Dionysus / Bacchus, God of Wine in Greek and Roman Mythology

Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne - Tintoretto, 1576/77 - Palazzo Ducale, Sala dell'Anticollegio, Venice, Italy | Dionysos / Bacchus, God of Wine | Nectar of the Gods | From Divine to Sacred | Wine and Painting | The Virtual Wine Museum


Tintoretto (1518-1594)  
Palazzo Ducale, Sala dell'Anticollegio, Venice





Upon arrival on the island of Naxos, Bacchus consoles and then marries Ariadne, abandoned by Thesius, and gives her a gold crown, Vulcan’s masterpiece: ‘“I am she to whom you used to promise the heavens. Ah me, what a reward I suffer instead of heaven!” She spoke: Liber had been listening a long while to her complaint, since he chanced to follow closely. He embraced her, and dried her tears with kisses, and said: “Together, let us seek the depths of the sky! You’ll share my name just as you’ve shared my bed, since, transmuted, you will be called Libera: and there’ll be a memory of your crown beside you, the crown Vulcan gave to Venus, and she to you.” He did as he said, and changed the nine jewels to fire: Now the golden crown glitters with nine stars.’ (Ovid, Fasti, 3, 505-516)


Many artists have celebrated this meeting between Bacchus and Ariadne.


THE BIRTH OF BACCHUS Giulio Romano, ca. 1530s - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

MERCURY TAKES BACCHUS TO BE BROUGHT BY NYMPHS Laurent de La Hyre, 1638 - Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia

THE INFANT BACCHUS Giovanni Bellini, ca. 1514 - NGA, Washington

THE YOUTH OF BACCHUS William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1884 - Private collection

THE ADOLESCENT BACCHUS Caravaggio, ca. 1596 - Uffizi, Florence, Italy

BACCHUS ON A THRONE − NYMPHS OFFERING BACCHUS WINE AND FRUIT C. van Everdingen, ca. 1660 - Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, Germany

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BACCHUS AND ARIADNE Titian, 1520-1523 - The National Gallery, London

BACCHUS AND ARIADNE Guido Reni, ca. 1619/20 - Los Angeles County Museum of Art


BACCHUS AND ARIADNE Alessandro Turchi, 1630/32 - L'Ermitage, St Petersburg, Russia

BACCHUS WITH TWO NYMPHS AND CUPID Caesar Van Everdingen, ca. 1660 - Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, Germany

BACCHUS AND ARIADNE (BACCHUS ET ARIANE) Charles de La Fosse, ca. 1699 - Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, France

BACCHUS AND ARIADNE (BACCHUS ET ARIANE) Jean-François de Troy, ca. 1717 - Staatliche Museen, Berlin

BACCHUS AND ARIADNE Sebastiano Ricci, probably 1710 - National Gallery, London

BACCHUS AND ARIADNE Jacopo Amigoni, 1730s - Private collection

BACCHUS AND ARIADNE Carle Van Loo, mid 18th century - Private collectio

BACCHUS AND A DRINKER Bartolomeo Manfredi, 1600/10 - Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

MIDAS AND BACCHUS (MIDAS ET BACCHUS) Nicolas Poussin, 1629-1630 - Alte Pinakotheck, Munich, Germany

"SINE CERERE ET BACCHO FRIGET VENUS” Bartholomäus Spranger, ca. 1590 - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna / 13

ENUS, BACCHUS AND CERES WITH MORTALS IN A GARDEN OF LOVE Louis de Caullery, 1590/1621 - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

BACCHUS, CERES AND CUPID Hans von Aachen, ca. 1600 - Kunsthistorisches Museum

VENUS, BACCHUS AND CERES Bon de Boulogne, 1700 - Musée du Louvre, Paris

BACCHUS AND CERES Sebastiano Ricci, before 1710 - Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, Great-Britain

BACCHUS AND ERIGONE (ERIGONE VAINCUE) François Boucher, ca. 1745 - Wallace Collection, London

BACCHUS AND ARIADNE (BACCHUS ET ARIANE) Maurice Denis, 1907 - The Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia

BACCHUS #3 Elaine de Kooning, 1978 - National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC

BACCHUS, DIONYSUS (after Poussin) Angel Otero, 2012 - Private collection

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13. Bartholomäus Spranger illustrates this quotation from the Latin poet Terence (ca. 185-160 BC): “Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus would freeze”. In other words, without food and wine, love grows cold. In Roman mythology, Ceres is the goddess of agriculture, harvests and fertility. 


SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1513/16 - Musée du Louvre, Paris

SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST - BACCHUS (restoration in progress) Leonardo da Vinci's workshop, ca. 1510/15 - Musée du Louvre, Paris

SELF-PORTRAIT AS ABBOT OF THE ACCADEMIA DELLA VAL DI BLENIO Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, ca. 1568 - Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy / 3

THE YOUNG SICK BACCHUS Caravaggio,1593 - Galleria Borghese, Rome / 4

THE FEAST OF THE GODS Jan van Bijlert, 1630 - Musée Magnin, Dijon, France / 5

UNTITLED (BACCHUS) Cy Twombly, 2008 - Tate Modern, London / 6

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1. "Tenant la Croix, symbole de la Passion du Christ, mais vêtu d'une peau de panthère, attribut de Bacchus, ce Saint Jean Baptiste, d'une beauté païenne, renouvelle par son syncrétisme l'iconographie toscane traditionnelle du saint patron florentin" (Musée du Louvre).


2. "D'abord désigné dans les inventaires royaux comme Saint Jean au désert, puis à la fin du XVIIe siècle, peut-être à la suite d'une restauration, comme Bacchus dans un paysage, le tableau témoigne du même syncrétisme que le Saint Jean-Baptiste [précédent (1)]. Le doigt levé vers un signe divin et le cerf couché sont des symboles chrétiens ; le thyrse, la couronne de vigne ou de lierre, la grappe de raisin et la peau de panthère sont des attributs bachiques" (Musée du Louvre).

3. Ce tableau représente l’artiste en abbé (président) de l'Accademia della Val di Blenio (Tessin) alors qu’il vient d’obtenir ce titre, rappelé dans l’inscription en bas du tableau. L’académie réunissait les meilleurs artistes de Milan : des peintres, des sculpteurs, des musiciens, … Elle était placée sous la protection et le signe de Bacchus, tout à la fois celui qui allège les soucis et les peines, inspire la joie, stimule l’esprit et la création, et libère des entraves. Cet autoportrait aurait donc une fonction d’antidote aux malheurs du temps et à l’austérité imposée par les champions de la Contre-Réforme comme le très rigoureux Charles Borromée, archevêque de Milan et cardinal de l’Église catholique. Les références bachiques sont nombreuses : le chapeau est entouré d’une guirlande de laurier et de feuilles de vigne et est orné d’un médaillon avec de la vigne ; le thyrse, enveloppé de lierre ; la pelisse de chevreau, le dieu encore enfant ayant été métamorphosé en chevreau par Jupiter, qui voulait le protéger de Junon (source : Philippe Morel, Renaissance dionysiaque, Editions du félin, Paris, 2016). En revanche, le compas qui remplace le pinceau dans la main droite du peintre n’est pas un symbole dionysiaque. Mais il est là pour nous rappeler que Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo sait diriger sa carrière de peintre, comme le ferait le pilote d’un bateau.

4. We can interpret this painting by Caravaggio as a self-portrait, showing the artist as Bacchus/Christ. He presents himself as a Communion offering to the libertine cardinals of Rome. ‘Eucharist’ means ‘good flesh’, and the sensuality of this notion is adopted by the subject, who is shown lifting a ripe bunch of grapes to his lips. Dressed in a toga revealing a muscular shoulder, crowned with laurels, he holds the fruit to his chest, as though he intends to squeeze the juice from them. This painting has two possible interpretations. Is it a show of debauchery, the Greek god using Christian imagery to bring more people to the party? Or has the Christian Communion wine turned the bacchanalia into a ‘universal mass’?

