Bacchus’ Car, its Team and Train :

A Mystery Re-Solved

 

 

This essay advances a theory which proposes and provides ample evidence for the Bacchanalian entourage of antiquity having been seen as a formal[1] procession in the sky, and then goes on to investigate the peculiarly unprecedented degree of comprehensiveness in Titian’s High Renaissance illustration of this exact idea.

 

The chariot drawn by wild cats and the eccentric posse of revellers in Titian’s famous High Renaissance painting Bacchus and Ariadne form a striking image, but neither Titian nor his patrons or humanist associates invented the scene. The motif of the wildcat-drawn chariot has a long and curious history. We can trace this Dionysian car with its feline team back via Roman sarcophagi and Roman and Greek mosaics and poems at least as far as a Hellenistic work:  the Paean to Dionysos by Philodemos records that the Delphic oracle gave an instruction for a statue to be made of Dionysos in a chariot pulled by lions. Was this wild idea simply a surreal imagining conjured up in the mind of the oracle by toxic vapours or the use of some strange psychoactive herb? Actually, there was a well established cult of Dionysos at this site of Delphi with its own calendar of Dionysian rites. (Dionysos, Kerenyi, p.141-142) A deeper agenda may well have been at work behind this iconic image, one which could also explain why it caught on so well centuries later, for it would become popular in Roman art too. Surrealism as a genre didn’t exist in those times; there were generally reasons for things. Why is the chariot of Dionysos drawn by large felines?

The idea that Dionysos conquered India and then returned from the East in triumph in his chariot is from the Roman period. To the Roman mind, if you rode in a chariot with a procession of figures following behind you with even some exotic wild beasts thrown in, i.e. in this case the lions, then you were the star of a triumphal procession, and that meant that you must have returned to Rome after some victory. Here I propose that Dionysos returning from the East with lion-drawn chariot and band of figures following preceded the idea of the triumphal return, had in fact a different original logic behind it, and that the story of Dionysos’ triumph in India was then invented precisely because of how this seemed to the Roman mind – because he rode back from the East in an exotic car then he must have had a victory there, their reasoning ran.

That the return from the East was already a feature before the Alexander-like conquest was overlaid onto the story is explained by Otto (Dionysos : Myth and Cult, here translated by Robert B. Palmer). “We see, after all, from Euripides Bacchae that the god was believed to have come to Media, Persia, Arabia, all the way to Bactria. It is out of a distance such as this that Dionysos appears when he comes....His approach as it is celebrated around the time of spring is more mysterious. The one who vanished comes over the sea...he sails silently over the sea, and at his entry nature quickens.” It was as an echo of this arrival, says Otto, that his idol made its entry on a ship-car, a carnival float, in the springtime festival.   

So what then was the original reason why he was seen as returning in such a manner from the East? How does an arrival from the East relate to the reawakening of nature in Spring?  

As we look into the history of the motif we come across a number of other intriguing questions which when answered will unveil this original logic:-

The Nature of the Mystery

1)                  A chariot drawn by tigers and ridden ahead of a bacchanalian following is described by that most esteemed of Roman poets – Virgil - in his Eclogue V, and he includes a very useful key to the unlocking of the mystery. In the translation of J.W.MacKail: “Daphnis ordered the harnessing of Armenian tigresses to the car; Daphnis [also then ordered] the processions of Bacchus' revellers and the soft leafage wound round their supple shafts.” These statements combine to form the standard image as later painted by Titian, except that the felines are tigers, and the chariot rider is not the god but a mortal agent of his cult, Daphnis, who was the Ideal Shepherd of Sicilian tradition, and here acts as the agent by instituting the revels. Why does Virgil place the Ideal Shepherd on this chariot, rather than Bacchus himself?

2)                  From the Roman period there are at least three other descriptions from well-known writers, in addition to Virgil, of the scene later painted by Titian, namely those of the lyric poet Catullus, the story-teller poet Ovid and the satiric lecturer Lucian. It is easy to assume that since the theme is wild, such descriptions must also have been wildly imaginative, but in fact all three are remarkably similar, conservatively describing the same set of characters – those that Titian would paint in a later age. What formality was it that impelled these ancient writers to remain obedient to a stock scene? In later antiquity Nonnos in his odd Dionysiaca does allow his own wild imaginings to intrude into his meandering epic, but even here he often paints the same picture, for example in a passage in bk xviii (42 - 61), with god in lion-drawn chariot leading satyrs, maenads and pans.

3)                  Why does the idea that Dionysos is preceded in his arrivals by a wild cat or wild cats seem to matter more than the story itself? In other words, how is it that this idea could be translated from a team pulling a chariot to simply a panther leading Dionysos via a leash, as in some of the depictions (e.g. the tomb at Osta, see below), to Dionysos riding on the cat, or even be translated from land to sea as where Philostratus describes an ancient painting of the boat of Dionysos in which the foreparts of the ship are in the shape of a cheetah? Similarly in the story of his capture by pirates Dionysos made ivy wind round the mast and changed into a lion who stood roaring, Aslan-like, on the ship’s deck and scaring the abductors into jumping into the water, where they turned to dolphins. Again the large cat on the boat, and in an Athenian festival boat and chariot were merged into one to form the god’s boat-car, to be pushed through the streets. In Late Antiquity Nonnos has the chariot itself performing the function of a boat: “The god [Bacchus] led them in his land-chariot, driving his makeshift vessel over the flood, while the panthers trod the waters of Hydaspes without wetting a hoof.”  Why did form take precedent over narrative? And why does the chariot soar dry-wheeled over the waters?

4)                  Why does the figure of Aegipan feature so often in reliefs showing the scene, and in ekphrasis-like descriptions of the scene such as by Lucian and Nonnos, when there is no particularly strong connection between this goat-legged feature and the older Greek myths of Dionysos?

5)                  Why did this type of scene, seemingly a thing of life rather than death, become a popular one for Roman sarcophagi? A tomb in Ostia, the harbour of Rome, presents us with a more specific peculiarity. It shows the traditional group - with a panther leading the way, and Silenus and the goat-legged Aegipan - but it also shows Hercules adjacent to the position normally reserved for Dionysos. Why did the ancient Roman artist choose to put Hercules in the Dionysian group, when there is no precedent for this from Greek myth? The inscriptions on this same tomb tell us that these scenes show the initiation of a boy Dionysos, providing an explanation for why there seem to be unspoken undercurrents behind these choices, (for mysteries, that is to say the matter of initiations, were not to be revealed) and prompting us to ask what connection there is between this stock scene and the Dionysian Mysteries.

 

At this point it is worth remembering that there was a Dionysian religion, with Dionysian societies with stages of initiation, based on secret mysteries. (See for example The Greek Dionysian Religion of Late Antiquity in Dioynysos, Kerenyi, p.349-388.) This must lead us to suspect that the reasoning behind some of these things is not necessarily to be found openly stated, yet reasoning there may indeed be.

