Picture of the month

Titian, 'Bacchus and Ariadne', 1520–3

Intended to dazzle, Titian’s exquisitely rendered great mythological narrative work Bacchus and Ariadne brings to life the instant that a passionate love between a mortal woman and a god ignites.

Detail from Titian, ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, about 1520-3

Detail from Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, about 1520–3

Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete, having helped Theseus to kill the half-man and half-bull monster the Minotaur, flees with him, only to be abandoned on the island of Naxos.

Here, as she turns away from the sight of her fickle lover’s departing ship, she sees Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, returning from a triumphant visit to India with his clamorous entourage.

Titian, taking both Classical poets Catullus and Ovid as sources, depicts the moment when the love-struck god and mortal’s eyes meet. Bacchus is so moved by the sight of Ariadne that he leaps impulsively, in a quite remarkable and unprecedented pose, out of his carriage towards his new love. In a brief space of time she is transported from losing her lover to finding a greater love. Her balletic pose and swirling red scarf mirrors the posture of Bacchus, reinforcing their immediate attraction.

Bacchus is followed by his rowdy retinue of satyrs and wood nymphs which are, as might be expected of friends of the god of wine, shown carousing and merrymaking. Titian excels in the meticulous detail applied to every section of the canvas, from the exotic cheetahs and the botanically accurate caper flowers, to the yellow fabric and urn in the foreground on which he chose to paint his signature.

To the left of the painting, in the ultramarine sky, we see a circle of stars, the Corona Borealis, the culmination of the story. Titian's sources differ in the mythical creation of this constellation; according to one it is Ariadne's wedding crown, tossed into the sky by Bacchus at their marriage; another relates that Bacchus transformed mortal Ariadne into the constellation so that she would live on forever as would their love.

Titian: 'Bacchus and Ariadne'

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