The Significance of Tholoi and Naiskoi

As Picard observed, Roman false-door wall-painting was a generic concept and as such did not necessarily require the presence of a door. Just as germane to its realisation was the depiction of a barrier motif beyond which stood a shrine or commemorative object, such as a tholos, or a pedestal column topped by a statue or urn. The tholos type of composition is epitomised by wall-paintings in the oecus corinthius in Casa del Labirinto, discussed previously in relation to paradise gardens and the House as Sanctuary (fig.1). The mirrored compositions on the lateral walls of this room exemplify the classic juxtaposition of barrier motifs associated with the concept of the false-door, without actually representing a door. They depict bricked up or closed entrances beyond which stand funereal or commemorative tholoi. Picard associated this image with “the tomb of the heroized ancestor-protector of the family.” (Picard 1970:97) An association that is supported by the imagines clipeatae (ancestor face shields) that hang between the columns of the tholos, which is further reinforced by motifs such as the ivy on the columns indicating the presence of Dionysus, and the crown of Zeus in the centre of the tholos. Ancestral apotheosis is further signified by the open winged eagle of Zeus perched above the crown, most likely symbolising its flight into eternity.

Bedroom M in Villa di Publius Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale also contains two examples of the tholoi type of false-door sanctuary (fig.2-3). Both are situated on the end lateral walls and mirror each other except for small details. These paintings and the similarly mirrored compositions in Casa del Labirinto are typical of those that allow the viewer to see into the sanctuary, whilst also depicting motifs such as gates and spiked walls barring the viewer's entrance. They are reminiscent of the ancient Greek writer Pausanias’s cautionary tales concerning sanctuaries that you can look into but must never enter or death will soon follow. He further removes that which is seen within the temenos (walled sanctuary or sacred space) from any earthly associations, by telling us that the things within it cast no shadows. Thus implying that it is a space no longer governed by physical laws. (For more on Pausanias’s observations on restricted entry to sanctuaries see Jas Elsner Art and the Roman Viewer 1995: 345). In the pictorial sanctuaries the space beyond is not devoid of shadows but nevertheless evokes an ethereal presence. Picard noted that in this ethereal world, “….“beyond the wall”: one finds, too, a “dissolution of form” and a use of almost surrealistic colours,…” (Picard1970: 56).

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1 Casa del Labirinto – oecus corinthius, wall-painting depicting a tholos with imagines clipeatae (commemorative ancestor shields) located between the columns and the crown and shield of Zeus hanging in the centre (signifying apotheosis). Dionysic rebirth is also signified by the vine or ivy growing around the columns of the tholos