 

There is in fact one simple realization which sheds considerable light on all these questions, and we arrive at it by a simple process of logic:-

 

 

 

Solving the Mystery

 

Step 1 – Noting a Stellar Connection

 

The Dionysos myth contains the theme of ascension and has a constellation connection. This much we know, and I provide here a few details to prove the point. Referring to the placing of Ariadne into the stars, and Dionysos rising to join her there once his earthly mission is done, an ancient artefact known as the Brindisi Disk shows the pair in a chariot surrounded by the Zodiac. The Corona Borealis constellation is most commonly called the Crown or Wedding Wreath of Ariadne, and another tale told by Hyginus, quoting from the Argolica, says that this crown constellation was actually the crown of Dionysos, given to him by Aphrodite, and still another version holds that this constellation was in fact the ivy wreath of Dionysos himself (the Scholiast on Aratus, Phaenoemna 71). Where there is a wreath, there must also be someone wearing it. Let us keep this in mind, together with the fact that in Apollodorus, Dionysos ascends into the heavens after travelling through the Underworld at the end of his earthly career. Nonnos in the Dionysiaca has King Staphylos say to Dionysos "Perseus saved Andromeda in her affliction; likewise save by a greater victory the Virgin of the stars." Perseus and Andromeda are constellations adjacent to each other, while Virgo is adjacent to Bootes and Leo, so while Perseus saved the female constellation next to him, since Virgo is saved by Dionysos we are lead to consider that his, or his myth’s place in the sky may similarly be close to Virgo. Later (in bk xxv) Nonnos again draws us to this part of the heavens when he writes "and if Perseus is proud of Andromeda too in the stars, do but cast your eye towards that side of the heavens where the brilliant Ophiuchis [the Serpent Bearer] is conspicuous holding up his encircling Serpent; and you will see the circle of Ariadne's Crown, the Sun's companion, which rises with the Moon and proclaims the desire of crownloving Dionysos." Ariadne is again compared to Andromeda where Dionysos says to her in bk xlvii "Perseus has left her heavenly chains to Andromeda even in the stars, but for you I will make a starry crown, that you may be called the shining bedfellow of crownloving Dionysos." Again, for Nonnos the last event in the Dionysian story is the ascent of the god into “his father’s heaven”. From Propertius Elegiae 3.17 we learn that it was in the feline-drawn chariot that Ariadne was carried into the stars.

 

Such things hint with increasing fervour at a constellation connection in the Dionysian Mystery, and there are more. In the Mythological Introduction of H.J.Rose to the  W.H.D.Rouse’s translation of Nonnos’ Dionysiaca (Heineman, 1939) we are told how Nonnos “seems to have tried to fit the events of the story into an astrological background....He divides time into world-months consisting of a world-year, and after the cosmic month which brings the Flood (bk.i.) and that of Typhon’s attempt (bk.ii.), the cosmic winter is over (bk.iii.), summer is come to the universe and the blessing of a new god, a god of the fruitfulness of autumn, is due. This comes in the later books of the poem, with the birth, growth and triumph of Dionysos.” In Book VIII, Envy in the form of Ares complains at the number of mortals who have been transferred to Olympos, and then gives a list of examples, all of which are constellations, such as Perseus and Andromeda, Callisto (the Great Bear), and Ganymede. He includes also Dionysos’ mother Semele and the latter’s future wife Ariadne, saying that he himself shall quit the heavens before he sees “Semele and Bacchos [i.e. Dionysos] as denizens of Olympos, and Ariadne’s crown translated to the starts to run its course with Helios, to travel with misty dawn.” Here again the name of the wine god is included amongst a list of constellations with nothing to say that he is not one of them.  That Olympos here means the heavens with their constellations is shown when we are told that “when he is done with Earth he [Bacchus] will come into the starry sky” ( bk ix). Further confirmation that the lions are constellations comes soon after  (bk ix): “The time of boyhood just come...[Dionysos]...draped furry tunics upon his body, and carried to cover his shoulders the dappled skin of a stag, imitating the sky spotted with stars. He drove lynxes to his stables in the Phrygian plain, and yoked speckled panthers to his cart as if to make it like the place where his father dwelt [i.e. starry Olympos].” Clearly the speckling of the panthers continues the dappling of the fawn skins, and for the same reason, to represent the starry skies. This place being imitated, “where his father dwelt”, is again revealed as the starry sky (how many more hints could we need?): “Dionysos will come without scheming into the company of the stars; he will dwell in his father’s heaven.” Again in bk xvii we read how "the god [Dionysos] led the van...and shone in splendour like another heaven." Further confirmation that the Olympos into which Bacchus and Ariadne ascend is the same as the starry heavens comes in bk xxxviii. Helios is instructing his son Phaethon on how to steer the solar chariot around the course of the year, and the equinox point (still held by Nonnos to be in Aries) is brought to the lad’s attention, where he is instructed that “the Ram is the navel star of Olympos.” In other words when the Sun is here day and night are equal, so the point is conceived as a midpoint or navel. But instead of saying the navel of the starry sky or of the Zodiac, Helios says the midpoint of Olympos, confirming once again that for Nonnos Olympos means the starry skies.

 

Step 2 – Virgil’s Shepherd Rider of the Tiger-Pulled Car : The Key to the Mystery

 

For that matter, the Virgil eclogue we have mentioned, where the shepherd rides the chariot, is also quite emphatically about an ascension into the stars. It is known as Daphnis at Heaven’s Gate. He had died, but now he was raised up into the sky, his fame being lifted up to the stars.

 

The Florentine Renaissance humanist Landino, who had the Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino as his student, “presented Virgil as a Platonist whose poetry was full of ‘mysteries’ and ‘the deepest secrets of philosophy’.” (Peter Burke, The European Renaissance.)The hunch proves correct. Plato describes a simile in Phaedrus of the philosopher’s Soul as a chariot rider ascending a road upwards to the realm of the gods, finding at the top of the arch of the sky a portal to the Realm of Ideas, communing with Ideas here as the Soul does prior to incarnation, and then travelling back down the other side of the arch of the sky. This is used as a simile for what happens when we learn how to see the essence of the universal ideas of the things in the world rather than being lost in the material, the changing and the particular. We get a taste of what it is like to be an immortal, a god, and indeed Plato says that the gods in their chariots do ascend upon this path in the sky, and that the initiated philosophers are able to follow in their train.

