How To Read Paintings: Caravaggio’s Bacchus

A Baroque masterpiece about decadence and decay

Christopher P Jones
4 min readMay 21, 2019

Christopher P Jones is the author of How to Read Paintings, an introduction to some of the most fascinating artworks in art history.

Detail of ‘Bacchus’ (c.1596) by Caravaggio. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

Caravaggio’s painting of Bacchus contains all the revelry associated with the mythological libertine bubbling beneath its surface. It is this sense of storm-beneath-the-calm that makes it such a potent work of art.

Bacchus, the god of wine, is usually shown drunk; Caravaggio’s Bacchus is serene and self-contained. He is often seen riding a triumphal carriage drawn by tigers, leopards or goats; in Caravaggio’s version the Bacchic procession is either yet to begin or else all over with. Or perhaps this Bacchus has altogether different plans…

Caravaggio, who was born in 1571, painted this work at the age of around 24. It was commissioned by Cardinal Del Monte, an Italian diplomat who became one of Caravaggio’s early patrons.

‘Bacchus’ (c.1596) by Caravaggio. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

The painting shows Bacchus as a callow youth. The boy-god is swathed in autumnal vine leaves, draping over a thicket of black hair that itself might be a bunch of black grapes. His cheeks are plump and red. He is half-robed, clutching the black ribbon of his robe in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. He is reclined before a table or stone slab bearing a carafe of wine and a basket of overripe fruit with pomegranate, pear, apple, peach, quince, fig, plum and grape.

Bacchus, or Dionysus as he is known in Greek, was originally a fertility god worshiped in the form of a bull or a goat. The cult of Bacchus inspired frenzied rituals, where devotees would eat raw flesh and dance to the drumming of tambourines.

A more typical representation of Bacchus leading his triumphal procession. ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1520–1523) by Titian. National Gallery, London, UK. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

Painted depictions tended to show Bacchus as a naked youth wearing a crown of vine leaves and leading his triumphal parade of hedonistic revellers, as in the well-known version by Titian, painted around 1523. By the time of the…