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

ARIANE, VENUS ET BACCHUS, Le Tintoret (Jacopo Robusti), 1576 - Palazzo Ducale, Sala dell'Anticollegio, Venise

to (Jacopo Robusti, 1518-1594)  
Palazzo Ducale, Sala dell'Anticollegio, Venise, Italy





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. 

** Liber ou Liber Pater Liber is a god (of fertility) whose cult stretches back to the very earliest days of Ancient Rome. He was associated with wine from the 7th century BC and would later be assimilated with Bacchus (Dionysius) by the Romans. Although the word Liber would become little more than a simple translation for Dionysius or Bacchus, Pater would remain a sign of respect and veneration for invoking the gods.


> Click on the icons for a closer look at the artworks


> Click on the icons for a closer look at the artworks

1. One of the most famous paintings in the National Gallery, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne illustrates a story told by the classical authors Ovid and Catullus. The Cretan princess Ariadne has been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos by Theseus, whose ship sails away in the distance. Bacchus, god of wine, falls in love at first sight with Ariadne and leaps from his chariot towards her. Later, Bacchus throws Ariadne’s crown into the air, immortalising her as the constellation Corona Borealis, represented by the stars above her head.


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.


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1. "Holding the Cross, symbol of the Passion of the Christ, yet dressed in a panther skin, one of Bacchus’ attributes, this St John the Baptist, in all his pagan beauty, uses syncretism to bring a breath of fresh air to the traditional Tuscan iconography of the patron saint of Florence... Ce détail pourrait, selon certains spécialistes, être lié au climat antiquisant de la Ville éternelle” (Musée du Louvre).

2. "Initially labelled in royal inventories as St John in the desert, then in the late 17th century (possibly after restoration) as Bacchus in a landscape, the painting presents the same syncretism as that of St John the Baptist [see 1., above]. The raised finger, pointing to a divine symbol, and resting deer are Christian symbols; the thyrsus, crown of vine leaves or holly, bunch of grapes and panther skin are attributes of Bacchus.” (Musée du Louvre)

3. The vine is one of Bacchus’ principal attributes and the ram is an animal which was burned regularly honour the god of wine and the vine. This association between St John the Baptist and Bacchus allowed Caravaggio to depict the saint erotically, nude, in fulfilment of or allusion to certain equivocal tastes. (Philipe Morel, Renaissance dionysiaque, Editions du Félin, 2015).

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. This painting depicts the artist as the president of the Accademia della Val di Blenio (Tessin). The inscription at the bottom of the painting reminds us that he has only just received this title. The Academy brought together Milan’s best artists: painters, sculptors, musicians… It was placed under the protection of the sign of Bacchus, seen as a lightener of worries and sorrow, inspirer of joy, stimulator of spirit and creation, and liberator. This self-portrait would have served as an antidote to the hardships of the age and austerity imposed by the champions of the Counter-Reformation, including the very strict Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan and cardinal of the Catholic Church. The painting makes many references to Bacchus: the subject’s hat is wrapped in a garland of laurels and vine leaves, and decorated with a vine leaf medallion; the thyrsus is enveloped in ivy; and then there’s the goatskin jacket. As a child, the god was turned into a goat by Jupiter, who wanted to protect him from Juno. (Source: Philippe Morel, Renaissance dionysiaque, Editions du félin, Paris, 2016). However, the compass which replaces the paintbrush in the painter’s right hand is not a Dionysian symbol. It is there to remind us that Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo knows how to navigate his artistic career, like a sailor his ship.


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?


LE FESTIN DES DIEUX, Jan van Bijlert, 1630 - Musée Magnin, Dijon

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.

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 above par excellence.

Bijlert 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 Bijlert 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.


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