Bacchus and Ariadne

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Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1523

Poor Ariadne. What’s a girl to do when your lover deserts you on an island? Have no fear, for Bacchus is here.

Alfonso d’Este commissioned Titian to paint Bacchus and Ariadne, which would be placed in his camerino d’alabastro or the Alabaster Room at the Ducal Palace. The painting would be placed amongst works by other masters, such as Giovanni Bellini and and Dosso Dossi. Many consider the Alabaster Room as the most outstanding collection of art in this period. Accompanying Bacchus and Ariadne would be The Worship of Venus and Bacchanal of the Andrians.

Bacchus and Ariadne requires context of Ariadne’s history to be understood. Ariadne’s father, Minos, battled with hero Theseus who sought to protect Athens. Rather than siding with Minos, Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and aids him in killing her father. Theseus and Ariadne sleep together, but Theseus quickly abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Distraught, she wanders the island searching for any sign of her lover. In the process, she crosses paths with Bacchus, otherwise known as Dionysus.

Bacchus and Ariadne captures Bacchus’s first glimpse of Ariadne. Though every figure flows with dynamic movement, the painting is seemingly frozen in the moment -- the moment Bacchus falls in love. He throws himself towards her, turning his head and gazing with a look of eagerness and intensity. In this fleeting second, Bacchus creates a constellation for Ariadne, visible at the upper left of the painting. The weight of the composition is equally split into two halves, one side represented by rich blueness and the other by earthly tones of Bacchus’s company and the terra behind them. Not only does this balance the painting, but it symbolizes the merging of two worlds: the ethereal and the ephemeral.

The tale of Bacchus and Ariadne is but one instance of intimacy between the celestial and mankind. It represents the close bond between the two realms, and illustrates how remarkably human the gods were, despite their divinity. Bacchus and Ariadne offers a glimpse of this humanity.

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