Plato says that in addition to Zeus eleven other Olympians, each with their own band of the sky, travel this path. Notes to the Penguin addition claim this can’t be the Zodiac, because Plato says Hestia doesn’t join them, so that there are only eleven bands, not the twelve of the Zodiac. But this misses two points – Plato has already said the Zeus goes first, and that the others follow in eleven bands, one band each, clearly. So the twelfth band is that of Zeus. All are accounted for. The second missed point is that the story that Plato refers to – Hestia leaving Olympus – is part of the story of the ascent of another god who took her place...Dionysos. By telling us that Hestia was not one of the twelve, but that there were eleven in addition to Zeus, he is telling us that Dionysos is one of the gods who, as he says “lead on their companies.” He continues: “Now many glorious sights meet the eyes of the blessed gods on the journeys to and fro beneath the vault of heaven which they take each in their pursuit of his allotted task, and they are followed by anyone who is able and willing to follow them, since jealousy has no place in the company of the divine. But when they go to the celebration of their high feast day, they take the steep path leading to the summit of the arch which supports the outer heaven. The teams of the gods which are well matched and tractable, go easily...” Well, Dionysos has a chariot pulled by its famous team. The chariot flies in Nonnos. Dionysos leads his company of followers, the thiasos of initiates. He has his feast day, be it a Greek Dionysia or Roman Liberalia, in both of which ceremonies processions of celebrants followed an idol of the god. Doesn’t it seem possible that Plato’s initiation of the philosopher and the Dionysian initiation might have something in common?

It wouldn’t be strange if Plato had used images drawn from the Dionysian initiations steries in his similes. The Neoplatonist Porphyry asserted in Late Antiquity that Plato's philosophy was illustrated in the Mysteries, and sometimes Plato referred to the Mysteries directly. In Phaedo he has Socrates state that "the founders of the Mysteries...were not mere triflers" and in Meno he tells Meno that if he wants a true and deep understanding of the nature of virtue, he should accompany him to the Mysteries and be initiated. Anne M. Farrell, a visiting instructor at Georgia State University and holder of a PhD in Philosophy wrote a dissertation entitled Plato's Use of Eleusinian Mystery Motifs in which she argued that "Plato consciously and systematically uses Eleusinian Mystery motifs to convey the idea of a unique kind of knowledge."

So it does seem highly likely either that Virgil was thinking in terms of this Platonic ascent to the realm of Ideas in Phaedrus when he described the ascent of Daphnis, or that they were both thinking of the same initiation mystery.

 

Landino’s pupil Ficino held that the spirit of Dionysos was “the ecstasy and abandon of disencumbered minds, when partly by innate love, partly at the instigation of the god, they transgress the natural limits of intelligence and are miraculously transformed into the beloved god himself: where, inebriated by a certain new draft of nectar and by an immeasurable joy, they rage, as it were, in a bacchic frenzy.” And Ficino’s pupil Pico della Mirandola in turn would take up the theme, but this time linking it directly to Plato’s chariot rider in Phaedrus: Who would not wish to be so inspired by those Socratic frenzies which Plato sings in the Phaedrus that, swiftly fleeing this place, that is, this world fixed in evil, by the oars, so to say, both of feet and wings, he might reach the heavenly Jerusalem by the swiftest course? Let us be driven, O Fathers, by those Socratic frenzies which lift us to such ecstasy that our intellects and our very selves are united to God....Then the leader of the Muses, Bacchus, revealing to us in our moments of philosophy, through his mysteries, that is, the visible signs of nature, the invisible things of God, will make us drunk with the richness of the house of God.” (The Dignity of Man)      

 

According to Virgil in this eclogue it was this shepherd Daphnis who instituted the Dionysian cult through Sicily, but in this regard he is simply an echo of the Athenian shepherd Ikarios, the one who received the gift of wine from Dionysos and travelled around the countryside of Attica in his cart sharing the gift with the locals. According to the Ancient Roman writer Hyginus in his work on the constellations and their myths,

 

this Dionysian shepherd Ikarios is identified with Bootes, the Herdsman constellation

 

and this must intrigue us since Bootes is located in the sky with Virgo on one side and Ariadne’s Wreath (the Corona Borealis) on the other! Nonnos also tells the story of Ikarios: "Zeus our Lord on high joined the soul of Erigone [daughter of Ikarios] with the star of the heavenly Virgin...and the soul of Ikarios he combined with Bootes in the Heavens."   As the notes to the W.H.D.Rouse translation inform us, Nonnos uses this conception of souls being made one with already-existing stars “to unite two divergent sets of star-myths." It also means that more than one soul can rise to a particular star, which is necessary for any mystery of initiation where the inducted candidate expects to follow in the path of the god and join them one day in the place of the immortals.

 

So Ikarius is unquestionably Bootes, but is Daphnis Ikarius? It certainly looks like it: like Ikarius, Daphnis is described by Virgil as having been “cruelly killed”; as with Ikarius a tomb had to be built for Daphnis to honour him after death or else a plague would continue; as with the libations poured to Ikarius in the Athenian festival of the vintage, the shepherds in Virgil’s eclogue sing of how they will pour annual libations of milk, honey, olive oil and wine at altars sacred to Daphnis. “As they do to Bacchus and Ceres, husbandmen shall also make vows each year to you [Daphnis].” As we’ve said, Virgil’s Daphnis institutes the Dionysian revels, just as it was Ikarios in the Attic tradition who received and passed on the gift from Dionysos. And as said, as with Ikarius, the soul of Virgil’s Daphnis ascends into the sky after his death, at which point nature ceases to mourn and instead celebrates the apotheosis of the Ideal Shepherd in the stars. There are enough points of correspondence here for us to take the Daphnis as the Sicilian Ikarius, just as there was also a version of the Ikarius story in Tyre where the shepherd was called Semachos.

 

In the novel of Late Antiquity Daphnis and Chloe the goatherd with this same name of Daphnis is said to be “like Dionysos” during the festival of the vintage – a festival sacred to Ikarius, as we know - and the abductions of the protagonists by pirates surely feature because the plot is part ekphrasis based on works of art showing scenes from the life of Dionsyos, works which actually feature in the novel in a temple of Dionysos. Chloe as a virgin throughout the novel could be Virgo, especially as Chloe is a cult name for Demeter, and so when the two “wait for the end of winter as from a resurrection from death” we might want to take note of the winter absence and the spring reappearance of these adjacent constellations, Bootes the Herdsman and Virgo the Virgin.     

 

Step 3  - The Mystery is Solved : Leo Draws the Chariot

 

This Bootes is also right next to that constellation which Ariadne wears as her crown as she ascends with Dionysos, and the real point here is this:

the rise of these two constellations are immediately preceded by the rise of Leo,

who prowls ahead of them in the sky over the course of the night, leading them westward from the East, so that suddenly we have the perfect image of our chariot of Dionysos and Ariadne pulled by the leonine team, and of Virgil’s Ideal Shepherd on the tiger-drawn chariot. In fact, Leo was known in Roman times as Bacchi Sidus, denoting that the lion belonged to Bacchus, according to the extensive study Star Names by Richard Hinkley Allen, published in the 1960’s, but frustratingly he does not seem to give a reference for this from an ancient source.



[1] “Formal” here is not meant in the usual Art History sense of a focus on line, colour, shape etc. as opposed to the narrative content in a work of art, but rather means here an adherence to a traditionally agreed form, which could itself have narrative elements.

