Montovolo Retreat 9

The Tomb of the Bulls and its Religious Symbols:

The Oval Stone and the Cross

By Graziano Baccolini

Now, I report a new interpretation about the frescos of this Tomb which is in accord with my precedent search about Montovolo that has shown that this place was a probable Navel of the Etruscan World and, above all that the Oval stone and the Cross were important religious symbols for the Etruscans deriving from an archaic mesopotamic or anatolic civilisation !

(Versione in Italiano)

This Tomb, dated 2nd half of the 6th century BC and discovered in 1892, is one of the most well
known monuments of the whole Etruria. It is reported in many texts and several web sites also reproducing the famous frescos that are still well preserved and that have tickled the curiosity of all for some erotic images.

Its charm also derives from the mystery that surrounds it because the meaning of some of the symbolism is not entirely clear. Many people have tried to give an interpretation to the reproduced images, but I think that a true symbolic meaning has not been given to the whole scene.

Especially in the archaic phase, the Etruscan religion was full of symbols what have to be rediscover indeed their literary sources, where probably they were explained, have been deliberately destroyed in the first centuries of Christianity.

With big charm D.H Lawrence in Etruscan Places has described this Tomb realising that behind the images there were very profound and unknown symbolic meanings.

I quote part of the description of Lawrence:

(Ö)It is called the Tomb of the Bulls from the two bulls above the doorways of the end wall, one a man-faced bull charging at the 'po' di pornografico', the other lying down serenely and looking with mysterious eyes into the room, his back turned calmly to the second bit of a picture which the guide says is not 'pornografico'-because it is a woman." Everything in this tomb suggests the old East: Cyprus, or the Hittites, or the culture of Minos of Crete. Between the doorways of the end wall is a charming painting of a naked horseman with a spear, on a naked horse, moving towards a charming little palm tree and a well-head or fountain-head, on which repose two sculptured, black-faced beasts, lions with queer black faces. From the mouth of the one near the palm tree water pours down into a sort of altar-bowl, while on the far side a warrior advances, wearing a bronze helmet and shin-greaves, and apparently menacing the horseman with a sword which he brandishes in his left hand, as he steps up on to the base of the well-head. Both warrior and horseman wear the long, pointed boots of the East: and the palm tree is not very Italian. This picture has a curious charm, and is evidently symbolical. I said to the German: `What do you think it means?' `Ach, nothing! The man on the horse has come to the drinking-trough to water his horse: no more!' `And the man with the sword?' `Oh, he is perhaps his enemy.' `And the black-faced lions?' `Ach, nothing!! Decorations of the fountain.' Below the picture are trees on which hang a garland and neck-band.

The border pattern, instead of the egg and dart, has the sign of Venus, so called, between the darts: a ball surmounted by a little cross. `"And that, is that a symbol?' I asked the German. `Here no!' he replied abruptly. `Merely a decoration!' - which is perhaps true. But that the Etruscan artist had no more feeling for it, as a symbol, than a modern house-decorator would have, that we cannot believe.

I gave up for the moment. (Ö)In the shallow angle of the roof the heraldic beasts are curious. The squat centre-piece, the so-called altar has four rams' heads at the corners. On the right a pale bodied man with a dark face is galloping up with loose rein, on a black horse, followed by a galloping bull.

On the left is a bigger figure, a queer galloping lions with his tongue out.(Ö) The strange potency and beauty of these Etruscan things arise, it seem to me, from the profundity of the symbolic meaning the artist was more or less aware off.

(From DH. Lawrence, Etruscan Places , Penguin Books, pag 99- 102,1950)

Generally in other texts or Web pages it is reported that the frescos on this tomb are characterised by erotic scenes and fertility symbols (the spheres with the cross !!!) which are often considered as a simple ornamental motive or decoration. The panel on the left depicts a heterosexual scene involving three persons, whereas the scene on the right depicts a homosexual scene. Some authors attribute a disapproval of homosexuality to the aggressive pose of the bull of right while the calm position of the bull on the left damages an approval of heterosexuality.

Between the doors leading into the two cells, there is the scene representing the tale of Achilles (on the left) ambush against Troilus (on the horse) from Greek Mythology. Olive trees at different stages of growth are shown on the panel below the main scene. To the right and left of the wall are two olive trees: the one on the right has full leaves and the one on the left is barren, symbolising life after death.

I will now try to give a different interpretation, which might clarify the meaning of some reproduced symbols which might give a most realistic sense to the whole scene without resorting to psychoanalytic reasonings. We think that in the 6th cent. BC every Etruscan person who entered this Tomb had to understand the meaning of these scenes immediately.

First, I think that the sphere surmounted with a cross are neither ornamental motives or symbols of fertility nor the so-called sign of Venus, rather they represent the symbol of the omphalos, the Oval or almost spherical stone with engraved on the point, sometimes, a cross, as I have found in the Museum of Marzabotto. These omphalos were also put on the tomb like their religious symbol of rebirth indicating the primordial Egg and the cross indicated the the Divinity. Also the cross in the doors, found in the necropolises, was used to indicate the door for the afterlife. This omphalos with the cross were also buried during the Etruscan city foundation rite which was adopted subsequently by the Romans. In fact, a stone with the cross was found buried in the centre of the Etruscan city of Marzabotto: the cardo and the decumanus, crossing at this omphalos .

Then, in the tomb fresco the two line of spheres with the cross would represent the two boundaries of two worlds: the spheres with the cross turned up is the borderline of the world of living, while the line with the cross turned down marks the borderline of the underworld. In the mural fresco the boundary between the terrestrial world and the celestial world is marked by the same number of coloured lines. However, here we don't have the small spheres surmounted with the cross. If they were simple ornamental motives they should have been here. On the contrary, there is no need for them to be here if they represent the omphalos stones as I supposed. Now, the vision of all the fresco is very clear. It is a representation of the three worlds. In that celestial we see the pedestal or altar that supports all the sky with the ramís heads probably indicating the Era of the Aries in which the Etruschans lived. It should be noted that such ramís heads are observed in many Etruscan pedestals that support Oval stones as the two exposed in the Museum of Marzabotto or in the one of Bologna. Regarding the winged fantastic animals, either they symbolize cosmic changing or they are symbols of an ancient religion that was already forgotten and that the artist used freely now without knowing more its original meaning. The median part of the fresco represents the terrestrial world of Etruscans. They are not conditioned, as we are now, by false Christian morality, consequently they see sexual exhibitions as the best possible representation of terrestrial life .The figures of the two bulls or, more probable, of the bull and his calm female might represent as well life on earth.

The scene of the inferior part represents the underworld where the soul generally is represented coming on a horse without saddle. In this case, it might be the soul of Troilo who undergoes the trap by Achille. The other symbols like the tree of life that is tied from a scarf to the tree of death, are a clear confirmation that this is the underworld.

Concluding, I think that now the whole scenography of this Tomb is more comprehensible and my interpretation might be similar to that of Etruscan people of 6th cent. BC who still recognised easily the symbols of the oval stone and the cross as proven by numerous oval stones found in several Etruscan Museums, till now underestimated.




The above frescos are from the Tomb of the Bulls (Tombe dei Tori) in Tarquinia.


These and other images are reported in this site: