Stories, myths and legends

Unlock the stories behind the collection's paintings – discover a world of myth and meaning.
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

About the video:


Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, exacts her revenge on Actaeon when he catches her unaware.


A re-imaginging of the story of Diana and Actaeon from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses, this short film was produced by Credit Suisse [external link] to accompany the exhibition 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' in summer 2012.


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

More from Stories, myths and legends (8 videos)

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

About the video:


Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, exacts her revenge on Actaeon when he catches her unaware.


A re-imaginging of the story of Diana and Actaeon from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses, this short film was produced by Credit Suisse [external link] to accompany the exhibition 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' in summer 2012.


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

Paintings decoded
Discover the background of Titian's 'Bacchus and Ariadne'

About the video:


Feel the drama as love-struck Bacchus approaches the abandoned Ariadne. Revel in Titian's contrasting colours and find out about his frustrated patron, Alfonso d'Este. With James Heard, National Gallery Education.


From The National Gallery Visitor's Guide DVD


Find out more about Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

James Heard: He was born in Cadore, in the mountains above Venice, and his name is Titian. In many ways, he is the first great modern painter, because he was using oil paint on canvas. To painting, he brought new vibrancy. Vibrancy of colour, in particular, which we can see in this painting of 'Bacchus and Ariadne', painted between 1520 and 1523.

James Heard (in the studio): The subject is taken from the Latin poetry of Ovid and Catullus. They both give slightly differing versions of Prince Theseus, slaying the Minotaur, and then, abandoning his lover, the Cretan princess, Ariadne. Titian chooses the moment when Theseus sails away, leaving Ariadne to very different fate, with the handsome young Bacchus, just returning from a tour of India. Bacchus, with his crown of ivy, and train of inebriated companions, makes an extraordinary impact, leaping from his chariot, to declare his love for Ariadne.

[Classical music playing in background]

His companions are neither polite, nor civilised, having just torn apart the limbs of a young calf, in their drunken frenzy.

[Classical music playing]

Bacchus though, makes the romantic gesture, of taking Ariadne's crown, and throwing it into the sky, where it becomes a constellation of stars.


Titian painted this for a special gallery, in the castle at Ferrara. The owner, Duke Alfonso d'Este, became impatient at the length of time Titian took to complete his masterpiece. What makes it so impressive, is the relationships between the individual characters, the repeated rhythms and, above all, the colour. Titian has used highly saturated hues, in the shadows, to create a powerful combination of colours, such as the juxtaposition of Bacchus' red lake cloak, against the lapis lazuli of the sky.

Titian: 'Diana and Actaeon' | Carol Plazzotta - Curator | The National Gallery, London

Learn more about this painting with National Gallery curator, Carol Plazzotta. Read about the painting, learn the key facts and zoom in to discover more on the National Gallery website:

Quick insight
Learn the lessons of love in 'Cupid complaining to Venus'

About the video:


Never sweetness without pain? Learn about Venus' message about the inevitable pain of love – with James Heard, National Gallery Education.


From the National Gallery Visitor's Guide DVD


Find out more about Lucas Cranach the Elder, Cupid complaining to Venus, about 1525

James Heard: This picture would probably have been bought by a courtier, rather than a religious man.

It shows the goddess Venus and her son Cupid – the boy has take a honeycomb from a tree trunk and complains when the bees sting him. Venus has little sympathy, explaining, 'There is never sweetness without pain'.

She looks knowingly out to the viewer, her nudity emphasised by her elaborate necklace and hat. Her body, elongated to suit the tastes of Cranach's German patrons, displayed for our enjoyment.

In the context of these two mythological characters, the message of this painting is about the pleasures and inevitable pains of love.

The landscape is also designed to suit local tastes. In the background there's a rainish castle on an outcrop of rock, whilst behind the apple tree, a reference no doubt to sinful eve, is a dark German pine forest.

Paintings decoded
Hear the story of 'Bacchus and Ariadne'

About the video:


Discover how paintings tell stories. Look at the different events potrayed side-by-side in Titian's 'Bacchus and Ariadne' – with Richard Stemp, National Gallery Education.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Themes and Variations: Time'


Find out more about Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

Alexander Sturgis: But painters, like film makers and authors, have often been called upon to tell stories.  Here’s a story, and here’s another film of a painting.

Richard Stemp: Ariadne, Princess of Crete, helped rescue Theseus from the Minotaur. He promised to take her back to his home and marry her. On the way they stopped at the Island of Naxos to rest overnight. When she woke, she found Theseus had sailed way, leaving her alone. She wanders disconsolately on the shore, when suddenly, with a clash of cymbals, everything is set right: Bacchus, the god of wine, appears with his rowdy and drunken retinue and with one great leap, declares his love. Ariadne turns, hesitates and with her look, accepts his love. In the long run she is granted immortality in the form of a constellation, a crown of stars in the sky.

Alexander Sturgis: Presented in this way, the painting can mirror the progression of the tale it illustrates.  But you’ve been looking at a sequence of images, not a single one. Ariadne abandoned, the Island of Naxos, Theseus’s boat, the clash of cymbals, Bacchus, his retinue, Ariadne again, the look of love, and the crown of stars in the sky.

