Art History 101

Why Bacchus Is God of Wine? Art History Story

Magda Michalska 25 July 2022 min Read

Bacchus is a Roman god of winemaking, grape harvest, and vegetation but also of… ritual madness, festivity, and religious ecstasy! You can also know him under his Greek name, Dionysus. Bacchus was depicted in art usually as a young and beautiful man, nude or semi-nude, holding a glass of wine and wearing an ivy wreath. See Bacchus’ life story through art history and discover how he came to be the god of wine!

Jupiter’s Affair and Unwanted Pregnancy

Michelangelo, Bacchus with Pan, between 1496 and 1497, Museo del Bargello, Florence, Italy.
Michelangelo, Bacchus with Pan, between 1496 and 1497, Museo del Bargello, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Bacchus was Jupiter’s misbegotten son from his affair with a mortal woman, Semele. Jupiter’s wife quickly learnt of her husband’s infidelity and decided to take revenge on the poor woman. As mortals couldn’t see gods in their true form, she made Semele see Jupiter’s divinity. Poor Semele died instantly burning up! Jupiter, however, saved his son, who was still in Semele’s womb, by sewing him under the skin of his thigh.

Bacchus’s Love

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-1523, National Gallery, London, UK.
Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-1523, National Gallery, London, UK.

Bacchus is often portrayed in company of Ariadne, a mythically beautiful woman with whom the young god fell in love at first sight. The story of their love is described by Ovid and Catullus, who wrote that Ariadne, who was a Cretan princess, was abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos by the hero Theseus (he was very, very ungrateful, since Ariadne helped him get through the labyrinth of Minotaur). Fortunately, Bacchus saw her and leapt from his chariot to save her.

A Great Farmer

Guido Reni, The Boy Bacchus, 1620, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy.
Guido Reni, The Boy Bacchus, 1620, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy.

Not only is Bacchus the patron of wine-making but also of agriculture in general, as he was the one to teach people how to grow vines. According to mythology, he spent his childhood with Silenus, a great wine enthusiast. Having completed his training, Bacchus decided to travel the world and teach until he reached Olympus.

Silenus and Midas

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Between Venus and Bacchus, 1882, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Between Venus and Bacchus, 1882, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, USA.

There is a story in which one day Silenus goes missing and Bacchus suspects that his teacher strayed somewhere in his drunken trance. He went searching for him but it was King Midas who found him and brought him back to the young god. Out of gratitude, Bacchus offered Midas a gift of any power he wanted. Midas asked to be able to turn everything into gold with his touch… And we all know how this one ends…

A Gift for Ariadne

Maurice Denis, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1907, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Maurice Denis, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1907, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

To honor his love, Bacchus once threw Ariadne’s crown into the air, creating this way the constellation Corona Borealis. They had several children together, among them famous Priapus, Phthonus, and Deianira.

Elaine de Kooning, Bacchus #3, 1978, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA.
Elaine de Kooning, Bacchus #3, 1978, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA.

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