Dionysus’ female companions, the maenads and bacchantes, left their homes in a mystical frenzy of wild worship, dressed in animal skins, adorned with wreaths and carrying knives and snakes, wandering through forests and gorges, cavorting wildly by torchlight. They knew no human fear, possessing a fierce irrational power which they used, at the peak of their ecstasy, to uproot whole trees and tear to pieces captured animals and even children and devour the bloody flesh.
“That Classical mythological material is the main means of expression for such a pronounced material storyteller, and not just an external form of narration, is self-evident,” wrote Fran Šijanec on the occasion of Ivan Zajec’s 80th anniversary, marked by an exhibition of his works (Fran Šijanec, Ivan Zajec, National Gallery, Ljubljana 1949, p. 18). The mythological motifs of satyrs and bacchantes fascinated Zajec throughout his career, from his academic sculpture Startled Satyr (1894) to the scores of small, relaxed and intimate terracotta sculptures from the 1920s.
Bacchante with Cymbals is one such lively sculpture of a figure rejoicing, dancing, moving and playing an instrument. The varied motifs of the pastoral idyll, the nudes, fauns and bacchantes illustrate ecstasy, an escape from everyday life and fusion with a primal abandonment, where one descends into the unknown and surrenders to instincts, passions and senses.
The long-haired, wreathed bacchante is shown dancing; her right leg raised, she revels in the sound of the cymbals – kymbala – attached to her raised hand. The Bacchante with Cymbals is related to the Startled Satyr not only in content, but also in the elements of its academic style, and could therefore have been created during Zajec’s specialisation at the Vienna Academy (1894–1896).