Bacchus and Ariadne. Characters and symbols in the picture by Titian

Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne. 1520-1523. The National Gallery, London

It’s not so easy to enjoy a picture with a mythological plot. At first, it is important to understand its characters and symbols.

Of course, everyone has heard who is Ariadne and who is Bacchus. But perhaps, we have forgotten why they met. And who are all the other characters in the Titian’s picture.

Therefore, I suggest that we should begin with unbricking the painting “Bacchus and Ariadne”.

And only then we will enjoy its pictural virtues.

Titian Bacchus and Ariadne
Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne (the painting guide). 1520-1523. The National Gallery, London


The daughter of the Cretan king Minos. And Minotaur was her twin brother. They didn’t look alike, but were born by one venter.

Unlike his sister, Minotaur was a monster. And every year he ate 7 girls and 7 boys.

It’s obvious that Crete citizens were fed up with it. And they asked Theseus for help.

He defeated Minotaur in the labyrinth where he lived.

But it was Ariadne who helped him to get out of the labyrinth. The girl couldn’t resist his courage masculinity and fell in love.

She gave her beloved one a ball of yarn. Theseus used a thread to get out of the labyrinth.

After that, a young couple escaped to the island. But for some reason, soon Theseus disliked the girl.

Well, obviously at first he couldn’t help but pay back for her help. But then he realized that couldn’t love her.

He left Ariadne alone on the island. Such a deceptive person he was.


Another name of Dionysus.

The God of winemaking and vegetation. And theatre as well. Maybe that’s why his attack on Ariadne is so theatrical and mannered? It’s not surprisingly that the girl shrank so much.

Actually, Bacchus saved Ariadne. Being desperate because of being left by Theseus, she was going to commit suicide.

But Bacchus saw her and fell in love. And unlike deceptive Theseus, he decided to marry the girl.

Bacchus was the favourite son of Zeus. After all, he bore him himself in the thigh. Therefore, he could not refuse him and agreed to make his wife immortal.

Bacchus is followed by his merry retinue. Bacchus was famous for relieving people from everyday troubles and making them feel the joy of life when he just passed by.

No wonder that his retinue always felt such a merry ecstasy.

3. PAN

A boy Pan is the god of shepherds and cattle breeding. Therefore, he pulls a cut head of a calf or a donkey.

The human mother abandoned him, being scared by what he looked like when he was born. His father Hermes took the baby to Olympus.

Bacchus liked the boy a lot, since he was dancing and having fun all the time. This is how he got into the retinue of the winemaking God.

A cocker is barking at Pan boy. This dog can also often be seen in the retinue of Bacchus. Apparently, the forest band loves this pet for its cheerful disposition.


Silenuses were children of Satyrs and Nymphs. They didn’t inherit goat legs from their fathers. The beauty of their mothers overcame this gene. However, often Silenus is depicted with increased hairiness.

This one is not hairy at all. Obviously, his mother nymph was especially attractive.

Moreover, he looks like Laocoon a bit. This wise man persuaded Troy citizens not to take the Troic horse to the city. That’s why gods sent huge snakes to him and his sons. And they were suffocated.

In fact, in the texts written by ancient Roman poets, Silenuses were often described as nude and entwined with snakes. It was a kind of a decoration, merging with nature. Indeed, they were forest dwellers.


Apparently, this Silenus had stronger genes from his father satire. Therefore, his legs are thickly covered with goat hair.
He is shaking a calf leg above his head – after all, it’s a feast. He has leaves instead of clothes that completely suit a forest creature.

6 and 7. BACCHAES

It can be understood from the name that these ladies were devoted admirers of Bacchus and accompanied him during his numerous feasts and orgies.
Despite their beauty, these girls were bloodthirsty. It was they who once tore poor Orpheus apart.
He sang a song about the gods, but forgot to mention Bacchus. And was punished by his devoted companions.

Emile Ben the death of Orpheus
Emile Ben. The Death of Orpheus. 1874. Private collection


Perhaps, Silenus is the most popular character from the Bacchus retinue. Judging by his appearance, he had joined the retinue of the merrymaking God before everyone else.

He is over 50, he is overweight and always drunk as a sow – almost unconscious. Other satires put him on a donkey and supported him.

Titian depicted him at the end of the procession. But other artists often showed him in the foreground, next to Bacchus.

For example, Vasari painted the drunk, flabby Silenus sitting at the Bacchus feet, unable to pry himself away from a jug of wine.

Vasari triumph of Bacchus
Giorgio Vasari. Triumph of Bacchus. Around 1560. Radischev Museum, Saratov


At Bacchus request, Hephaestus – the smith God – made a diadem for Ariadne. It was a wedding gift.

This very diadem was turned into a constellation.
Titian showed it in the form of a real diadem.

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However, the real constellation is called Crown for a reason. On the one side, it doesn’t form a ring.

This constellation can be seen from many points of the Northern hemisphere. The best time to observe it is June.


A hardly noticeable ship in the left part of the picture belongs to that very Theseus. He is leaving poor Ariadne forever.

The pictural subtleties of the Titian’s painting.

Bacchus and Ariadne Titian
Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne. 1520-1523. The National Gallery, London

Now, after we have deciphered all the characters, we can get down to discussing the pictural virtues of the painting. Here are the most important ones:


Titian showed the Bacchus in moving fashion, by “freezing” him jumping from a cart. This is a great innovation for the Renaissance era. Before, characters used to just stand or sit.

When seeing this Bacchus’ flight, I reminded Caravaggio’s “Boy Bitten by a Lizard”. It was painted 75 years after Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”.

Boy Bitten by a lizard Caravaggio
Caravaggio. Boy Bitten by a Lizard. 1595. The National Gallery, London

This innovation took flight only after Caravaggio’s works. And the figures’ dynamics will become the most important attribute of the Baroque era (17th century).


Look, what a bright blue sky Titian depicted. The artist used ultramarine colour. At his days it was an extremely expensive paint.

It became cheaper only in the early 19th century, when people learned how to produce it on a wholesale scale.

But Titian painted a picture by order from the Duke of Ferrara. Probably, he was the one who gave money for this luxury.


Titian’s composition is interesting as well.

The painting can be divided diagonally into two parts – two triangles.

The upper left part is the sky and Ariadne, wearing blue clothes. The bottom right part is a green and yellow palette with trees and forest gods.

And between these triangles, there is Bacchus in a fly-away pink cloak – like a kind of a binding force.

This diagonal composition is Titian’s innovation as well, which will turn into almost the main composition type for all the artists of the Baroque era (100 years later).


Look, how realistic are the cheetahs harnessed to the Bacchus cart that Titian depicted.

It is extremely surprising, since at that time there were no zoos and of course, no special encyclopaedias with animal photos.

Where had Titian seen these animals?

I can assume that he had seen travellers’ sketches. Indeed, he lived in Venice, where foreign trade was the key business. And there were lots of traveling people in this city.


Many artists showed this amazing story of love and betrayal. But it was Titian who told us this story in his special way – making it vivid, action-packed, and exciting.

And we had to put forth only a little effort to reveal all the secrets of this masterpiece.

You also can read my article about Titian’s painting “Shepherd and Nymph. Master’s mistake or image of deceit?”


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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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