Decoding Titian

Some of the world’s most famous paintings are coming to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Here’s how to sound smart when you see them.

A hunter stumbles upon a grotto full of nude nymphs and a virgin goddess. Lucky break, right? Not if you know mythology. The titillating theme of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, one of the most exquisite Renaissance-era paintings, was borrowed from a tale by Ovid—and actually spells doom for our man of the forest. Good to know, if you’re going to make heads or bottoms of Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting, the highly anticipated exhibition of rarely toured masterworks opening at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on February 6. Here, in The Da Vinci Code fashion, MIA paintings curator Patrick Noon unravels Titian’s archaic allusions and symbolism.

 1: Actaeon’s Hands

Was Titian just a pornographer for the codpiece set? Noon says no. Well, not just. Far from sweeping the curtain aside in lusty fervor, Actaeon is defending himself, his right hand deflecting Diana’s murderous stare, his left blocking the sight of the stag’s skull atop the stone column—a portent of Actaeon’s grisly death. Noon explains: “He sees his fate, he sees what he’s done wrong, he sees her.” Dude’s goose is cooked

2: The Stag’s Skull

Poor Actaeon: Soon after this beautiful sight, he’ll be turned into a stag and eaten alive by his own hunting dogs. That’s what you get for catching a virgin goddess in the buff. In the background to the right of the column, you can make out a tiny vignette of a nymph stalking a stag.

3: Animal Skins in the Trees

Diana may be the goddess of the hunt. But those pelts behind her aren’t just for decoration—they’re bad omens for Actaeon. Which explains why, in a grotto full of buck-naked nymphs, he can’t take his eyes off the branches.

4: Diana’s Moon and Pearls

Diana, among other things, is the moon goddess. And pearls come from the sea, where the tides are governed by the moon. So that bit of symbolism is easily accounted for. But the pearls also contain a more arcane reference: Because they’re beautiful and form within clams, pearls are associated with Venus (also beautiful and born of a clam, à la the famed Botticelli painting). Paired with this bathing scene—can you spot the mirror and ointment vessel?—pearls allude to the classic motif of Venus at her toilette, which Titian revived. His Venus Rising From the Sea is also in the MIA show.

5: The Prissy Lapdog

Ol’ Titian couldn’t resist a joke, even in this foreboding tale. The pipsqueak dog is just “kind of fun,” Noon says. “He’s as vengeful and angry about the whole thing as [Diana] is.” Another chuckle: Check out the fountain lurching beneath the weight of a particularly plump nymph. 

6: Flesh and Marble

Diana never actually lounged in a grotto, according to myth. Titian made that up. Why? “Titian was famous for painting flesh,” Noon explains, “especially women’s flesh.” Mm-hmm. All that architectural pretense, the cold stone and marble, is an aesthetic foil “to punch up the sensuous quality” of the bodies. After all, King Phillip II of Spain was still a virile young man when Titian painted this for him.

7: The Lion’s Head

This one’s a shout-out to King Phillip II, then the most powerful ruler in the world: A lion’s head features prominently in the monarch’s coat of arms.