Paintings decoded
Artist John Lessore and Restorer Jill Dunkerton: 'The Death of Actaeon'

About the video:


Finished or unfinished? National Gallery Restorer Jill Dunkerton studies the X-rays of Titian's 'The Death of Actaeon' to reveal the artist's indecision in painting this masterpiece, while the artist John Lessore explores the theme of his favourite painting in the collection. With actress Lizzy McInnerny performing a dramatic narration of an extract from Ovid's poem 'Metamorphosis'.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Titian'


Find out more about Titian, The Death of Actaeon, about 1559-75


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

John Lessore: In the whole history of art, Titian is my favourite painter and in the National Gallery, this Titian of Diana and Actaeon is my favourite painting. It used to be the Bacchus and Ariadne, but this one has supplanted it. Actaeon quite unwittingly stumbled across Diana bathing in the nude and saw her.

Lizzy McInnerny: Diana dashed some water into the face of the intruder, saying, now go and tell, if you can, that you have seen Diana naked. The hero fled. He could not but admire his own speed, but when he saw his horns in the water, he groaned and tears flowed down the face which had taken the place of his own. When he hesitated, the dogs saw him. He fled and they followed. He longed to cry out, but the words didn’t come. Presently, one fastened on his back. Another seized his shoulder. They were all around him, rending and tearing. It was not until they had torn his life out that the anger of Diana was satisfied.

John Lessore: In this painting, you see he has just started, he’s still a man except for his head, but that’s enough for the dogs. They’re already beginning to tear him to bits. He is no longer their master. He is now their victim.

Jill Dunkerton: The X-ray of 'The Death of Actaeon' shows the most extraordinary number of changes. Sometimes you can make out one of the hounds that we still see in the final painting, for example, that head there, but if you look, there are many more hounds in the X-ray than there are in the painting itself.

There’s a lot of discussion and disagreement about whether a painting like 'The Death of Actaeon' is actually finished. I personally think that at this late stage of his career, Titian himself didn’t necessarily know when pictures were finished. It isn’t lacking any of the final glazes, any of the systematic build-up of colour that you get with earlier pictures and, indeed, with Titian’s earlier pictures, because that was no longer part of his painting process. He is now ranging over the whole surface of the picture. One moment, he is using a glaze; the next moment, he is using an opaque colour. In a sense, it’s unfinished because Titian probably never lived to decide the point at which it was going to be finished, but it’s not unfinished to me in a technical sense. It’s not an incomplete picture and to me it works completely as an image.

John Lessore: Nobody had ever painted in such an abstract, plastic way in which the emotion he is conveying is not conveyed by narrative so much as by shape and movement and colour. What he was doing was incredibly deliberate and refined. It’s just that the handling is so powerful that one gets the impression that the paint is slapped on any old how, which it’s not. It’s certainly not. This is a very late Titian. He must have started it when he was about 70, but gone on with it when he was in his middle 80s. The 10 or 15 years between starting it and finishing it... “finishing” in inverted commas because theoretically it is not finished, but I’m not quite sure that that’s really what Titian felt about it. I think that if he’d wanted to do any more, he would have.

Who was Ovid?
Historian Bernadine Corrigan on the life of the Roman poet

About the video:

Join historian Bernadine Corrigan as she delves into the life of Roman poet Ovid, the inspiration for Titian's 'poesie' paintings.

Discover how Ovid became a poet and uncover the scandal that banned his books and banished him from Rome.

Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ are central to the spectacular multi-arts exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, on display until 23 September 2012

Bernadine Corrigan: Ovid was a poet born in 43BC, the year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He came from a quite wealthy family and as a young man moved to Rome for his education, as was the standard thing at the time. He toured Greece in a mini Grand Tour, which was another thing that wealthy Roman men would have done. Although he took a few jobs in the judiciary, he decided not to go into public life and instead became a poet, and a very successful poet at that.

Very shortly after the 'Metamorphoses' was first published, or perhaps even the first draft was published, we’re not quite sure, Ovid was suddenly exiled from Rome. [Emperor] Augustus made the announcement himself and exiled Ovid to a place called Tomis – in modern-day Romania on the Black Sea – which was frankly a dump.

It was awful. No one went to Tomis, it was right on the edge of the Empire. The climate was terrible, there was no culture there, and Ovid was exiled and his books were banned. We don’t know why this happened. The only evidence we have is what Ovid himself tells us, and he tells us there were two reasons.

There was a carmen and an error. A carmen is a song, a poem, and an error is ... an error, it’s a mistake, an indiscretion. The carmen he’s referring to is [Ovid’s book] the 'Ars Amatoria' ('The Art of Love'), said to induce Roman matrons towards adultery, which of course was rubbish. In fact, it had been published about eight years before he was banished, so that can’t have been the proximate cause.
The error we don’t know, he won’t tell us, but he implies that he has seen something he shouldn’t have seen.

