While out hunting, Actaeon accidentally happens upon the secret bathing place of Diana, chaste goddess of the hunt. Titian explores the dramatic impact of his intrusion through a dynamic arrangement of figures, sparkling light, intense colour and animated brushwork.
Actaeon's fate is foretold by the stag's skull on the plinth and the skins of Diana's former prey hanging above her head. The conclusion of the story is shown in the National Gallery's painting The Death of Actaeon. The outraged goddess immediately avenges herself by transforming Actaeon into a stag to be devoured by his own hounds.
These pictures are part of a series of famous mythological paintings by Titian. They were painted for King Philip II of Spain when the artist was at the height of his powers. The subjects were based on the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses – Titian himself referred to them as 'poesie' (poems).
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast.
Leah Kharibian: Well, Carol, this is a real treat, isn’t it. It’s really lovely to see so many people here, but being in front of ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and seeing it in the flesh, one’s really immediately impressed by the sheer scale of the ambition that Titian has here.
Carol Plazzotta: It truly is an extraordinary work.
Leah Kharibian: And can you tell us the story, because people might not be familiar with ‘Diana and Actaeon’ – what’s going on here?
Carol Plazzotta: The story is taken from the Roman poet Ovid and it is a moment of intense drama and pathos. It shows a beautiful young man, Actaeon, a hunter, who’s become separated from his friends at the end of a day’s hunting and he happens upon Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, bathing with her voluptuous nymphs.
Leah Kharibian: Now which one is Diana?
Carol Plazzotta: Diana is the one seated on the right. The beautiful, quite plump, goddess, and she’s staring across at Actaeon with this extraordinary haughty, proud glare, because he has caught her in a very awkward position, because she’s in a state of complete undress.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): If you're in London this month, why not pop in? And if you can't make it here in person, don't forget you can still enjoy the paintings online at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
Image above: © The National Gallery London / The National Galleries of Scotland