6)       

 

Above: The Westward-Travelling (Left to Right) Posse of Dionysos, with Leo team, Shepherd driver, and following train of serpent-wreathed Maenad (Serpent-Bearer),  the horse-ish Silenus(Sagittarius) and the  goatish Aegipan (Capricorn). Hercules is to be seen near Bootes the Shepherd. Aquarius the Water-Bearer follows behind Aigipan. The dotted line is the Ecliptic, the path that the Zodiac constellations follow, one behind the other, across the sky over the night.

 

More generally, the poets delighted in dancing obscurely round the mystery, saying only enough to speak to those also in the know. Can it be a coincidence that Hyginus, Virgil and Propertius were all connected with the court of Augustus, or that Landino, Ficino and Pico were all connected with the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici? Lorenzo himself was a poet, and he composed carnival songs, one of which was to be sung from a triumph (or festival float) or Bacchus and Ariadne. We also know he kept leopards in his menagerie and that they were lead in the procession in the Florentine carnival – logically they must have been lead just ahead of the Bacchus float.

 

Now the Mystery Unravels : The Bacchic Train Unveiled

 

Other constellations follow on immediately behind Bootes and the Crown along the Zodiac path like a crowd thronging behind their leader, and here we shall find, in order, our Serpent-Wreathed Maenad – a female member of the Dionysian cult, then Dionysos’ mentor Silenus and after that the customary goatish Pan figure.

 

This latter is present as Capricorn, explicitly connected by various ancient sources including this same Hyginus with the figure of Aegipan, who we have noted follows in the Dionysian train behind the chariot. Hyginus: “Capricorn’s appearance is similar to that of Aegipan.” Aegipan is a man with the legs of a goat. Lucian similarly has a man with goat legs in the train of Dionysos returning from India, and this is depicted on the Roman tomb, Ostia, with the goat-legged figure labelled as Aegipan (or rather, the (misspelled?) Aegipas) and on many other sarcophagi. Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 13 writes: "Euhemerus [C4th B.C. mythographer] says that a certain Aex was the wife of Pan. When she was embraced by Jove [Zeus] she bore a son whom she called son of Pan. So the child was called Aegipan, and Jove, Aegiochus. Since he [Jove] was very fond of him [Aegipan], he placed in memory the form of a goat among the stars." Therefore, Aegipan as Capricorn in the Dionysian constellation scheme works remarkably well.

We are now able to make perfect sense of the inclusion of Hercules in the image on the Ostia tomb. By this time what was formerly simply the Kneeling Man constellation, located next to Bootes, was more formally identified with Hercules. No wonder we find him next to the one who is preceded by the wild cat!

The essential inclusion of Silenus in the train now also makes sense. In Greek tradition, a silenus is a two-legged figure with a horse’s tail, and horse-like in other areas too, and Silenus as a figure is their head, and the mentor of Dionysos.

Ancient Roman writer Hyginus (whose Poetic Astronomy was printed in Venice in 1485) said: “Many say Sagittarius [the constellation] is Centaurus; others however say this cannot be for the reason that no centaur used arrows...he is represented with a horse’s limbs and a tail, [two-legged] like a satyr.” Pseudo-Eratosthenes: “Others say Sagittarius is not a centaur because this Archer figure does not appear to have four legs, but to be standing and shooting a bow.... The Archer represents a man with the legs and tail of a horse....” Therefore, Silenus as Sagittarius in the constellation map works well.

So in the image from the Ostia tomb (below) the panther leads, Hercules is present near the Bootes position, and Aegipan follows behind Silenus – all in their correct relative constellation positions. They travel from right to left instead of left to right, just as on ancient celestial globes the map of the constellations was shown reversed as if showing the conceptualized celestial globe from the outside.

                                                                                               

Having mourned his death, nature in the Virgil eclogue that we have mentioned celebrates the ascension into the stars of Daphnis because Bootes then (and still) returns to the evening skies in spring, getting higher as the season changes into summer:-

 

Daphnis stands rapt before Olympus’ gate,

And sees beneath his feet the clouds and stars.

Wherefore the woods and fields, Pan, shepherd-folk,

And Dryad-maidens, thrill with eager joy;

Nor wolf with treacherous wile assails the flock,

Nor nets the stag: kind Daphnis loveth peace.

The unshorn mountains to the stars up-toss

Voices of gladness; ay, the very rocks,

The very thickets, shout and sing, ‘A god,

A god is he...’

 

The lion-drawn chariot reappears in Spring, so we would expect the ancient calendar to reflect this Spring reappearance of an image of the wine god. Sure enough Ovid's entry in his Fasti for March 8 says that "on this day you'll see Corona appear, the Crown of Knossos' girl [Ariadne]," and then, in his entry for this day, he tells of Liber/Bacchus' triumphant return from India and his meeting again with Ariadne, at which Bacchus tells her: "Let us seek heaven's heights together...You'll will be named Libera [Roman female Bacchus/Wine goddess] when transformed. I will create a monument of you and your crown [i.e. as constellations]." In other words they are both, Bacchus and Ariadne, ascending on this day. Three days before Ovid speaks of a constellation called Grape-Gatherer, a star on the edge of Virgo near to Bootes, and behind Leo in the train. Though Bootes is yet submerged “and will escape your vision, the Grape-Gatherer, Vindemitor, will not escape.”  Then shortly after the appearance of Ariadne’s wreath, on March 17, the Liberalia was celebrated, a feast of Bacchus. 

 

(Cicero, and a commentator on Aratus, actually had the Grape-Gatherer of Vintager as a star in the Bootes itself, according to Allen’s Star Names. As early as Hesiod, one of the first Greek writers almost as old as Homer, the morning appearence of Arcturus, the Bright star in Bootes, was said to be the time to "pluck the clusters from the parent vines" - the god therefore being born in a sense under the star of Bootes.)  

 

The Time of Arrival

 

We have revealed a strong seasonal aspect to the vision of Dionysos-Bacchus led by the wild cat, because Leo and Bootes appear in the evening skies between Spring and Summer. The Athenians – not farmers who gazed at pre-dawn stars, but city-folk more likely to notice the stars that showed in the sky in the evening - had also celebrated Dionysos' rise from the Underworld in Spring, and this too formed a major event in their calendar. More confirmation of this seasonal aspect is to be seen on a wonderful Roman sarcophagus in the Metropolitan Museum of New York known as The Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons, shown here below. Here the four standing figures flanking Dionysos with his lion are the Four Seasons, and Dionysos on the lion is located between Spring to the left and Summer to the right.

