On his many journeys, Bacchus (Greek: Dionysus), the Greek and Roman god of wine and fertility, was accompanied by Maenads and Satyrs, his attribute the panther, and goats. Together, they indulged themselves in an ecstasy stimulated by wine and dance. In the art of classical antiquity, the wine-god’s outward appearance as a nude, soft and often drunken ruler became early established. The present painting in landscape format shows Bacchus as the main figure in a triumphal procession. He is to proceed through the arch visible at the left edge of the painting on his way to his final destination, the round temple situated on a hill in the background. Bacchus is seated in the chariot, enthroned atop a wine barrel. His entourage is equally intoxicated; even the animal pulling the chariot is no longer up to its task. Beneath the animal, a Satyr has fallen to the ground and vomited; a mirror held by a gleeful child reveals the mishap to the viewer. Further to the front of the procession dancers and acrobatics are the centre of attention. The dark-skinned figures are a reference to the mythical journey of Bacchus to India but also serve to punctuate the lighter brown shades used by the artist with varying intensity. Details depicted in their full materiality, such as the Maenads’ thyrsus (a staff wrapped in leafy vine and ivy), the drinking vessel in the wine-god’s left hand, wine jars, musical instruments and pieces
of jewellery as well as the architectural elements provide the necessary compositional counterbalance to the soft fleshy depictions of the figures.
Maerten van Heemskerck was part of a second generation of Netherlandish
painters who made extensive study visits to Rome. The impressions he gained there are clearly visible in the present painting: the foot of a colossal statue in the foreground on the left, the Satyr figures at the arch and the round temple in the background are based on classical models.
© Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery, Vienna 2010