Clearly it is something scandalous to do with the imperial family and over the years everyone has guessed at what that might be. Did he catch one of the imperial family in flagrante delicto, in an adulterous affair. Did he in fact catch Augustus himself having sex with another man?

That theory was very popular in the Middle Ages. Ovid was banned and never ever made it back to Rome. He spent the rest of his life writing letters begging to be allowed back home, and he never was. He died nine years later in Tomis, very sadly.

Paintings decoded
Explore creation myths in 'The Origin of the Milky Way'

About the podcast clip:


Unlock the creation myths packed into this painting by Tintoretto – find out how Jupiter's ambitions for his son Hercules inadvertently forced the goddess Juno to create the Milky Way. With Karly Allen, National Gallery Education.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Eight (February 2009)


Find out more about Jacopo Tintoretto, The Origin of the Milky Way, about 1575

Voiceover: The National Gallery Podcast.

Miranda Hinkley(in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast.

In some ways, paintings are snapshots of other times. They tell us how people lived, dressed, and relaxed, and bring us face to face with ghosts: farmhands at work in a picture by Constable; a Parisian waitress captured by Manet. Beyond this material detail, paintings are also a visual record of the stories used by past generations to make sense of the world. Many of our best-loved pictures are based on such myths, including a work by a Venetian artist that explains how one of the most distinctive features in our night sky came into being. Karly Allen of the education team told me more about Tintoretto’s ‘Origin of the Milky Way’.

Karly Allen: In the painting, set against a brilliant blue background, Jupiter, god of the skies, is sweeping in from above, his red robe billowing in the wind and his eagle at his side, clutching thunderbolts. Jupiter is supporting his infant son, Hercules, born out of an illicit liaison with a mere mortal woman from Earth. So, Jupiter is really very keen that he is able to give the gift of immortality to his new child and he knows that the only way to do that is if the baby Hercules can drink the milk of a goddess. Rather conveniently, as we see here, the closest goddess to Jupiter is his wife, Juno. Tintoretto shows us Juno as this voluptuous nude, reclining on a bed of silks and pearls, high up in the clouds. We’re told in the story that Juno was sleeping and Jupiter hoped to creep up on her and allow the baby Hercules to suckle her unnoticed. Of course, not surprisingly, what we see here in the painting is Juno, startled by this unexpected child at her breast, and she jolts awake, and as she draws back the milk sprays up into the night sky and forms the stars of the Milky Way.

Miranda Hinkley: If you look closely at the canvas, you can see the faint white lines of the milk going up into the sky, but there is some more milk from the other breast sort of going downwards, and it almost looks like it’s going down towards the figures at the bottom.

Karly Allen: That’s right. Well, what’s interesting about this painting is that it doesn’t just tell one creation myth. It makes reference to others. So in fact, the real subject of the picture is not just the origin of the Milky Way. The title is only really known from the 19th century, but if we were able to see the picture when it was new, it was much larger. At the bottom of the painting, there was another reclining figure down on Earth. The milk from Juno’s other breast is coming straight down, crashing down to Earth, and where it lands, a new flower springs up. That’s the explanation for the first milk-white lily.

Miranda Hinkley: Aha and if you actually look at the bottom right-hand part of the picture, you can sort of still see perhaps a little bit of that original background. There are some sort of plants at the bottom.

Karly Allen: You can just make out a few green leaves which look a little bit incongruous, given that we believe ourselves to be up in the sky, but if we could see the rest of the picture, we’d understand that this is just a last remnant of those plants that Tintoretto originally painted in. Much of that detail has now been overpainted by clouds.

Miranda Hinkley: So, this painting is actually sort of packed with origin myths.

Karly Allen: It’s incredibly dramatic and inventive, which makes it such a great subject for Tintoretto, his mastery of movement and colour and drama. But it’s also a reminder of how the Milky Way itself has served as a powerful source of inspiration for creation myths worldwide. It’s really interesting to look at some of these other legends from other cultures. Many of them use very poetic language and pick up on this idea of the Milky Way as being a pathway, a route across the sky. In many East Asian countries including China and Japan, the Milky Way is described as a river, as the silver river of heaven. In one related story, we’re told that it divided two lovers, that they were only able to meet up once a year when a flock of birds would come together to create a bridge over the celestial waters across the sky. I think my favourite account comes from Menelaus, the ancient Roman author who compiled various explanations for the appearance of the Milky Way. He writes that the Milky Way is in fact a seam running across the sky. It’s the point at which the two halves of heaven are stitched together, and what we’re looking at is a bright light just visible through that seam.

Miranda Hinkley: Of course, this is a fantastic kind of record of ancient mythology.

Karly Allen: Well, in just one painting we’ve got a reference not only to the Western European tradition, but I think it does remind us of this great heritage, this shared enthusiasm across cultures for myth-making and great storytelling. Tintoretto is such a good storyteller. So the painting really celebrates, through colour and movement and beautiful human form that sort of innate curiosity and is really a lasting record of a lost belief system.

Miranda Hinkley: If you are in London this month, why not pop in? If you can’t make it here in person, don’t forget you can still enjoy the paintings online at