The Feast of the Gods
Canvas, 67 x 74 (1.70 x 1.88)
Widener Collection 1942
Click on the picture for a larger image.
for the National Gallery site.
Bellini's "Feast of Gods" is probably the most important of the National Gallery's collection of
artwork based upon Graeco-Roman mythology. The ancient source of this painting is the
aetiological story found in Ovid's Fasti, I, 391-440, concerned with why the Romans sacrificed
an ass to Priapus, an ancient woodland and fertility deity. A feast was given for the gods by
Cybele, an Eastern fertility goddess adopted by the Greeks and Romans. At the gathering, Vesta,
the virgin goddess of the hearth, fell asleep and the sexually-hyperactive Priapus tried to rape her.
He would have succeeded were in not for the braying of an ass, which woke the slumbering
Vesta. For thwarting his plans, Priapus then demanded that the ass henceforth be the victim at
his sacrificial rituals.
Bellini depicts the scene just at the moment before the ass brays. Vesta (sometimes identified as
Lotus), dressed in white, sleeps at the bottom right hand corner of the painting. Her immodestly
bared bosom is quite unlike the ancient depictions of this prudish goddess. Priapus, wearing a
flowery wreath, white shirt and burgundy tunic, stands above Vesta and is about to make his
play. The ass is in the left hand portion of the painting. It is probably the ass' master Silenus,
another ancient woodland deity, who rests his left arm on the animals back. Silenus is dressed in
an orange garment, with a wine keg at his right side. At Silenus' right stands a figure with his
back to the viewer and a vase on his head. This figure is human from the waist up but has goat
legs and feet and a tiny tail. These are the distinguishing features of woodland gods which the
Romans called fauns. At Silenus' feet the figure of the infant Bacchus (discussed above) stoops
to fill his wine jug from a cask. Like Bellini's other Bacchus, this one wears a blue tunic and
wreath of grape leaves, but unlike the other Bacchus, this one wears a long-sleeved white shirt.
Mercury reclines against the cask, to Bacchus' left. The ancient messenger god can be identified
by the caduceus or herald's staff which he leans against his left shoulder. Mercury also wears a
helmet, another traditional attribute of the god, but this helmet lacks the wings with which
Mercury's headpiece is usually adorned. This Mercury is also missing his winged sandals or feet
(for which see the bronze statue of Mercury in the Rotunda of the National Gallery). Bellini's
Mercury is equipped with more pedestrian footware: calf-length, blue sandals with gold trim.
Mercury is elaborately dressed in white shirt, light purple tunic and a green velvet cloak pinned
at his right shoulder. To Mercury's left a middle-aged god drinks from a goblet. Wreathed with
oak leaves and with an eagle at his left this figure is meant to represent Jupiter, the king if the
gods. Jupiter wears a white shirt and red tunic. At the bottom centre of the painting sits a female
holding a quince in her right hand. She is usually identified as Cybele, the hostess of the feast in
Ovid's story. Cybele, dressed in a white shirt and peach colored tunic, has her left arm around
the neck of a male who unabashedly rest his left hand on her thigh. The trident, or three-pronged
fork, at his feet designates the figure as Neptune, god of the sea. Neptune wears an olive colored
tunic with a red cloak over his left shoulder. Another couple sits between Neptune and Priapus.
The male, sipping from a golden bowl, wears a laurel wreath and holds a violin in his left hand.
These attributes suggest Apollo, the god of music and prophecy. Note that Bellini has replaced
Apollo's traditional lyre with an anachronistic violin. Apollo is dressed in a blue tunic with a
red-orange cloak draped around his shoulder and over his feet. The dwarf-like features of
Apollo have drawn much comment and puzzlement. The female with Apollo is usually
identified as Ceres, goddess of agriculture, because of the wreath of wheat which she wears.
Ceres is dressed in a white shirt and pink tunic. Her bare left breast is atypical of ancient
representations of the goddess, who, like Vesta, was very modest. Association of Ceres with
Apollo is unusual mythically. A more traditional companion for Apollo would have been his
twin sister Diana, goddess of the hunt, who does not appear in Bellini's Feast.
Many of the figures in the back row cannot be identified mythologically. At the right, between
Neptune and Ceres, stand two females. The woman on the right is dressed in a white shirt and
blue tunic and carries a vase on her head. The other, in white shirt an orange tunic, wears a
wreath in her finely coiffed hair. Both women have their right breast bared. Behind Cybele and
Neptune sits a naked figure wreathed in grape leaves and playing a flute. This is Pan, another
ancient woodland deity. Pan sits with his right side to the viewer. At his back an unidentifiable
female dressed in white and blue holds a large porcelain basin in her left hand. A similar basin is
balanced on the head of a man to her right. In his left hand this man holds a branch in front of
his lower torso. Between this figure and Silenus' ass can be see another male, usually identified
as Silvanus, god of forest, who wears a grass wreath on his balding head. In the bottom right
hand corner of the painting, note the wooden basin upon which the artist has signed an dated his
Bellini has thus depicted most of the major gods and goddesses of Antiquity with their
appropriate attributes. Modern x-ray analysis of the painting, however, reveals the fascinating
fact that all the divine attributes, such as Mercury's caduceus and Neptune's trident, were feature
added to the painting, probably Bellini himself. A Feast of the Gods was commissioned in 1513
by Alfonso d' Este of Ferrara, Italy, for his Camerino d' alabastro. Perhaps Bellini's original
attributeless painting looked too mortal to Alfonso and therefore the gods; trademarks were
added. At least another revision of the painting was made by Bellini's famous student Titian,
who reworked the background (e.g., the mountain at the left). It is usually believed that Titian,
having also been commissioned to paint for the d' Este Camerino, made certain changes to
Bellini's Feast in order to harmonize the painting with his own contributions to the room.
While the bawdy, comic elements of the painting, such as Vest's bare breast and Apollo's stature,
do not conform to modern Christian conceptions of deity, Bellini has well captured the spirit of
the ancient anthropomorphic gods. The ability to laugh at one's gods was a tradition going back
at least to Homer. Ovid's story of the origins of Priapus' ritual is in the same humorous vein.
Bellini and other artists of the Renaissance, have succeeded in transmitting this comic side of the
Graeco-Roman gods into painting.
The care with which Bellini has balances the painting should also be noted. The four major
participants (Priapus, Vesta, Silenus and the ass) are paired at either end of the painting, with the
other deities in the centre. Some modern critics have also seen Christian symbolism in Cybele's
quince, which is not in Ovid's story. Since the quince is Christian and Renaissance symbol of
marriage, it might serve as a contrast to the illicit plans of Priapus. Such an interpretation of the
painting reveals the openness of Classical Mythology to variants and to different interpretations
by people of diverse cultures and time periods.
Finally, it should be noted that some critics have tried t identify various figures in the painting
with important personages in Ferrara; e.g., Neptune as Alfonso and Cybele as Lucrezia Borgia,
his wife. This not widely accepted.
This material is an excerpt from Classical Gods and Heroes in the National Gallery of Art by Thomas J.
Sienkewicz (Washington, D.C: University Press of America, 1983). If you have any questions about this material,
you may contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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