BELLINI, Giovanni
(b. ca. 1426, Venezia, d. 1516, Venezia)

The Feast of the Gods

Oil on canvas, 170 x 188 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Feast of the Gods was Giovanni Bellini's last great painting and one of only a few that he executed on canvas. It was the first in a series of mythologies or bacchanals commissioned by Duke Alfonso d'Este to decorate the camerino d'alabastro, or alabaster study, of his castle in Ferrara. The artist, whose career began in the 1450s, was trained to paint on wooden panels, which require a very meticulous application of pigment. When he worked on canvas late in his career, Bellini retained his tight, precise brushwork. The flesh tones, iridescent silks, and even the foreground pebbles here demonstrate his delicate touch.

According to the current interpretations, the scene illustrates a passage from Ovid's Fasti (The Feasts), a long classical poem that recounts the origins of many ancient Roman rites and festivals. Ovid (43 B.C. - A.D. 17), describing a banquet given by the god of wine, mentioned an incident that embarrassed Priapus, god of virility.

The beautiful nymph Lotis, shown reclining at the far right, was lulled to sleep by wine. Priapus, overcome by lust, seized the opportunity to take advantage of her and is portrayed bending forward to lift her skirt. His attempt was foiled when an ass, seen at the left, "with raucous braying, gave out an ill-timed roar. Awakened, the startled nymph pushed Priapus away, and the god was laughed at by all." Priapus, his pride wounded, took revenge by demanding the annual sacrifice of a donkey.

The ass stands next to Silenus, a woodland deity who used the beast to carry wood, thus wears a keg on his belt because he was a follower of Bacchus, god of wine. Bacchus himself, seen as an infant, kneels before them while decanting wine into a crystal pitcher.

Reading from left to right, the principal figures are:

Silenus, a woodland god attended by his donkey

Bacchus, the infant god of wine crowned with grape leaves

Faunus or Silvanus, an old forest god wearing a wreath of pine needles

Mercury, the messenger of the gods carrying his caduceus or herald's staff

Jupiter, the king of the gods accompanied by an eagle

An unidentified goddess holding a quince, a fruit associated in the ancient world with marriage

Pan, a satyr with a grape wreath who blows on his shepherd's pipes

Neptune, the god of the sea sitting beside his trident harpoon

Ceres, the goddess of cereal grains with a wreath of wheat

Apollo, god of the sun and the arts, crowned by laurel and holding a Renaissance stringed musical instrument, the lira da braccio, in lieu of a classical lyre

Priapus, the god of virility and of vineyards with a scythe, used to prune orchards, hanging from the tree above him

Lotis, one of the naiads, a nymph of fresh waters who represents chastity.

These deities are waited upon by three naiads, nymphs of streams and brooks, and two satyrs, goat-footed inhabitants of the wilderness. On the distant mountain, which Titian added to Bellini's picture, two more satyrs cavort drunkenly and a hunting hound chases a stag.