An Ancient Greek Love Story: Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne

Bacchus and Ariadne, c,1520, © National Gallery
Bacchus and Ariadne, c.1520, © National Gallery

BY CHRISTINE ALFORD

This spectacular painting brings to life an ancient love story from classical Greek poetry. Ariadne, the lady in the blue robe on the left of the painting is a Cretan princess. She is the daughter of the Cretan King Minos and his wife Pasiphae. The tale begins when Pasiphae gives birth to a monstrous bull called the Minotaur. The King built an enormous labyrinth at the Palace of Knossos to contain the dangerous beast. Minos demanded that Athens send innocent men and women, as tributes, to be sacrificed to the Minotaur.

The brave Athenian, Theseus volunteered to kill the Minotaur and rescue the Athenian victims. Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and offered to help him kill the Minotaur. She gave Theseus a ball of string to tie to the entrance to the labyrinth so that he would be able to follow the trail and escape. After slaying the Minotaur he set sail back to Athens, promising Ariadne that she would be his queen. They sailed for several days and then pulled into the island of Naxos to stock up on food and fresh water.

Ariadne lay down and fell into a deep sleep on the shore of the Island of Naxos. She is awakened by the sound of singing, laughter and sweet music. This scene is represented by the painting you can see before you. Ariadne is tearfully waving at the ship in the distance. Theseus has left the island without her. Bacchus the God of wine, emerges from the forest with a merry band of followers. He falls in love with Ariadne and leaps from his chariot, declaring that he will be a more faithful love. Bacchus is the central focus of the painting with a laurel wreath in his hair and a red drape wrapped around him. Bacchus offers Ariadne the stars. He takes the crown from her head and throws it into the sky, where it become the constellation, known as Ariadne. These stars are represented in the painting at the top left corner.

This picture was painted by Titian in around 1520. You can see this masterpiece at the National Gallery in London. I have finished working on an audio-guide app of the National Gallery for Tupuy, which is now available to download. If you like this picture, then you might enjoy the other delightful paintings that are on display at the National Gallery.

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