Bacchus and Ariadne: Titan

Bacchus and Ariadne is a 1523 mythological oil painting by Italian Renaissance master Titian.

  • This masterpiece painting was completed in 1523 for Alfonse D’Este, the Duke of Ferrara in Italy.
  • The painting depicts the arrival of Bacchus, the god of wine to the island of Naxos, where Ariadne, the daughter of the king of Crete has been abandoned. Bacchus would eventually go on to marry Ariadne.
  • The painting is currently in the National Gallery in London and is one of their highlights.

Bacchus and Ariadne (c. 1523) is a painting by Titian derived from Ovid and Catullus, created on commission, and showing the moment when Ariadne, abandoned by her lover Theseus, is first sighted by Bacchus, who instantly falls in love with her.

For an appreciation of this painting, two things must be possessed by the viewer:

Some knowledge of the mythical story as told by Ovid (in Metamorphoses and, perhaps, Ars Amatoria) and Catullus (in The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis);

Awareness of the fact that the canvas has been repeatedly restored due to the constant falling off of pigment and consequently does not probably bear the same tonal impression today as it did originally.

Titian renders the scene with characteristic Renaissance naturalism: the bodies of all of the figures, animals included, are accomplished with fine detail and anatomic perfection.

The perspective, too, is scientifically accomplished, though somewhat disturbed by the overlapping figures on the right and, most significantly, the flying body of Bacchus.

We are witnessing a series of events synthetically brought together in the typical manner of Renaissance paintings. They are to be found in the different parts of the composition.

On the far right, we espy a ship heading for the horizon — this is Theseus, the mythical hero and future founder of Athens.

He is fleeing the island of Naxos in the Aegean Sea, leaving behind Ariadne, the Cretan princess whose powerful thread has just helped him to find his way out of the Minotaur’s legendary Labyrinth.

In this painting, Ariadne has rushed to the beach in a desperate attempt to recall him. At that very moment, a procession of men and beasts appeared: a procession of Bacchic revelers, jolly and partly inebriated, led by the god of revelry himself. This is the event that occupies the great majority of the visual space.

We see Bacchus in midair, having leaped from his triumphal chariot, seemingly in the act of driving away the wild animals of his procession from Ariadne.

This is easily the least obvious element of the narrative to a viewer unacquainted with the story as told by Ovid, as the animals we see in front of Bacchus’ chariot, (remarkably) two cheetahs, appear extremely tame and unconcerned with the Cretan princess.

According to Ovid, this is when the god fell in love with Ariadne. Out of his devotion to her, Bacchus then created the constellation known as Corona Borealis or Northern Crown, the very one that we see in the top-left corner in Titian’s lapis-lazuli sky.

This is the third narrative moment enclosed in this painting. In Ovid’s two variant tellings, Bacchus accomplished this feat by either throwing Ariadne’s princely crown into the sky (indeed, she is wearing none in the painting), or by transforming herself into the constellation later on.

The important element of the sky above Naxos was painted by Titian with the expensive pigment derived from lapis lazuli. This ultramarine expanse is in fact one of the broadest applications of the pigment that may be found in either medieval or Renaissance painting.

The cluster of stars in the corner comes to create a structural triangle with Ariadne and Bacchus, and thus fills out the ample space on the left.

And it is to the sky that we look with some concern in view of the many restorations that the painting has undergone. The falling off of pigment has been supplemented by repaintings, most recently in 1967-68.

This has brought, according to some critics, lightening and an equalization of the colors which would have been alien to Titian’s approach.

How true this is may be in fact inestimable, keeping in mind that the painting is known to have been rolled up and therefore damaged during the first century of its existence as well.

The strange line-up of people and animals which we observe in the middle and the right of Bacchus and Ariadne is, as mentioned, a Bacchic procession: a celebration of the god by means of dance, music, and wine.

Titian’s figures are shown dancing, carrying instruments resembling cymbals, tambourines, and horns, wielding meat (seemingly uncooked, perhaps derived from a sacrifice) and vines, and — see the paunchy figure in the distance riding a donkey — sleeping from drunkenness.

The peculiar figure in the forefront — a man enwrapped in snakes and appearing to struggle — can only be explained from Catullus’ text: he is girding himself with snakes.

It is a miraculous feature of Bacchic celebrations that, for the true initiates at least, they sometimes involve the cooperation of animals. This man is therefore not to be confused with Laocoön, with whom there is no narrative connection. (Note also that snakes seem to have played a role in Chthonic celebrations too, which, like most ancient celebrations, involved a pouring of wine as a libation and some kind of revelry.)

We should not miss mentioning the two perfectly executed cheetahs drawing the chariot of Bacchus. Titian would have seen the animals in Ferrara among the properties of Duke Alfonso I d’Este. Ovid told of lions, in this case, animals more difficult for Titian to find and observe up-close.

Duke Alfonso of Ferrara was in fact the commissioner of Bacchus and Ariadne. It was intended as decoration for one of the rooms of his palazzo with a classical theme.

Titian was likely given the commission in 1520, when Raphael, commissioned for a Triumph of Bacchus, suddenly died. As part of the same decorative cycle, Titian also created The Feast of the Gods, The Bacchanal of the Andrians, and The Worship of Venus. As can be seen, all paintings concur with the celebratory, pagan theme.

Bacchus and Ariadne today belong to the National Gallery in London in the United Kingdom.

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