'It’s painting not as an object to hang on a wall, but the wall itself.'

The Seventh Scene, Villa dei Misterei (the Villa of Mysteries), about 50BC, 7ft by 7ft, Pompeii, Italy

Michael Hulls says:
This is painting as a 360° immersive, intoxicating theatrical experience, commemorating an arcane ritual of female initiation that we cannot fully understand and, as such, it sets my imagination racing to fill in the gaps. The pervasive, powerful eroticism of the inexplicit is matched by the sumptuous sensual colour scheme of the fleshy tones, yellowy golds and greens contrasted against the imperial purples and deep, rich Pompeiian reds. The transformational psychology of pain and pleasure is depicted in a dramatic unity of time, place and action. It’s painting not as an object to hang on a wall, but the wall itself.

Michael Hulls is an award-winning light designer for dance. ‘Maliphantworks,’ with choreographer Russell Maliphant, will be at the Coronet, Notting Hill Gate, London W11, February 28–March 11

John McEwen comments on The Seventh Scene:
In Greek mythology, Dionysus— also called Bacchus—represented the intoxicating power of nature. As the first cultivator of the vine, he was god of wine, giver of joy, disperser of sorrow and oracular healer.

Pompeii’s love of wine and bacchanals is indicated by the sanctuary built to Bacchus/Dionysus in the 3rd century bc. In 186bc, the Roman Senate tried to extinguish the Bacchus cult, with its Greek origins and orgiastic associations, but the persecution seems not to have reached Pompeii.

The Villa of Mysteries, a lavishly appointed country house and probably working farm, was about a quarter of a mile north of Pompeii. The town and neighbouring Herculaneum were buried by the fallout after the erupt- ion of Mount Vesuvius, five miles away, in AD79. Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, the villa in 1909. It covered about 40,000sq ft and had at least 60 rooms.

The owner’s business was probably wine. This is particularly suggested by the mysterious megalographia (pictorial cycle of life-sized figures), unique in Pompeii, which decorated the supposed dining room, hence the Villa of ‘Mysteries’. There are 10 scenes, thought sequentially to show the initiation of a woman/bride into the cult of Dionysus, the principal figure in scene six. Scene seven shows the rite’s completion.

The kneeling initiate has been whipped and is consoled by Bacchantes (maenads in ancient Greece), female followers of Bacchus/Dionysus. One holds a thyrsus, a ceremonial presentation stick tipped with a pinecone. The dancer ecstatically clashes cymbals. The fresco has been extensively restored, but remains ‘a stunning example of “saturation viewing”’ (Mary Beard).