The Feast of the Gods

A lusty gathering of Roman deities ends in embarrassment. 

The Feast of the Gods, by Giovanni Bellini, 1514, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC © Bridgeman Images.

Every other winter the Roman deities gather in honour of Bacchus, the god of wine. The elderly Silenus, tutor to Bacchus, arrives on an ass and at his feet, in blue, is his pupil collecting the wine he has provided and which is served by fauns and naiads. The gods sit at the front: from the left, Mercury, Jupiter, Amphitrite – holding a quince, the symbol of marriage – with her arm around her husband Neptune, Ceres, god of agriculture and a rather diminutive and ugly Apollo. All the drama is – or rather is about to be – in the right-hand corner of the painting, where Priapus, god of fertility, vegetables and genitalia, among other things, lusts after the nymph Lotis, her breast exposed as she sleeps beneath an ash tree.

Soon after this still moment the ass will bray raucously and Lotis will awake in shock at Priapus’ attentions and meet him with a scornful glance. Her shouts will be heard all around the glade and Priapus’ fellow gods will mock him for his all too evident – and unrequited – interest in the nymph. The poor ass will pay with his life for the humiliation he has caused Priapus.

This rich work was commissioned by Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara, married at the time to Lucrezia Borgia. It was to be the last painting completed by the Venetian Giovanni Bellini. In 1529 Alfonso would create the camerino d’alabastre, where he would display his collection of art, including The Feast of the Gods. Bellini’s pupil, Titian, would create three more paintings on classical themes for the camerino: The Worship of Venus; The Bacchanal of the Andrians; and Bacchus and Ariadne. Indeed, what we see here is not the work of one great Renaissance painter, but two: the landscape on the left was completed by Titian.