Bacchus, god of wine, emerges with his followers from the landscape to the right. Falling in love with Ariadne on sight, he leaps from his chariot, drawn by two cheetahs, towards her. Ariadne had been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos by Theseus, whose ship is shown in the distance. The picture shows her initial fear of Bacchus, but he raised her to heaven and turned her into a constellation, represented by the stars above her head.
The programme for the series was probably devised by a humanist scholar in the service of Alfonso d'Este. The subject of Bacchus and Ariadne is derived from the classical authors Ovid and Catullus.
The painting is one of a famous series by Bellini, Titian and the Ferrarese artist Dosso Dossi, commissioned for the Camerino d'Alabastro, (Alabaster Room) in the Ducal Palace, Ferrara, by Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, who in around 1510 tried to include Michelangelo and Raphael among the contributors. Titian's painting was in fact a substitute for one with a similar subject which the Duke had commissioned from Raphael. Bellini's 'Feast of the Gods' for this room is dated 1514, and the three works by Titian were painted 1518-25.
Louise Govier: This is for me one of the really wonderful love story paintings in the collection. What we’re looking at is the moment when a god meets a mortal woman and falls in love with her. We’ve got Ariadne who has been abandoned by her husband… she wakes up on a seashore and finds that his boat, the boat carrying her husband, is just sailing off into the distance – you can just see it over her shoulder. She’s crying, she’s waving goodbye and kind of calling him back and then all of a sudden as she’s standing there, she hears this tumultuous noise. This is actually a group of followers of the god of wine, Bacchus. They come through the forest and Bacchus sees her and immediately falls in love and he leaps off his chariot and she looks terrified because, of course, you know, it’s a madman coming and jumping off towards her. Also, he’s not wearing very much. He is leaping off and there is this moment of electric silence where it’s frozen in time and you just get this connection between the two of them, they’ve locked eyes on each other. Titian’s left a kind of gap in the middle, a piece of blue sky, where we actually, as viewers, then make that connection between the two and it seems really electric.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Four, February 2007