Of all the Classical deities, Dionysus, also known to both Greeks and Romans as Bacchus, must have the least credible origin. He was the result of yet another of Zeus’s extramarital relations, this time with the mortal Semele. She seems to have been incredulous as to the true identity of her lover, and trapped him into having to reveal himself to her in his full divine majesty.
Knowing that would inevitably kill her, he tried to dissuade her, which could only have fuelled her suspicions. Despite bringing only his weakest thunderbolts, the inevitable happened, and she was consumed by fire, but not before Zeus could perform a Caesarian section on her and remove their unborn son, Dionysus. The head of the Olympian deities then sewed his son’s foetus into his thigh to continue to term, when Dionysus was born a god. There are many variants to this, none of which is any less incredible, and other claims of a prior birth to Persephone.
Giulio Romano and his workshop’s The Birth of Bacchus (c 1535) is a wonderful and quite revealing depiction of contemporary midwifery practice. Zeus, at the upper right, seems to be fleeing the scene, thunderbolts in his right hand, and Hera, at the upper left, seems puzzled and upset.
Down on earth, Semele has just been delivered of a baby boy, Dionysus, and her four attending midwives are caring for the baby, busy with the traditional towels and water as they do. However, above Semele’s abdomen and right thigh there are flames rising, and smoke. She looks up at Zeus, in distress if not horror. Zeus isn’t stopping to take on any surrogate pregnancy, though, and Dionysus looks fairly full-term too, hardly in need of further gestation.
This painting is believed to have been one of a series of ‘erotic’ works for the Duke of Mantua, which were designed by Giulio Romano and largely painted by the members of his workshop.
Dionysus is the god of the grape harvest, wine and its making and consumption, of fertility, ritual madness and ecstasy, and the Classical theatre. Where he appears in paintings, he is almost always associated with wine and drunkenness. His most distinctive attribute is the thyrsus, a wand made from the giant fennel plant which can be covered with ivy leaves, and topped off with a pine cone, or vine leaves, giving it the appearance of a slender club. He is commonly seen in the company of panthers, which draw his chariot, and may be holding or near drinking vessels and containers of wine.
There’s a long history of festivities devoted to Dionysus, including Bacchic and Eleusinian Mysteries and the Roman Bacchanalia. His worshippers are frequently to be found in states of intoxication and religious ecstasy, which typify Maenads (Greek) and Bacchantes (Roman) who are noted for their sexual disinhibition.
In August 1628, Peter Paul Rubens stayed in Madrid when on a diplomatic mission. While he was there, the young Spanish court artist Diego Velázquez painted The Triumph of Bacchus, or The Drinkers (1628-29). Surrounded by a drinking party of older rugged-faced men, the young Dionysus is placing a crown on the head of a younger man, who kneels for the honour. Five of the figures are amazingly lifelike: very contemporary but also timeless, their faces and clothing telling so much about them. On 22 July 1629, King Philip IV paid Velázquez 100 ducats – a goodly sum – for this painting.
Dionysus’ age and appearance are remarkably variable in paintings. In Ruben’s later Bacchus (1638-40), he is old and grotesquely obese, and here accompanied by his big cats. This was completed not long before Rubens’ death from the consequences of gout, and may be the artist’s personal reflection on the result of sustained familiarity with Dionysus.
Another elaborate myth in which Dionysus plays a major role is the story of Theseus’ abandonment of Ariadne on the island of Naxos, and her subsequent marriage to Dionysus.
Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-3) is probably the most famous painting of this myth. In the distance, at the left edge, Theseus’ ship is shown sailing away, with Ariadne apparently waving towards it, as Dionysus arrives and leaps out of his chariot. Above Ariadne in the sky is the Corona Borealis, or ‘northern crown’, a minor constellation associated with Ariadne. Behind her is a large drinking vessel on a screwed-up sheet, presumably the remains of the previous night’s celebrations with Theseus.
Dionysus comes with his whole party: his chariot is drawn by a pair of cheetahs, a drunken and bearded Silenius (a drinking companion) is swathed in serpents, and there are two Bacchantes (Maenads) and satyrs bearing the body parts of a deer.
Eugène Delacroix’s Autumn – Bacchus and Ariadne (1856-63) is one of a group of four allegorical works which were commissioned by the industrialist Frederick Hartmann, hence known as Hartmann’s Four Seasons. For autumn, Delacroix has chosen to show Ariadne, looking full of woe and the inertia of depression, being pulled up by one arm, by Dionysus, identified by his thyrsus and chariot drawn by big cats. Above the couple is a putto bringing out a garland to tell us that love is in the making, and a large flagon is shown on the ground to the right, presumably from her previous union with Theseus.
Lovis Corinth’s Ariadne on Naxos was inspired by Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos (1912). Strauss revised this substantially in a second version of 1916. The original version is a 30 minute divertissement performed at the end of an adaptation by Hofmannsthal of Molière’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (in English, known as The Perfect Gentleman). This was first performed in Stuttgart in October 1912, and Corinth seems to have attended its Munich premiere on 30 January 1913.
Wikipedia’s masterly single-sentence summary reads: “Bringing together slapstick comedy and consummately beautiful music, the opera’s theme is the competition between high and low art for the public’s attention.”
Corinth’s painting shows a group of figures from classical myth on a symbolic, if not token, island. At the left and in the foreground, Ariadne lies in erotic langour on Theseus’ left thigh. He wears an exuberant helmet, and appears to be shouting angrily and anxiously towards the other figures to the right.
The group in the middle and right is centred on Dionysus, who clutches his characteristic thyrsus in his left hand, and with his right hand holds the reins to a leopard and a tiger, which are drawing his chariot. Leading those animals is a small boy, and to the left of the chariot is a young Bacchante. Behind them is an older couple of rather worn-out Bacchantes. Crossing the sky in an arc are many putti, their hands linked together.
There are a great many paintings of Bacchantes, which became a popular platform for groups of classical nudes. A few contain more substantial narrative, such as the death of Orpheus, who strayed into a group of Maenads from Thrace who he encountered at dawn one day.
Émile Lévy’s Death of Orpheus (1866) shows the moment before the first wound is inflicted by the women: Orpheus, remarkably young-looking, has just been knocked to the ground, and looks stunned. Two Maenads kneel by his side, one clasping his neck (almost as if feeling for a carotid pulse), the other about to bring the vicious blade of her ceremonial sickle down to cleave his neck open.
Another wields her thyrsus like a club while pulling at the man’s left hand. Their priestess, her head thrown back to emphasise her extraordinary mane of hair, is entwined with serpents, and officiates at the sacrifice. In the shadows at the top left, the figure of Dionysus stands, looking away from the scene below as a naked celebrant cavorts behind him.
Just keep clear of the Maenads and Bacchantes, as they won’t do you any good.