This portrait of Bacchus is derived from the period of 1510–1515, with Leonardo da Vinci himself passing away just a few years later. The painting was completed entirely in oils, which all of the artist's workshop, as well as himself, would prefer to use. He did make use of egg tempera regularly in the earlier part of his career, but slowly its influence would start to decline over the decades. Da Vinci chose to portray Saint John the Baptist within this painting, but later it was amended to capture Bacchus instead. Those changes were made many years after the artist's passing, somewhere between 1683 and 1693.
We know this from various inventories which loosely describe the contents of the painting, with the first mention of Bacchus arriving in the late 17th century. The artwork passed through several collections but was never listed as a work of Leonardo da Vinci, and long believed to be connected to members of his workshop. In recent years there have been a number of academics who have claimed that the great master may have worked on the early planning of this piece, with others adding layers of oil over the top as the composition progressed. Those knowledgeable of Da Vinci's other paintings will immediately see many similarities within Bacchus, though, and so it is worthy of discussion alongside his attributed pieces.
In order to understand how the painting would have originally looked, prior to Bacchus' image being painted over the top, we can study several copies of it which were made in the years prior to the alterations. Many artists would study and make copies of Da Vinci's work and so it was unsurprising that this related piece also attracted attention too. A respected artist by the name of Bernardino Lanino produced perhaps the best copy, and this exists today within a public collection in Scotland. Many more may exist elsewhere, but have yet to be discovered or perhaps were simply damaged over the years that followed.
This article examines Bacchus in detail, discussing its original appearance as a portrait of Saint John the Baptist, and then being transitioned into a depiction of Bacchus. We include information on the research and controveries that have existed about this artwork, particularly with regards its attribution. We also compare it with artworks from Da Vinci's career, showing the influence that he had on other members of his workshop. There is also a wider conversation about the various ways in which Bacchus has been covered by other artists over the centuries, both in painting and sculpture, and the elements of iconography which have been developed to identify Bacchus within western art, across a variety of movements and periods.
Table of Contents
- Who was Bacchus?
- Size and Medium
- Famous Paintings and Sculptures of Bacchus
- Large Image of Bacchus
Bacchus was a curious artwork which arrived towards the end of Leonardo da Vinci's career. It is not believed to have been from his own hand, yet it displays all of the attributes for which his famous paintings are known. There is the sprawling landscape across the background, the lifelike facial qualities which were produced from subtle layers of transparent paint, and even the very same model for this work who appears in several paintings that have been confidently attributed to his hand. In this article we examine the various influences upon this artwork, and try to determine where it is derived from. We also compare it with Da Vinci's own work from around the same period, to give it a context within his own studio in the early 16th century.
Who was Bacchus?
Bacchus, also sometimes known as Dionysus, is a famous figure from Greek Mythology. Within Greek culture, Bacchus would be known as the God of many things, but is particularly famous for winemaking, fruit, fertility and festivities. These topics would then be used compositionally by artists in order to help us to identify each sculptured or painted figure. Bacchus would become known as one of the more popular Gods in today's society, because of his connection to wine drinking and theatre, but some more traditional cultures would view these influences as potentially damaging to society and therefore treated his legacy with an element of suspicion. It is important to remember that the original artist's work was intended to portray this portrait as Saint John the Baptist, and so the themes that surround Bacchus would not have been in their mind at the time. It was more than a century later that the artwork would then be amended to connect to Bacchus in the manner that it continues to today.
Bacchus, from the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci, features a male figure in the foreground, sat upon a rocky environment. He wears just a leopard skin around his waist, whilst holding a tall staff in his left hand. He looks directly at the viewer, whilst pointing a finger from his right hand across to our right. This refers to something outside the visual scope of the painting. His legs are crossed loosely, and his overall demeanor is one of relaxation. The rocks on which he sits are also covered in vegetation and lead up to some trees at the top of the painting, whose trunks are partially visible. To his right hand side, we have an opening which allows light to flood into the foreground from behind.
Some pretty flowers heads are placed around his toes, before we slowly lead off into the background landscape. A tall but thin tree sits close by, providing some vertical balance to the painting and behind that we find a series of hills and mountains which slowly get taller but fainter as we drift off into the distance. They eventually become so subtle that their forms merge into the clouds which form across much of the sky, leaving only a few gaps through which the brighter blue shows through. Each and every element found here can be traced back decades in the career of Leonardo da Vinci, but here we find his influence on other members of the shared workshop.
Bacchus has been altered on several occasions, initially for artistic purposes, and more recently in order to better preserve the piece. Sadly, not all of these interventions have actually helped the long term health of the piece, though its presence today in the Louvre in Paris should at least ensure that its condition does not deteriorate any further for the time being.
