This tripod leg belongs to a small number of Roman folding tripods that are distinguished by a striking decorative feature – a loop handle surmounted by a panther’s head on a long, arching neck. This is a particularly finely wrought and highly detailed example; the shaft is composed of a bead-and-reel design, accented at the top by a flat panel containing a six-petalled rosette. The central decorative element from which the panther protrudes is embellished with incised scrolling vines, dots, rosettes, and other motifs, below which is a feline paw. The panther’s tufty and patterned fur is delineated by incised dots and swirls, and its expression, with wide open eyes, mouth agape and lolling tongue, is suggestive of intoxication or ecstasy.
Bronze tripods have their origins in the Greek world in the Orientalizing and Geometric periods, when they were used as braziers and as stands for cauldrons and other vessels, as well as ornaments, trophies, and sacrificial altars. In his Iliad and Odyssey, Homer describes how tripods are given as gifts of exchange between host and guest, or as prizes to the victors in athletic games. As the traditional seat of Apollo’s priestess, the Pythia, at the Delphic Oracle, tripods also had an inherent connection with the divine and the world of supernatural ritual.
The tripod’s popularity continued well into the Roman period, particularly because of its portability. That the Romans had developed a collapsible variety indicates that it was intended to be carried over distances and set up as a temporary device, probably for offering incense at festivals when the participants were on the move. A patera, or shallow silver bowl would be placed on top of the tripod, and an offering of incense to the gods burnt over fire. The iconography on the present tripod leg points strongly to an association with the god of wine and revelry, Bacchus. Not only was the panther his sacred animal, but the incised vines are a direct allusion to his art. Furthermore, complete examples of this tripod type are often decorated with heads of the god himself or his followers. It is possible, then, that this particular variety of tripod was used as a portable sacrificial altar, carried by the initiates of the enigmatic Roman Bacchic mysteries.
For a complete example of a folding tripod with panther legs and Bacchus-head protomes, see the British Museum, inv. no. 1774,0603.1.a.
French Private Collection, 1980s-2009.
Private Collection, UK, 2010.
Published: Christie's, Antiquities, New York, 3 June 2009, lot 198.