Been drinking at Christmas? Planning a drink for the new year? Then let's celebrate the true god of this season: Bacchus.
Like Jesus, the Greek divinity Dionysus – best known today as Bacchus, the Latin name given by his Roman fans – had a famous childhood, cared for by Hermes. When he became a young man god, he went around like Jesus with a following of disciples – in this case, hairy-legged satyrs, wine-crazed maenads and his ridiculous yet wise mentor, the fat satyr Silenus – who has a lot in common with Father Christmas.
In art, Bacchus and his followers are the heroes of misrule, abandon and ecstasy. Witness Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne in London's National Gallery, a spectacle of sacrifice, savage rites and the transfiguration of flesh into light. At first sight, the followers of Bacchus look jolly and harmless: then you notice the torn-off leg of a beast being waved in the air, and see the violence in this carnival. Above, in the pristine blue, a new constellation offers a glimpse of the pure, crystal paradise that can somehow be obtained from these earthy, brutish rituals.
If Titian's Bacchanal paintings – this is one of a series he painted for the Duke of Ferrara – are the most potent paintings of the god of wine and his ecstasies, the most disturbing and extraordinary of all images of Bacchus is Michelangelo's statue of the drunken god, in the Bargello Gallery in Florence. If I were trying to persuade someone of the genius of Michelangelo I would say look at this statue – because who can miss its modern unease and anxiety? If Titian's Bacchus is a party animal, Michelangelo's is lost in drugged delirium. This is Bacchus with a drink problem, Bacchus on the edge of madness and ruin.
The god of wine still inspires art. In Tate Modern you can see powerful pulsing wine-red abstractions by Cy Twombly dedicated to the ancient god of the vintage. Twombly's Bacchus paintings capture the sublimity of hedonism in swirls that burn into your opened eye. Pleasure, freedom, release, danger.
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