5. The feast of the gods: a Christian last supper? On Mount Olympus, the gods are assembled for a banquet. On the left is Minerva (goddess of war, wisdom, strategy and intelligence), Diana (goddess of hunting and the moon), Mars (god of war) and Venus (goddess of love, seduction and beauty), accompanied by Love. Flora, the goddess of springtime, stands behind them. The crowned figure of Apollo, who can be identified by his lyre, presides at the centre of the table. In the background we can see Hercules with his club and Neptune with his trident. Certain important gods are missing, probably because the canvas has been cut down. The presence of Juno’s peacock, and the absence of the goddess herself, supports this idea. This theme was popular in Holland. The engraving by Goltzius, The Marriage of Psyche and Love, based on the work of Spranger, set a precedent for the widespread production of works depicting the Feast of the Gods.


Bijert visited Rome in the early 1620s and, like his Utrecht peers, Brugghen, Honthorst and Baburen, he was impressed by the work of Caravaggio. However, the Italian painter’s influence did not last, and had almost disappeared by 1630, when Bijert turned to the new international trend of Classicism. The frieze-like composition and the diurnal light around the table corresponds to this style. However, the satyr dancing before the table and the reclining figure of Bacchus, who is shown in the foreground eating a bunch of grapes, calls to mind the ‘naturalism’ of Caravaggio, as does the ochre-tinted flesh of the gods, and their strangely-positioned bodies shown from close quarters.


This work can be interpreted in another way. If religious powers were beginning to hold less sway in the Protestant Netherlands, which had previously repudiated images of temples, this feast of the gods might actually double as a Christian Last Supper. The central figure (Apollo) is shown with a halo, just like Christ in representations of the Last Supper, and around the table are twelve other characters – twelve, of course, being the number of Jesus’ disciples! This hypothesis may be attractive, but it must be treated with caution. Some important gods are missing from the image, probably because the canvas was cut (as happened frequently in this period) – this idea is supported by the presence of Juno’s peacock. Second clue: if Christ appears surrounded by golden light in Christian iconography, it is because he is God of the Heavens and therefore given the attributes of a sun god. But long before Christianity, this golden halo indicated Apollo; the Greeks saw him as the personification of a sovereign force which organises and regulates intelligence (mastering and forming the vitality represented by Dionysus, for example). Apollo was therefore the Sun God par excellence.


6. Lauded as one of the most significant painters of the second half of the 20th century, “Twombly combines American abstract expressionist heritage with the origins of Mediterranean culture” (source: Centre Pompidou). This work belongs to the Bacchus series, created in Gaeta (Italy) in Winter 2005. This acrylic painting is owned by the Tate Modern: “The London institution inherited a collection of eight paintings and sculptures from the American artist in 2014, three years after his death; the bequest included three large canvases produced by the artist at the end of his life, part of the Untitled (Bacchus) series (2006-2008). Bacchus is a recurrent figure in Twombly’s work. The artist was influenced by post-War abstract expressionism and Classical and poetic themes. In Summer 2005, he immersed himself once again in Homer’s Iliad and created a cycle of eight paintings in red, colour of wine and blood, to evoke the ecstasy and madness of the Roman god, treading the line between carnal pleasure and violent debauchery in his unique calligraphic style” (source: Le Monde). The paintings bear witness to the ‘creative drunkenness’ which can overcome artists. As has often been observed, one can draw parallels between the delirium of the creative process and that experienced by followers of Dionysus during group rituals. He makes free with the red paint that reminds us so much of blood and wine. Even if Cy Twombly makes no explicit reference to such themes, doesn’t this image bring to mind the Mystical Winepress, in which Christ is crushed like a grape, his blood and the blood of the grapes running together as one?

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