Material and immaterial religion in Pompeian painting

Nathaniel B. Jones (Washington University in St Louis)


Painting was an essential part of the material religion of Pompeii. Executed in a broad range of styles and across the chronological span of the city’s life, Pompeian frescoes both depicted religious activities and decorated religious spaces, ranging from grand public temple structures to intimate household shrines. More than merely documenting a strikingly broad array of religious practices, paintings in Pompeii also deliberately played on their dual status as both powerful attestations of the divine and works of human ingenuity and craft. This essay focuses on one way in which this apparent paradox was explored: the depiction of religious artworks, especially statues and panel paintings, within Pompeian murals. It argues that such paintings simultaneously erect and blur boundaries between the sacred and the profane, the mythological and the everyday, and the real and the represented. In so doing, they expose both the affective and aesthetic power of ancient painting itself.

Keywords: Pompeii, religion, fresco, votive, metafiction, epiphany, Dionysus, epigram

Full text: OAJ_ISSUE_10_3_Nathaniel B. Jones_final (PDF 1.4MB).


Biographical note 
Nathaniel Jones is Associate Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published on Greek and Roman painting, ancient collecting practices, the development of Greco-Roman art-historical thought, and the reception of the Classical world in Early Modern Europe.