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Cista with Satyr Mask, heterogeneous fragments arbitrarily assembled in modern times

Roman art

This sculpture, a composition combining heterogeneous fragments, was quite likely assembled around 1828 and placed near Leda and the Swan with Eros to make a pair with another, similar composition. Its elements are Dionysian: a satyr mask, a goat fleece and a cista mystica used in the sacred rituals held in the god’s honour. 

Object details

1st century A.D.
white marble
height 86 cm

Borghese Collection, recalled in the Nomenclatura of 1828 (Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, b. 348, fasc. 33: Moreno 1997, pp. 91, 112); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 44, no. 40. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902. 

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • ante 1828 - Reassembly of the components.
  • 1996-97 Consorzio Capitolino di Elisabetta Zatti ed Elisabetta Caracciolo


This composition is listed together with an analogous piece in the Nomenclatura degli oggetti di antica scultura of 1828 in Room 1, near Leda and the Swan with Cupid: ‘flanking it on either side, two fragments of decorations, one with a herm, the other with a cista mystica’ and further, ‘trapezophoron base; double herm with masks; cista mystica’ (Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, b. 348, fasc. 33: Moreno 1997, pp. 91–92, 112). This sculpture is made up of heterogeneous fragments assembled in modern times, quite likely when the room was redecorated. From the bottom up, it is composed of a round base adorned with a garland of acanthus leaves upon which is set the reproduction of a mound of rocks covered with a goat fleece supporting a wicker cista surmounted by a satyr mask. The structure culminates in a pinecone decorated with botanical elements resting on acanthus leaves. The mask is laying on the support facing upwards. The satyr’s face is depicted with its mouth open; framing the mouth are a long moustache and bushy beard, its curls partially concealing the lid of the cista. Adorned in a wreath of vine leaves, the hair falls in long unruly strands that reach down to cover the neck. Prominent, pointy ears emerge from the hair. The nose is small, the eyes and mouth hollow. The fragments seem to be connected by a common Dionysian theme mainly evoked by the figure of the satyr, by the goat fleece – a typical garment for those who participated in comastic processions – and by the cista mystica, a ritual object pertaining to the initiation liturgy for the cult of Dionysus. The decontextualization of the individual elements and their modern arrangement allow us to formulate only theories as to the original functions of the sculptures.  

The peculiar inclination of the mask and the emptiness of mouth and eyes suggest an apotropaic symbol that was commonly used to protect private homes from evil. A connection with theatre costumes is also plausible. A satyr mask with extremely noticeable animal features captured in a static pose similar to the Borghese piece is preserved in the Room of the Faun at the Musei Capitolini (inv. MC 716). 

The cista mystica appears in classical iconography linked to the myth of Erichthonius as recounted by Apollodorus. The story tells of how the daughters of Cecrops, entrusted with a cista by Athena with the absolute prohibition to look inside, had not been able to resist their curiosity and had opened the container, causing the manifestation of Erichthonius, the serpent son of Hephaestus and Athena (Apollodorus, The Library, 3.14.6). As for literary sources, the term κίστη referring to mystery rituals is present in a passage by Demosthenes in which, when speaking of Aeschines’s participation in the mysteries of Dionysus Sabazios, the author mentions the functions of the κιστοφόρος, ‘the cista carrier’ (Demosthenes, For Ctesiphon, On the Crown, 260). Finally, Claudio Eliano relates the myth according to which Dionysus, furious with the daughters of Minyas of Orchomenus who refused to acknowledge and follow his orgiastic cult, preferring to spend their time weaving and spinning, transformed the wool in their baskets into snakes and tangled their looms in ivy and vines. Overcome by Bacchic frenzy, the young women joined the Maenads in the mountains (Aelianus, Varia Historia, 3.42). As for the Borghese cista, comparisons of sculptures in the round may be found in a series of urns preserved in Aquileia dated to the Julius-Claudian age (Buora 1982, pp. 189–208) and in a number of fragments from the lid and the body of a woven wicker container found in one of the rooms of the Domus Tiberiana (Abbondanza 2019, pp. 91–107). 

Finally, the three iconographic subjects – mask, goat fleece and cista – are represented on the front of a sarcophagus depicting a Dionysian thiasos preserved at the Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano (inv. 1303: Matz 1968, II, pp. 180–182, no. 73, pl. 81). 

This ornamental sculpture calls to mind the so-called ‘chimeric’ compositions created by combining dissonant elements.  

The refined and detailed plastic rendering, evident mainly in the craftsmanship of the cista and in the features of the mask, dates the ancient fragments to the first century CE.

Giulia Ciccarello

  • Matz, Die dionysischen Sarkophagen, II, Berlin 1968.
  • P. Moreno, Museo e Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p. 12.
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Milano 1981, pp. 101-102.
  • M. Buora, Urne e pseudourne a cista aquileiesi, in “Aquileia Nostra”, 53, 1982.
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, pp. 148-149, n. 114B.
  • P. Moreno, L’antico nella stanza, in Venere Vincitrice, La sala di Paolina Bonaparte alla Galleria Borghese, a cura di C. Strinati, Roma 1997, pp.73-117, in particolare pp. 91-92, 112.
  • L. Abbondanza, Frammenti di una cista mystica in marmo dal Criptoportico della Domus Tiberiana, in “Neronia X”, Bordeaux 2019.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/99000037, G. Ciccarello 2020.