 

Bacchus with lion progressing from Spring to Summer

on a beautiful Roman sarcophagus

 

Winter to the far left holds a bare vine; that of Spring has sprouted leaves, then comes Dionysos on his lion with Aegipan behind him, and Autumn is surrounded by images of fruition. The sculpture is exquisite, and its content is in harmony with the theory here expounded, because as I've said the ascent of Leo and Bootes into the evening sky occurs through spring and summer. In addition, it allows us to tie together the themes of initiation, marriage and the seasons. In the space of a year Dionysos, the vine, is born and grows to maturity. Initiation is a passage into adulthood, and the young man, a man passing from the Spring to the Summer of his life, reaches marriageable age – Bacchus rides to his wedding with Ariadne at this time of the “year” that is his full life. Ultimately, after winter, there will be the rebirth that must surely have been associated with the immortality of the Soul for this to have been deemed a scene suitable for sarcophagi.

Note how spear-like the thyrsus staff of Bacchus looks in the relief on the Triumph of the Seasons sarcophagus above, and there are other similar examples. There is a star in Bootes which, amongst other names, has been called since Roman times Venabulum, the Hunting Spear. The venabulum was a spear fixed with an iron point used for hunting animals. Lucian in his lecture on Dionysos in India talks of how the Dionysian thyrsus staff had a steel point concealed under the ivy. Bootes holds a spear as an alternative in some images to the shepherd’s staff. It seems distinctly possible to me that if this was not derived from a simple misreading of images of a figure holding the thyrsus, then quite possibly the Dionysian figure in the chariot images was made to carry the thyrsus in order to further the translation of the scene to the star-map, to make him look more like the constellation who holds the spear, just as Nonnos has him wear dappled skins and yokes dappled lynxes to his cart "to imitate the sky" and "to make it like the place where his father dwelt." It looks as though on his other side the Bacchus in the Triumph of the Seasons above handles a circular wreath.

The relief is very similar to a much earlier depiction of Dionysos on a spotted cat on a vase now in the Louvre, shown below. It takes us back even before the Hellenistic period to the Late Classical period. Silenus is shown as he used to be in Greek tradition with his horse’s tail. Dionysos holds a Dionysian staff in one hand and a wreath in the other, this wreath quite probably signifying the Corona Borealis constellation.

Another ancient work of art with a seasonal theme is a marble relief now in the Sully wing of the Louvre. It shows Dionysos leading the Horai. The Horai personified the seasons but their name means “Hours”. This is because they were charged with the duty of controlling the constellations, which change in the night sky hour by hour, but also in a wider cycle season by season, so what appears at one time of night in one month, appears at an earlier time a month later. In Late Antiquity Nonnus in his novel Dionysian Story has Zeus send a message to Dionysos, telling him to achieve great things so that the Horai will open the gates to heaven and allow him to take his place there. The three Horai could be called Thallo, Auxo, and Carpo, meaning Blossom Bringer, Increaser, and Food Bringer, referring to Spring, Summer and Autumn. Nonnus mentions four Horae: Eiar, Theros, Cheimon and Phthinoporon, the Greek words for spring, summer, autumn and winter.

Roman copy of Hellenistic neo-Attic work

 

The work above is an example of a depiction of Dionysos with a long pointy beard. This long beard was common in earlier Greek depictions of the god riding in his ship, his festive boat-car, or stepping into his chariot ready to ascend. If we look at the main part of the Bootes constellation in the sky, we see a form which can very easily be imagined as a head with wreath and pointy beard.

 

As far as this personal conviction and appended addition to the general theory here proposed is concerned, I cannot offer so much hard evidence, but, despite the pointy beard not being exclusive to the wine god in earlier art, it is rarely quite so pronounced and this extra observation does feel deeply right to me. I don’t present it as supporting evidence for the main theory, but visa-versa: it rides on the strength of that theory. I could perhaps point to the fact that in the Exekias above right the robe of the god reclined in his ship is decorated with stars, and that the curved top of the rhyton is located in the position of and matches the form of Corona. Below, where the pointy-bearded god travels in a kind of ass-boat, the rhyton may again be modelled on the stars.

 

And whilst I am not aware of a record of Dionysos having travelled in a car pulled by felines back before the Late Classical period, I cannot help but notice here below that the form of the equine team standing before the chariot into which the pointy-bearded god steps matches closely with the form and location of Leo. We cannot avoid noticing also that Virgo in these configurations seems to form the main part of the vehicle, be it chariot or boat.

As a last piece of support for the pointy-bearded Bootes-Dionysos, I would point out that the Exekias painting with the god in his ship is formal also – the swan at the back (Cygnus?) and the head of the dog Maira on the front are to be found also on a depiction of his festive ship-car. Maira, incidentally, became (in the Ikarios story) the Little Dog constellation, which again is the location in which we find the god’s head with respect to the other constellations in this depiction of the god in his ship. The form of the head itself in the festive ship-car depiction may be identified as Maira by the close comparison it bears with a relief from the ancient theatre in Athens of the Ikarios story, as observed by Kerenyi.

  

Other stock figures in the scene of Dionysian arrival of which we have yet said little are “the maenads serpent-wreathed” – these feature in both Catullus and Lucian.

Catullus: “Bacchus was wandering with the rout of Satyrs and Nysa-born Sileni...some of them were waving thyrsi with shrouded points...some girding themselves with serpents.”

Lucian: “He rides a car behind a team of panthers...he has two lieutenants. One is a short thick-set old man with a big belly, flat nose and large, up-standing ears... The other is a misbegotten fellow like a goat in the underpinnings, with hairy legs, horns and a long beard.... [At the start the battle in India] Silenus’ jackass gave a martial hee-haw, and the Maenads, serpent-girdled, bearing the steel of their thyrsus-points, fell on with a shriek.”

Maenad bearing a serpent, plus Dionysian male with thyrsus and panther

The serpent-bearing Maenad too is to be found easily in the constellations that follow immediately behind Bootes on his chariot. The serpent-bearing figures can be identified with the Serpent Bearer constellation, known as Ophiucus, and this identification of a figure in the bacchanalian entourage with this constellation is no-where more clearly seen than in a comparison between Titian’s painting and the relevant section of old star-charts such as the one shown here, by Eimmart. Behind the two lions we see Bootes, red-robed, and behind him is Ophiucus, the Serpent-Bear. We see just this configuration in the painting that Titian executed – the serpent-wreathed man is just behind the chariot.

 

      

 

 

Titian has shown the serpent-bearing figure not as a maenad, a female figure, but as a bearded man, based on the Laocoön statue, and Eimmart has done something similar in the star-chart. Eimmart has shown two lions, Leo and Leo Minor, making the similarity to Titian’s painting even more striking.

Not only has Titian shown the figures we have discussed so far in their correct positions – the Serpent Bearer comes first, then comes Silenus on is mule, then there is the satyr figure “shaggy-legged like a goat” – but he has also shown other constellations in their correct relative positions despite the fact that they do not have precedents from Antiquity. For this and other reasons to be presented in a moment, it seems that my theory does not represent the first time the mystery has been solved, but is in fact its re-solution. The understanding had also been attained in the Northern Italian High Renaissance.

