N.G. 597

The Feast of the Gods

c. 1515

Giovanni Bellini

Venetian c.1430-1516

Canvas, 67 x 74 (1.70 x 1.88)

Widener Collection 1942

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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 work.

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 toms@monm.edu.

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