Bacchus and Ariadne

   Some years ago an educational publisher asked me to write a short version of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur for children. I'd always liked the story, but this gave me a chance to get to grips with it. One thing I realised at the time was what a seminal story it is.

It has all the elements of a great narrative: a hero (Theseus), a villain (the evil emperor Minos), an impossible task to undertake (defeating the Minotaur), a helpful sidekick (Ariadne), an unexpected turn in the story (Theseus ends up dumping Ariadne) and a twist at the end (Theseus's triumph turns to tragedy when he discovers that his own thoughtlessness has brought about the death of his father (Aegeus).  

  As a plot, this has to be a winner. And it was - for George Lucas, amongst others. Just consider the plot of the original Star Wars movies. A hero (Luke) has an impossible task. He must defeat the evil emperor (Darth Vader) with the help on an attractive sidekick (Princess Leia), whom he has to give up any ideas of pursuing when he discovers she is his sister. In the process of all this he finds he has brought about the death of his own father, who, in a brilliant extra twist, turns out to be the evil emperor!

Gustave Doré : King Minos in Hell
Dante turns him into a half-human, half-serpent, creature, who judges sinners by smelling them, then sends them on their way to the depths of Hell.
Why can you never get hold of a light-sabre when you need one?

Not King Minos

   Back to Earth. One of  the National Gallery's greatest paintings is Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne.

  Much has been written about the commission by Alfonso d'Este, the Duke of Ferrara. Oligarchs in those days preferred commissioning great art rather than simply buying up existing paintings at ridiculous prices (or worse, investing in dodgy football clubs). Many of the items in the picture, the cheetahs for example, supposedly belonged to Alfonso: a cheetah or two was de rigueur in sixteenth century Italy. There are other references - the figure trying to escape from a snake is probably based on the Laocoön statue discovered in Rome in 1506, just a few years before Titian started work on the painting. The main sources of the legend for artists are poems by Catullus and Ovid. The Ovid version is rather good; Catullus is rather tedious. This is the key extract from Catullus, though Titian tweaked it a little:
' youthful Bacchus wandering with the rout of satyrs and the sileni, children of Nysa, looking for you Ariadne…some waving thyrsi….some tossing about the limbs of a mangled steer, some girding themselves with mangled serpents...others beating timbrels with raised hands or clashing with round brass cymbals’.

  A thyrsus is 'a staff tipped with a pine cone and sometimes twined with ivy leaves, borne by Dionysus and his votaries' (on-line dictionary). Nysa was the mythical birthplace of Bacchus/Dionysus: Dionysus means 'born at Nysa. Silenus is the fat guy about to fall off his donkey; apparently 'silenus' means 'moving to and fro', a good definition for a habitual drunk. 

   One of Titian's tweaks is the ring of stars above Ariadne; Dionysus made her a goddess, and this is her constellation. 

 To me, it's the action of the painting that makes it so exciting. It's a freeze frame moment, with the love-struck Bacchus leaping from his  chariot. Bacchus and his weird crew move from right to left, so reading the painting in the usual left to right manner means that he is leaping at us as well as at Ariadne. 
  Now, why have I gone for this theme? It's not religious art in the usually accepted sense, though Bacchus, as god of wine, seems a pretty good god to me. 
  In September of 2013 we took a holiday on the Greek islands of Santorini, Paros - and Naxos. The present capital, Chora, is supposedly the place where Theseus abandoned Ariadne and Bacchus found her.
   At the time the picture was painted Naxos was under Venetian control; the Venetian fort is still impressively in evidence. I assume, though, that Titian never went there. I was intrigued to find out how close his imagination came to reality. You decide!

A modern-day Theseus on his way to Athens?

   One thing we learnt quite early on is that, on Naxos, it's not Bacchus but Dionysus.  Yes, it's the same god, but Bacchus isn't just a Roman name; 'Bacchus' was a Greek alternative, meaning 'frenzy'. Dionysus is still an important character in the islands. On the left below is the huge unfinished statue to Dionysus at Apollonia on Naxos. A flaw was discovered when working on it, making it unsuitable for a god. An interesting parallel to Michelangelo's first version of the statue of Christ.
   As you will see from the picture on the right, Dionysus has now given up frenzy and debauchery, and has opened a restaurant on Paros.

   Titian's picture is, of course, the end of the story of Theseus and Ariadne. Let's start at the beginning.

On to page two - and that Minotaur.

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