Behind the shaggy-legged figure in the Titian painting we have a man bearing a great jar on his shoulders - Aquarius in his correct relative position! Subsequent contemplation also shows us Crater the wine-mixing jar in the correct place below Leo and this vessel is even at the right angle in the Titian as compared with the constellation in the sky. Roman writer Manilius had written that Crater is the “Cup of Bacchus” in his book on Astronomy, but the inclusion in the scene of Bacchic arrival appears to be a cunning Renaissance invention.

Like many star-charts based on celestial globes where the constellations are seen from the “outside” of a conceived celestial sphere surrounding the Earth, Titian’s painting shows the sky mirrored horizontally. Here below, to make the comparison easier, I have flipped Titian’s painting horizontally.

The Summer Evening Sky : Bacchus and Ariadne, reflected

 

The golden crater rests on the yellow cloth in the foreground and there in the background, in his correct relative position, we see this Aquarius figure.

 

Note well the Water Bearer, far left

In fact, as David Jaffé notes in Titian, a man bearing a great wine jar can be seen walking off the edge of The Andrians, Titian's painting that originally hung next to this one in the duke's "Alabaster Chamber", only to reappear as this figure in the adjacent Bacchus and Ariadne. These two paintings plus the reworked Feast of the Gods were designed as a trio, and although the jar in Andrians is shown more detailed, and with a different colouring, it does seem that it is in fact meant to be the same figure that has crossed over into Bacchus, as Jaffé points out, confirming that yes, he is our Aquarius figure, even if it is a wine jar not a water jar, for Pseudo-Eratosthenes said: "Aquarius stands holding a wine-jar”.

The wine-jar bearing figure walking off the edge of The Andrians (also reflected)

Incidentally, we now have a great insight into the mystery behind the staff twined with ivy and vine and the equivalent ship mast around which a vine entwines in the pirate episode. The thrysos staff is the Pole of the Sky around which winds the Draco constellation over the night - the dragon-winged serpentine vine and ivy wound around the staff. Virgil in his Georgics (poems about the arts of agriculture) wrote of how “One pole [of the sky] towers high above our heads….Here forth doth twine with winding coil the great Dragon.” (The Works of Virgil. The Globe Edition. Rendered into English prose by James Lonsdale and Samuel Lee. 1903, Macmillan and Co Ltd.) Also, the bovine limb held aloft in the Titian corresponds to the mangled limbs of a cow carried in the procession in the Catullus description of the scene and may in turn correspond to an old Egyptian way of seeing the Plough constellation as the Ox’s Thigh. (The Romans of course became well-acquainted with Egyptian tradition since they incorporated the land into the empire.)

Such additional features as the crater and water-bearer make it abundantly clear that Titian’s painting was planned in full knowledge of the fact that the stock scene, as described by the likes of Ovid and Catullus, references the constellations. But this must cause us to ponder. Titian himself was a great painter, but there are those who have studied his life far more than I who have concluded that “he was not particularly erudite”; he is not assumed to have had such knowledge and insightfulness with regard to classical tradition. Intelligent, a friend and dining companion of intellectuals, but not himself a scholar. Accepting such character descriptions, Titian himself doesn’t seem the sort to have woven secret constellation mysteries into his paintings.

Luckily, however, concerning the design of this painting there are existing theories about the involvement of a classical scholar who would have loved just this kind of thing.

Bacchus and Ariadne was painted as one of a group of paintings to hang in the “Alabaster Chamber”, the private studiolo of Alfonso d’Este Duke of Ferrara. There is a letter from the humanist scholar, Equicola - a man with “a taste for the obscure” who viewed these studiolos as “sacred grottos,” (a phrase he uses in another letter to the same recipient) casting himself in a position with respect to them not unlike a priest, according to Kolsky’s PhD biography – there is a letter  to his patroness the duke’s sister Isabella d'Este, Marquise of neighbouring Mantua, in which the scholar says he submitted in writing to Alfonso the plans for a series of paintings in a room each showing a scene from an ancient fable, a description which fits the Alabaster Chamber well. This, combined with a number of other things (such as Titian's 1519 visit to Mantua just as he was starting to paint these works for the Duke of Ferrara, and the fact that Equicola had produced the designs for artistic works in Mantua, and the fact that, as we know from a letter by the Marquise asking for her book back, it was from Isabella's library that the copy of Philostratus was borrowed to help Titian with the The Andrians painted for the same studiolo) - all this combines to cause us to consider it far from unlikely that Equicola, one of the greatest classical scholars of the age, did indeed, as has often been suggested, play a major role in the design of Bacchus and Ariadne. If there was anyone with the right interests then it was Equicola, for he had written around 1498-99 De Religione Libellus, a “careful chronological study of the development of religion” with “a Neo-Platonic substructure which lends a certain validity to the ancient religions. He is always interested in tracing traditions...” (Kolsky, Mario Equicola)

Not only does this Equicola mention in his Book on the Nature of Love the very incident of Bacchus meeting Ariadne in the Catullus epithalamium, but the conclusion of his Nec Spe Nec Metu essay written for Alfonso’s sister Isabella d’Este makes references to an episode equivalent to Bacchus bringing Ariadne into the stars in the old myth:-

“Let us strive therefore so that resolutely we will join the company of the stars and accede to the height of the Heavens” (so as to rise above the Fate-full (astrological) influences of the stars (and planets) and live “neither in hope nor in fear” of such influences. If we are to believe Lucias in the Golden Ass, his own initiation into a mystery cult achieved this same aim – to rise above Fate.   

With Equicola in the equation the constellation configuration is less weird - there was actually a globe showing the constellations in the Mantuan library (we learn from Julia Cartwright’s biography of Isabella), and Isabella consulted an astrologer, and there was even in Mantua the zodiac ceiling of her son Federico painted at the same time that Titian was at work on these paintings in the Ferrara studiolo. Also of considerable interest is the fact that elsewhere at the same time in Mantua Giovan Maria Falconetto produced a series of paintings showing the signs of the Zodiac. (The Leo image shows a second smaller lion which may be the first representation of a Leo Minor constellation.)


Part of the Zodiac ceiling of Federico Gonzaga, painted by Costa, who also painted the Comus for Isabella’s studio

Falconetto’s Leo, Mantua

Not that Ferrara didn’t have its own humanists, who could even be considered as alternative candidates. Lelio Gregorio Giraldi (1479-1552) is described by Stephen J. Campbell in The Cabinet of Eros (p.47) as an “authority on the iconography and religion of the pagan gods”. This alone gives him the credentials, and he also showed an interest, contrary to many humanists of his time, in the mind-elevating potentials of painting, writing that the “contemplation of paintings” can be “even more efficacious than the reading of texts.” His De deis gentium published 1548 (but in progress by 1510) is a “systematic, profound and accurate study of classical mythology”, and, like Equicola’s De Religionei, it was not a book full of Renaissance allegorizing, reinterpreting and philosophizing, but was in fact, as Campbell writes, more “philological and ethnographic” in its documentation of the pagan religions. (Campbell also shows that even with the apparently allegorical moralizing of the paintings for Isabella’s studiolo, there was an important “historicizing tendency”. Such a tendency shows a certain respectful appreciation for pagan images and ideas on their own terms, as a rich tradition.) We must be alert to the fact that Giraldi shows an expert talent for probing the iconography of pagan antiquity, for it is just such a skill which is needed to probe into constellational formalities of the Dionysian matter that, since they were mysteries, had probably never been explicitly published. That someone who possessed these skills was working in Ferrara at the relevant time is of great interest to our enquiry. 