Switch from Saint John the Baptist to Bacchus
At some point between the years of 1683 to 1693, the symbolic elements of the portrait which identified as John the Baptist were painted over in order to switch the piece to Bacchus instead. The staff was re-imagined as a thyrsus, whilst the additional vine wreath would connect us to the God of wine. Leopard spots were added to his clothing, which then started to distance us from the fur robes of the saint. Within the 19th century there were some further alterations, in a more subtle manner, but these were then removed in the 20th century in order to return the piece to its appearance in the 17th century and it was decided against reversing those substantial changes from the original appearance as Saint John the Baptist.
Transfer from Panel to Canvas
Many Renaissance paintings have been transferred from panel to canvas ever since the 18th century as a means to protecting their longterm health. Panel paintings can suffer many issues such as worm attacks and also bending off the structure over time. The particular process for Bacchus was not completed as well as might have been hoped, however, and some damage to the original work was caused during this transition, including the loss of some areas of paint.
The original portrait of Saint John the Baptist was switched to Bacchus with relatively few alterations. Whoever completed the changes simply located the identifying details and amended them directly, without needing to change much of the rest of the composition. Bacchus and Saint John the Baptist have both been portrayed by painters and sculptors for many centuries, helping to form a series of iconographic symbols which have been repeated through the ages. In the case of this example, vine leaves were added around the subject's head which relates directly to the God of Wine. John's staff was also turned into Bacchus' thyrsos with minimal fuss, and the clothing was given some touches of leopard or panther skin pattern.
The role of Leonardo da Vinci on the completion of Bacchus remains an unsolved mystery. Originally, it was believed that he was not involved whatsoever, and this belief lasted for many centuries. As recently as just the past few decades, however, this conversation has become a little more muddied, though. A number of academics have claimed that areas of the underpainting bear clear resemblences to the great master, and therefore he may have been involved in the early stages of its inception. In terms of the finer detail, however, many details are a little cruder than he would have produced, particularly considering that he was a fully mature artist by this time - the compositional structure as well as elements of shading seem a little to awkward to have been from his hand, but close enough to have been a keen admirer, such as a member of his workshop.
The master did keep records of his major artworks and this is no entry that might have been related to this piece, even though he worked a number of drawings which bear some similarities. It is therefore likely that he may have helped out in the early stages of Bacchus, but left the vast majority of the work to other members of his studio. It was also not attributed to his name directly in the years that followed his death.
Bacchus is dated to around 1510–1515, which places it right at the end of Leonardo da Vinci's lifetime. Da Vinci's Saint John the Baptist, believed to have been his last painting, is dated at 1513-1516, and so this piece would have been completed within the same studio at about the same time. Clearly, these artworks would not have needed five or six years of work, and these wide dates are forced by our lack of precise knowledge about their preparation and delivery. Indeed, with Bacchus we are still not entirely sure of the identity of the artist, only that he would have been a member of Da Vinci's workshop, and therefore to be any more precise around its date is even more difficult to achieve.
Size and Medium
Bacchus, by the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci, measures 177 cm × 115 cm (70 in × 45 in). It is today located in the Louvre in Paris, France, alongside a number of other Leonardo da Vinci paintings. This painting was produced using oil on walnut panel, before later being transferred to canvas in order to best preserve the piece and also to make it easier to display to the wider public. Many of this artist's work, as well as those in his workshop, were constructed in multiple panels which were glued or nailed together, with a variety of different woods used, depending on what was available at the time.
Famous Paintings and Sculptures of Bacchus
Bacchus is a God from Greek mythology who is also sometimes known as Dionysus. The figure has inspired artists for many centuries, with sculptures being particularly common. The painting displayed in this page is amongst the most famous, because of the prominence of Leonardo da Vinci, but other worthy contributions came from the likes of Massimo Stanzione, Hans von Aachen, Giovanni Bellini, Titian and Antoine-Jean Gros. Sculptured depictions of Bacchus came be found as far back as the Fourth Century BC, and probably before that. BAcchus was the God of several different items, all of which would provde artists with inspiration for their work, with themes covered including grapes and winemaking, fertility and festivities. Including elements such as these have also been essential in allowing art historians to identify the subjects within their work when dealing with religious figures or scenes of mythology such as this.
Large Image of Bacchus
Bacchus is a portrait with large amounts of supporting detail, and the larger image below helps us to understand more of that. A landscape scene drifts off into the distance on the left hand side, whilst a life like portrait figure sits directly in front of us. The larger image allows us to see the impressive physique given to Bacchus, as well as understanding more about how features of this work bear clear resemblances to some of Da Vinci's other paintings. Indeed, the model used here appeared again in other works from around this same period, giving a consistency from one artwork to another. Although Bacchus is connected more to the artist's workshop rather than solely to his own hand, one can immediately see his influence within this painting, for those familiar with this late period in his career.