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Sunday 20 May 2012

Bacchus and Ariadne

Here is a picture for anyone who thinks classical mythology and/or renaissance art is dull. It’s the work of the 16th century Italian artist Agostino Carracci, and it depicts the legendary tale of Bacchus and Ariadne. In Greek mythology, Ariadne was a Cretan princess who fell in love with the hero Theseus. He dumped her on the island of Naxos, where shortly afterwards the god Bacchus arrived to help her get over him. While the legendary account has them indulging in a robust sex session, it’s not often depicted as explicitly as it is here! A more traditional version was produced by Agostino’s brother Annibale Carracci.

It was not unknown for artists to produce generic porn images and slap classical-sounding titles on them to “get them past the censor”. But that’s not the case here, since the scene really does depict the legend of Bacchus and Ariadne. The male figure is wearing a wreath of vine-leaves, which was a universally recognized symbol of the god Bacchus. And in the background you can see Theseus making a getaway in his ship... again a widely recognized symbol often seen in depictions of this story.

Bacchus is often euphemistically described as the “god of wine”, but actually he was the god of drunkenness, debauchery and all-night sex orgies. Not surprisingly he had a large cult following, particularly in the decadent times of the later Roman Empire. We even used to worship him here in Somerset, as can be seen from this (sadly rather damaged) statue in the Roman ruins at Bath.

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