If you remember mythology from school, you may recall the name Bacchus, god of wine. He’s one of two central characters in this painting by the Venetian painter Titian, appropriately entitled Bacchus and Ariadne (1523).
Even though ‘god of wine’ sounds pretty straightforward, Bacchus was a really fascinating and complex character. His antics could be fun and free-spirited, but also violent and destructive; sometimes all of those in one. In one Greek tragedy Bacchus destroyed the whole city of Thebes by luring the townsfolk to an orgiastic party in the mountains. When the king came to object, a group of drunken women ripped him apart. The king’s own mother was so intoxicated that she decapitated the body and paraded it around thinking it was a lion’s head. Talk about the madness of crowds.
This particular painting is beautiful but it’s also a really good character study of Bacchus. Ariadne has been deserted by her lover Theseus when she encounters Bacchus and his entourage. Impetuous as always, he is instantly enamored with Ariadne and leaps towards her from his chariot. If you ask me, that leap perfectly captures how Bacchus could act solely on the impulse of his passions. I mean, it’s an awkward jump. It’ll almost certainly end with an uncomfortable landing but he’s too fixated on her to notice or care. Nothing else seems to matter to him, for better or worse, but that one moment. He was also short-sighted on an even larger complication: Ariadne was mortal. That little detail instantly doomed the love affair whether he landed gracefully or not. (Bacchus eventually faced and resolved the mortality problem by turning her into a constellation, which Titian foreshadowed in the sky above her head.)
Titan gave us the rest of this character study in the way he painted that band of revelers. The group of girls ringing the symbols is harmless enough but the naked guy wrapped in snakes (no doubt reminiscent of Laocoon and his Sons), the satyr dragging around a calf’s head, and someone holding up a mangled cow’s leg all seem more like bedlam. If their party started as a good time it’s something else entirely now. And with Bacchus around there’s no telling where it will go from here. Mayhem is a safe bet. Titian is always a reliable colorist and this one is no exception. But I love this painting as much for the complexity of its story. The ancient Greeks spun a good yarn and Titian did it justice.