Written in the Stars: Titian’s Tale of Bacchus and Ariadne

Corona Borealis Constellation

Italian painter, Tiziano Vecellio, better known as Titian, knew how to tell a story in a single frame. In one painted scene, Titian weaves together a story of abandonment and the thrill of love at first sight alongside the immortalizing and captivating powers of classical gods and playfully rowdy mythical creatures. This is the pictured story of Bacchus and Ariadne.  

Immortalized Love

“Resolves, for this, the dear engaging dame, shou’d shine for ever in the rolls of Fame; and bids her crown among the stars be plac’d, with an eternal constellation grac’d.”

-Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Such romantic words surrounding the tale of Bacchus and Ariadne originate from the Latin poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. When creating this painting, Titian pulled inspiration from Ovid’s words alongside fellow poet CatullusUnlike a poet’s ability to express multiple scenes over several lines, Titian could only work with whatever he could fit inside a single frame. As such, he captured a unique moment in time.  

Oil Painting depicting the meeting of Bacchus, the god of wine, and Ariadne a Cretan princess. They are accompanied by a rowdy group of maenads and satyrs.
Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3, © The National Gallery

As shown above, this painting depicts Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, as he first catches sight of the beautiful Ariadne, a Cretan princess. Percy Jackson fans might recognize Bacchus’ Greek counterpart, Dionysus who, in Riordan’s novels, is subjected to running Camp Half Blood!  

You might notice how Ariadne’s body is slightly angled towards the sea. Well, this is because she has been abandoned by the hero Theseus. You can see his ship sailing away in the distance. Ariadne’s hand is extended towards it, probably in longing. The poor girl! Theseus is horrible to leave her especially after she helped him defeat the horrifying Minotaur (a creature half-man, half-bull)! On that note, for more Minotaur exploration, try the British Museum! They have some cool pottery depicting Greek heroes and their struggles!

Despite this heartache, Ariadne’s sight is ensnared by Bacchus who has leapt from his cheetah-driven chariot at the sight of her! We see him suspended in mid-air for his movements are practically overcome with his passion. His instant reaction is so sudden that his arms are still trying to keep up! It’s like Ariadne is the magnet that pulls him forward. With eyes locked, Titian captures the thrill of love at first sight.  

The story goes that Bacchus tells Ariadne that he would give her the stars. He even immortalizes her by making their wedding crown into a constellation (Corona Borealis). You’ll see it depicted in the painting above her head. In other words, it’s kind of like a halo of stars. Next time you look for constellations, you’ll think of this tale of immortal love! 

Life of the Party

Close-up of Silenus and Bacchus' followers in Titian's painting Bacchus and Ariadne
Closer view of Silenus and Bacchus’ followers. © The National Gallery

While Bacchus and Ariadne gaze at each other, there’s quite a ruckus going on behind them! There are maenads clashing cymbals while satyrs follow along. These creatures make up Bacchus’ entourage. If you look in the back of the group, you’ll see Silenus, the old god of drunkenness, slumped upon a donkey. Apparently, there’s always party close by when you’re the god of wine!  

I guess these party-lovers can celebrate Bacchus’ new love while they’re at it. Side note, the little satyr child who is dragging a calf’s head walks past a caper flower, a love symbol!  

Making His Mark

Portrait of Titian
Titian, Self-Portrait, Photo credit via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s rewind to the painting’s origins. Titian is a very successful painter. In fact, his patrons ranged from Italian nobility to the Kings of Spain and France. He even went through THREE Holy Roman Emperors. Titian gets around! Speaking about getting around, you’ll find his works today at the National Gallery and the Louvre!

In his thirties, one such relationship was with Alfonso d’Este whose desire to create a studio of ancient mythological scenes led to the commission of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Paintings from this collection were mainly Bacchanalsmeaning scenes of celebrations with drinking, music, love, and so forth. (Hence Bacchus, god of wine). Originally, d’Este wanted to employ the ‘best’ artists so he recruited Raphael and Fra Bartolomeo but they passed before completing their works. Titian, then, became more involved. As such, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne accompanied Alfonso’s gallery among which is Giovanni Bellini’s Feast of the Godsand works by Dossi.  

Above all, his success can be attributed to his mastery of oils and his amazing Venetian colourism. See the vibrant pigments that make the painting pop!? (I find the ultramarine blue sky to be the most intense!) Many of the contrasting colors work to intensify each other creating this eye-catching scene.  

To depict a mythological story, Titian, as we already mentioned, pulled inspiration from Latin poets. But he also looked to classical sculpture. For instance, the satyr tangled up in snakes (ew!) is based on the ancient Roman Laocoön sculpture 

Psst….I’ll leave you on a fun note. See the little dog barking in the painting? Well, that cute little pup is probably Titan’s dog! Ha, I wouldn’t be able to resist sneaking in my dog as well!  

If you liked learning about Titian, check out our other National Gallery blog posts! Also, stay on the lookout for a National Gallery treasure hunt. But don’t let that stop you from treasure hunting in the Louvre or British Museum!

Tell us what you liked about this post in the comments. Suggestions are always welcome!  

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