Nor would this have been the first time a humanist had contributed to the design of studiolo paintings in Ferrara. The scholar Guarino had drawn up instructions for images of the Nine Muses in the studiolo of Isabella and Alfonso’s uncle in that same city. This Guarino had brought a chest of Greek manuscripts back from Constantinople, where he had learnt Greek, and he was the first to write in the style of the ancient epithalamium (a marriage ode) in modern Italy. Bear in mind that the Catullus text describing the marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne was an epithalamium and that the brother of the patron for whom Guarino devised the studiolo images, namely Isabella and Alfonso’s father Ercole, had seen Bacchus and Ariadne performed at his own wedding, no doubt for this reason, as we shall see a little further down.

There is another work that is of great relevance to Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and the question of the constellation map. In the Palazzo Schifanoia is the Hall of the Months, a banquetting hall made for Borso d’Este, uncle of Alfonso and Isabella. On the walls of this hall are large frescoes showing us Zodiac imagery. In each of the frescoes one of the Zodiac constellations is shown in the lower register with the Sun, and the upper register shows one of the pagan gods riding in a chariot drawn drawn by beasts such as swans, unicorns, horses or dragons. In the fresco that shows the Leo contellation in the lower register, the upper register shows a god and goddess riding in triumph in a chariot drawn by two lions, as shown in the photos attached here. The god and goddess may not be Bacchus and Ariadne, but the association of the leonine  team drawing the chariot with the lion of the corresponding constellation of this month gives a very clear precedent for this same identification in the later Titian image.

A scholar of the time in Ferrara (such as Giraldi, that expert of the iconography of the pagan religions) noticing that the characters from the stock Dionysian arrival scene as described by Catullus, Lucian and Ovid and shown on ancient artefacts, were in fact constellations in their positions, would then have siezed the opportunity to echo this already-existing Ferraran Zodiac-related triumph imagery while giving it an extra level of sophistication, by simultaneously obeying Alberti’s instruction to base paintings on ancient descriptions of works of art (in this case the bedspread of the Catullus epithalamium.) Hence Bacchus and Ariadne.

The Leo section from the Hall of the Months, Ferrara

Borso himself had his studiolo with the design for the paintings of the Muses produced by a humanist scholar, Guarino. Though the identification of the gods with the Zodiac signs may be drawn from Manlius, the choice of the Zodiac together with the gods in their chariots surely depicts a passage from Plato’s Phaedrus. In the heavens a procession takes place lead by Zeus in his chariot, followed by the other eleven Olympian gods. (Plato says Hestia doesn’t take part in the procession, but of course her place in Olympus was said to have been taken by Dionysos.)  Plato says that “the twelve ruler gods lead on their companies, each in the station which is appointed for him.” He adds that “when they go to the celebration of their high feast day, they take the steep path leading to the summit of the arch which suports the outer heaven. The teams of the gods, which are well matched and tractable, go easily.” They ride to the summit of the arch and there delight in the Virtues themselves in the intelligible realm, are nourished by heavenly nectar, each on their feast day (one feast for each of the twelve months, then) then sink back down inside heaven. In just the same way the twelve constellations of the Zodiac rise to the point of culmination due South then sink back down again. Plato then describes how human souls may follow in the path of the gods in this procession, rising into an initiation into the Realm of Forms. Still later he describes how memory of this initation of the Soul can be stirred by seeing the beauty in one’s lover.

It must have been suggested before that this scheme was chosen for Borso’s banquetting hall based on the Phaedrus passage since the times when the gods reach the peak are described as the feast day of that god, (a time for banquetting) together with the metaphors of getting nourishment from the Forms.

The idea of a group following a god in his chariot brings the image of Bacchus to mind, and true enough the initates of a Dionysian society or thiasos did believe that they would be granted immortality by following the god. Famously, of course, it was wild cats that drew his chariot, and we have the beauitful beloved of Plato’s reminder-initiation in the person of Ariadne.

Since Dionysos was raised to become one of the twelve Olympians, and has his own company of followers, his is one path of the Philosophical initiation.

When we look back to the time of Guarino, we may ask whether the knowledge that the train of Bacchus is a constellation-map could have come in fact not from a moment of brilliant insight by an Italian scholar such as Equicola or Giraldi, but as a tradition brought in from the East, from Byzantium.

Italian Renaissance Platonism and Classicism made great leaps forward when Byzantine Greek scholars such as, notably, Plethon, came over to the Council at Ferrara (the location of the Este palace for which Bacchus and Ariadne was painted, more than a generation later) and lectured to the Italians. Plethon himself wanted ideally to reinstate the old Greek gods. Could the likes of Plethon have had access to this kind of inner knowledge of the Dionysian mysteries, somehow maintained in Byzantine traditions or sources?

The Byzantine Church was never able to stamp out the country festivals in honour of the deities of the ancestors of the Byzantines, the Ancient Greeks. Here is a quote from Demetrios Constantelos’ essay Byzantine and Ancient Greek Religiosity in his work Christian Hellenism:

As in centuries past, churches both in the cities and in the provinces held annual feasts and traditional seasonal observances, which even today retain their particularly ancient character. The sixty-second canon of the Synod in Trullo condemned:
“... the so-called festivals of the Calends, the so-called Vota, the Brumalia, the public festival celebrated on the first day of March ...ritualistic ceremonies performed by men or women in the name of what are falsely called gods among the Hellenes.

It condemned men and women who put on comic, satyric or tragic works and those who invoked the name of Dionysus while squeezing grapes in the wine presses.

Constantelos goes on to explain that these Vota and Brumalia “were Greek festivals celebrated primarily by shepherds and peasants in honor of Pan, the patron of sheep and other animals, and in honor of Dionysus, the Roman Brumalius, the giver and patron of wine. Ιn his honor men and women put on masks and danced ecstatically...” and he adds that “both laymen and clergymen participated in these Hellenic festivals. Zonaras and Balsamon write that all these Greek rites were observed by many in their own times [i.e. 12th Century AD], especially by the peasants, "who did not know the significance of what they were doing."

