Whenever I visit the National Gallery in London, I always stop in front of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-1523). It is one of my favourite paintings ever because mythologically it’s so rich.
Most mythological paintings of the sixteenth century and later draw upon the work of the Roman poet Ovid and his fifteen-book epic the Metamorphoses. Titian (full name Tiziano Vecelli) certainly drew upon Ovid’s work for paintings that came late in his career such as Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon, and the Death of Actaeon. But the source for Bacchus and Ariadne, painted when Titian was in his thirties, was not the Metamorphoses. Ovid does mention the story, but not in detail. The best-known version of the tale is in an earlier poet, Gaius Valerius Catullus. Catullus’ poems were mostly short, but a small collection of longer poems survive. Of these, the longest is Poem 64. A ‘mini-epic’ of 408 lines, it covers a number of mythological accounts, including that of Bacchus and Ariadne.
Ariadne was a daughter of King Minos of Crete. She aided the Athenian hero Theseus when he came to Crete to kill her half-brother, the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Understandably, afterwards, she had to flee Crete with Theseus. But then, for reasons no account really explains properly, Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. This is the moment Titian dramatises.
Ariadne is caught waving towards the ship of Theseus, which can be seen on the horizon, sail billowing in the wind. But Ariadne is suddenly distracted by the coming of the god Bacchus (the Greek Dionysus), the god of wine and revelry. We see her having turned her head towards the new arrival.