Looking around the web for more information about the Villa of the mysteries, last summer I stumbled on an e-book, “The False - Door: Dissolution and Becoming in Roman Wall-painting” by Maurice Owen. Which turned out to be quite refreshing after all the “isn’t Roman art so decadent!” and “The Romans just copied the Greeks!” I’d been reading - especially when talking about these frescos.
First he talks about the British Victorian filters we often use to understand Roman art. The Victorians mostly critiqued the frescos at Pompeii by comparing how they compared technically to later painting (badly) or how sexually suggestive they were (quite a bit). And usually, the subjects of the frescos were taken to be depictions of everyday life in Roman society. When Hollywood got hold of the myth of Roman culture, the distortions got even more exaggerated. Obviously, Vesuvius just had to wipe out those nasty Romans!
Owen takes a different approach when examining the frescos in Pompeii. He looks at the various images and found a great many that depict false tomb doors. Probably copied from Egyptian and Etruscan practices, and used in Roman tombs, these false doors represent the threshold between the worlds of the living and the dead. Ancestors and gods used them to enter and exit daily living. Often painted as the gateway to an enclosed garden (the Elysian Fields), the spirit world was always just the other side of the wall. In a cubiculum (bedroom) in the Villa of the Mysteries, there is a closed false door on one side of the room, and on the other side one that’s open. Separated yet brought closer by the frescos, ancestors and gods hovered nearby, participants in everyone’s daily routine.
The whole house was a sanctuary that kept the spirit world profoundly close.