The Ancient Athenian springtime festival of Dionysos, the Anthesterion, celebrated his return (as Dionysos-of-the-flowers, a male Flora then) from the Underworld just as Bootes appeared again rising on the Eastern horizon, and nature renewed. This timing and association could have been kept in these rustic ceremonies during the Byzantine period. Similarly the Festival of the Vintage in Attica involved the pouring of libations in honour of the memory of the Dionysian shepherd Ikarios, whom Dionysos loved and gave the gift of wine. It was because Dionysos was grateful to him that he placed him in the sky as Bootes (as Hyginus notes), so that he would be remembered. Since this – remembrance of Ikarios the receiver and spreader of wine - was also the purpose of the Festival of the Vintage, the revellers would surely have continued to observe the stellar association by which Ikarios’ memory was made immortal. Someone like Plethon, of course, being really in favour of a return to these gods, [a posthumous publication revealed that his paganism was total, Homeric, uncompromising] would have been intrigued and sympathetic and would surely have paid very close attention to such details of Dionysian tradition.

It was during the earlier part of the Byzantine period that Nonnus wrote Dionysian Story and when the ivory pyxis shown here below was made. Dionysos is riding in his lion-drawn chariot, and Aegipan the goat-legged follows in his retinue as normal, as we see on the right edge in the lower image of the other side of the cylinder. (If the archer next to him is meant to be The Archer then he should really be to his right.)

               

Pyxis with the Triumph of Dionysos in India, mid-500s. Byzantine.

Dionysos and team of wild cats and Aegipan following

(goat-legged figure far right of right-hand photo)

 

Of additional interest here is the fact that between 1446 and 1449 the Byzantine scholar Theodore Gaza also lived in Ferrara. This Gaza was the first to translate into Latin the precepts for the epithalamium (lyric ode honouring a bride and bridegroom) written by the ancient rhetorician pseudo-Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and we know from the address he gave when taking the post of rector of the University of Ferrara (after it had been reformed by the Este duke Lionello) that he was closely linked to both the duke and Guarino, and also that he had taught not only Greek but also on Greek literature.

 

From someone like Plethon, Guarino or Gaza this Dionysian way of seeing the constellations could have passed during the time in Ferrara to the Estes of Ferrara or members of their court, in which case we would imagine the mystery being passed on to Giraldi, later to be detailed in instructions to Titian.  Incidentally we know Cosimo de Medici took a particular interest in Plethon’s ideas, for he founded of the Florentine Academy after listening to his lectures in Ferrara. Equicola was a friend of the third head of the Florentine Platonic Academy, Diaccetto. However, in Ficino’s Florentine NeoPlatonic philosophy Bacchus was interpreted along lines less connected with the tradition with which we are dealing, which should perhaps be taken into account. Brilliant Dionysian insight at a philosophical level but less ethnographic and iconographic, and thus perhaps missing the vital key that unlocks the resonant treasure trove of the Dionysian mystery.

 

A further possibility is that Equicola entered into the mystery during the many years he spent studying at the academy of Pomponio in Rome, and I say this because we know that Pompponio was an exceptionally keen and ardent student of ancient tradition, and that members of this academy took part in activities of a sufficiently pagan ritualistic nature that it was shut down for a time by a pope. Was Pomponio resurrecting Dionysiac initation?

It was not uncommon for a humanist to play a part in the design of studiolo paintings. Paride de Ceresara, a lawyer and a humanist, and also an astrologer, came up with the inventions for pictures for Isabella’s studio. In one of these paintings, the Comus of the painter Costa, Bacchus and Ariadne are shown, with Ariadne on her marriage bed, as Campbell has pointed out (Cabinet of Eros). The commission for a Comus painting had originally gone to Mantegna, but this was not completed. Costa took up the commission and started from scratch, and his work may by this time have been influenced by the recent arrival of Equicola to Isabella’s court, for, as interpreted by Campbell in The Cabinet of Eros, the painting seems to take Comus (the god of the party and a companion of Bacchus) as representing the quality of comitas - appropriate and delightful wittiness – a quality that Equicola proclaims his support for in his Book on the Nature of Love:  “It is necessary to give some recreation to the mind. The moral philosophers praise a virtue called comitas, which is a commendable moderation in saying things that are amusing and delightful.” In the Comus painting we see Janus, the god of the doorway, guarding the archway of Comus and keeping out a crude rabble who may represent inappropriate, misjudged attempts to be urbane. (For more on this see The Cabinet of Eros, Chapter Eight.)   

For me, the just-mentioned Equicola quote also helps to explains why Dionysian paintings were chosen to decorate a studiolo. As well as the images of Bacchus in the studiolo paintings of Alfonso and his sister, there was also an image of Bacchus as part of the statuary in the studiolo of Federico I Gonzaga installed around 1478. It has been seen as strange by some that Bacchanalian scenes should adorn a studiolo, since this was a place to cultivate the mind through reading, writing and contemplation. But as Equicola has just reminded us, (drawing perhaps on a similar quote from Lucian in his introduction to A True Story), part of the training and cultivation of the mind is appropriate periods of rest and recreation, for else the mind may become fatigued and weighed down, too sober. Furthermore, in a passage that did not make it into the published version of his Book on the Nature of Love, Equicola praised the decorations in Isabella’s studio for the way that they “delight but do not fatigue the mind” and how they offer “recreation to the gaze.” Also in his Book on Love Equicola describes the Bacchus and Ariadne episode in Catullus as having this recreational quality, the very scene that would be chosen for the painting in Alfonso’s studio. Wine with its subtle flavours does not need to be drunk in excess but can be sipped as a reminder of the fine things and a gentle lubricant for the mind. Dionysos can be the very quintessence of a civilized, cultured urbanity, and that which has been interpreted by some as a wildness or even a “violence” in the image of Bacchus and his followers is revealed to a close student of antiquity as being simply a formal composition made from elements of cultic observance, of mystery initiation and tradition. When you know that the chariot is drawn by wild cats because of a constellational closeness, for instance, you ease up on the allegorical interpretations and tune rather by resonance into the Form, savouring the richness of matured ancestral essences. The Renaissance studio was a place to rise above the “perturbations” that can affect the mind, the hope and fears of the sub-stellar world, just as Daphnis-Bootes achieves his initiatory ascension to Heaven’s Gate.       


Perhaps the iconographical programme for Ferrara was initially of a simple nature and then during the several years that it took for the project to come into shape someone (Equicola himself, for example) simply noticed the potential in the old Catullus and Ovid descriptions for a representation of the constellation-based configuration, realizing that this was their core mystery, and then in a moment of inspiration thought of ways to take this ancient scheme and develop it even further, adding the Aquarius and Crater images. Certainly, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne is brilliant on more levels than one; not only are the composition and colouring beautiful, but there is genius in the plan, in accordance with a type of Platonic-Hermetic philosophy which aims to use the “Eternal” as the model for creative productions, and with strong resonances with a long tradition of pagan mystery. In my view, the painting truly is one of the greatest achievements of European art and tradition; scarcely can a higher cultural peak than this artistic Mount Everest be surveyed from the territories that extend before and since.