoops explains, "Humans are humans, whether it's

6th century Antioch or it's the 21st century America.''

The image captures many of the aforementioned historical symbols of

food and wine in one stunning photograph. Stoops poses the question:

"How prominent is the wine in this image? It is and it isn't.

The primary importance in the image is the relationship with the mosaic

("The Hunt'') on the floor of the Renaissance Court. The

artists' vision was to bring the feast back to the floor, which (in

6th century Antioch) was the floor of many a feast and feasts of great

excess. All of the products on the table are Mediterranean: the wine,

the roses, the fruit, the stag, all would have been found in 6th century


According to the supporting text provided by the museum,

"Maiuma was a religious festival. In Antioch, it lasted between

five and 30 days. The observance evolved into such a corrupt and

decadent display of all forms of excess that it was periodically

outlawed or tempered. This festival of excess seems aligned with the

excesses visible in the mosaic and the lifestyles of ancient


"This religious festival evolved into an orgy,''

Stoops says. "This image shows the aftermath, although the scene is

still very active.'' Because the figures are still in motion,

"we haven't seen the end of it. The glasses are tipped over

and frame the outer edge of the piece. Yet, the wine hasn't

spilled, and the glasses haven't broken. There are also lines of

cocaine that have yet to be touched. The revelers are just resting, and

soon they will be ready to party again.''

"Wine has so many different facets it's a mystical

beverage from the very beginning,'' Stoops says. "If you

go back to the Dionysus, he was the god of wine, the god of pleasure,

and the god of madness. He could cause you to go crazy if you violated

him in some way. So there is a fine line between life and death and

madness and joy. Wine really signifies that. Wine has been loved and

feared throughout generations.''

Food and wine are perishable products, as are we. One of the most

powerful food and wine paintings at WAM is "Banquet Sill

Life'' (1655) by Dutch painter Abraham van Beyeren.

In contrast to the vibrant color of the fruit in von Son's

sexy "Still life'' the colors here are more muted and the

light is very dim.

Doucette explains, "The neutrality of the light conveys a

feeling of end of season or end of days.'' There is a large

volume of food and wine on this banquet table, but the most important

detail might be overlooked by a "know nothing'' like

myself. On the far right corner of the painting is a watch.

"This is an important symbol,'' says Doucette.

"The message is 'memento mori' or 'remember

death.' Remember death, and don't waste your time! You might

think that the Dutch were trying to offer you a moral lesson, but they

were really saying 'look what life has to offer! Enjoy this bounty

now. Don't let it pass you by.' ''

Doucette sums up the lessons garnered in the food and wine scenes

depicted throughout the ages "Life is too short to drink bad

wine!'' Nunc est bibendum (Now is time for a drink.)

Stacy Woods, a certified wine educator, is an instructor at Boston

University's Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center.

Wining and Dining at WAM; Understanding Symbolism in Art. 1

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