Some of the most interesting works of art are those depicting motion. The attempt to portray a movement in a two-dimensional form of art provides ample room for the artist’s imagination and mimetic faculties. Since the movement – be it a run, jump, leap, fall, or other – cannot be painted while carefully examining a motionless model, the artist must form a mental picture of the motion in his mind and then implant it in the painting or sculpture. Using various means, including body posture, facial expression, straining muscles, clothing angles, an appropriate background, and reference to well-known stories, artists attempt to create an illusion that the painted figure or sculpture is, indeed, moving.
One of the best-known examples of movement in art is Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, painted in 1522-1523. It depicts Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and religious ecstasy, leaping towards Ariadne, daughter of Minos, king of Crete. Ariadne has been left on the island of Naxos, deserted by her lover Theseus, whose ship is sailing away to the far left. She is then discovered by Bacchus, who is leading a procession of revellers in a chariot drawn by two cheetahs. He leaps towards her; scholars disagree as to whether he is attempting to save her or has fallen in love with her at first sight. He will later raise her up to heaven and turn her into a constellation, represented by the stars above her head.
The composition is divided diagonally into two triangles: one green-brown, the other blue. In the green-brown triangle we see Bacchus’s bestial followers; the blue triangle portrays the sky, connecting in the right lower corner with Ariadne and her blue dress. And in the middle of the painting is Bacchus in mid-air, leaping from one triangle to the other.
The picture was produced for Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, who requested that it portray Greek and Roman themes and stories, “largely based on the descriptions of lost classical paintings”. This enigmatic request has been the subject of extensive research by art historians. Scholars delved into the writings of Ovid and Catullus to find the precise source of inspiration for this painting.
When I saw the painting at the National Gallery in London, I couldn’t help feeling that there was something odd about Bacchus’s leap. I moved from one side of the painting to the other, hoping that a different angle would provide the right perspective; but in vain. Bacchus’s posture seems to me quite bizarre. His upper body is reclined forward in an unnatural way. One would have expected him to be erect in order to maintain balance when his foot touched the ground. Also, the left arm is pointing backwards, an uncommon movement for a jumping man. The left leg is straight, a posture more typical of pushing than of jumping. And the angle of the red cloth around Bacchus’s body suggests that his upper body was moving in a downward momentum, at a sharp angle to the ground. So was Bacchus jumping upward, forward, or downward?
After many deliberations I came to the conclusion that the only way to explain the strange posture would be to imagine that he is breaking through an invisible screen-like barrier: the upper body is leaning forward to tear it; the leg is straight to support the body while forcefully breaking through it; the momentum, indicated by the red cloth, serves to crack it more easily; and the left hand is pointed backwards probably to make the ripping apart smoother. Even the posture of the head – Bacchus staring at Ariadne’s face – may be seen from this perspective, as also using the head to tear the barrier. Thus, Titian’s mental image was that of a man breaking though something, making a physical effort to tear it and get to the other side.
Following this hypothesis, the question of the nature of the invisible screen is bound to emerge. What was it that stood in Bacchus’s way, passing from the green-brown triangle to the blue one? Why was it so challenging?
The ancient Greek gods Apollo and Bacchus are both Zeus’s sons, though very different in their essence. Apollo is the god of order and reason, of harmony; Bacchus (also known as Dionysus) is the god of the irrational, chaos and ecstasy. The barbaric nature of Bacchus’s followers is very clear in this painting. E. R. Dodds, the masterful classical scholar, describes Bacchus: “he is Lusious, ‘the liberator’ – the god who by very simple means, or by other means not so simple, enables you for a short time to stop being yourself, and thereby sets you free … its psychological function was to satisfy and relieve the impulse to reject responsibility, an impulse that exists in all of us”.
This might explain the invisible obstacle that Bacchus is struggling with. He finds the transformation from an existence devoted merely to satisfying his most vulgar needs – utterly liberated from human responsibilities, almost non-human – to the realm of love and care for Ariadne extremely difficult. Titian understood the complexity of this transformation: he was aware of the barrier that one would need to overcome in order to achieve it.