The story of Actaeon is recounted in 'Metamorphoses' (Book III, 138–255). Ovid tells how the noble young hunter, separated from his friends after a day’s stag-hunting, inadvertently stumbles upon Diana, chaste goddess of the hunt, refreshing herself in the waters of a shady grotto.
Titian shows Actaeon bursting onto the scene and causing consternation among Diana’s virgin nymphs, several of whom seek hastily to cover their voluptuous nudity. Not all appear entirely dismayed at the intrusion but Diana’s indignant response is unambiguous.
As her Ethiopian handmaiden helps cover her with a shift, she casts Actaeon a terrifying sidelong glance that presages her cruel act of revenge. Actaeon raises his hands in surprise as though already half aware of the deadly price he must pay for trespassing into the goddess’s domain.
The scene is rich in portents anticipating Actaeon’s demise: the grotto is draped with the skins and skull of Diana’s former prey, while in the background is a tiny vignette of the huntress chasing a stag, a foretaste of Actaeon’s destiny as depicted in The Death of Actaeon.
Titian alleviates the story’s tragic dimension with amusing details: Venus’s lapdog yaps at Actaeon’s athletic hound from the safety of the far bank. The bathing platform appears to lurch under the nymphs’ weight, and water gushes from a lion mask half concealed beneath one nymph’s bottom.