Titian’s Diana: Poetry in Paint

Caroline Campbell

Titian is considered to be one of the most inspired colourists of the Renaissance. His epic paintings Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (both 1556-1559) are amongst the best-loved works in the National Gallery.

Curator Caroline Campbell talks us through the narratives of tragedy, lust and betrayal which unfold across these canvases and how the Venetian artist was inspired to paint the poetry of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. These works are his attempt to represent the unruly supernatural forces of the ancient world and the strife they inflict on human beings, which remain as relevant as ever.

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I first saw these paintings as a 19-year-old. I walked in off the street in Scotland. I was absolutely entranced by them and I sat and watched how the pictures changed as the light moved across them. What I love about these pictures is that they take us to the heart of what it is to be human and how artists make us think about our place in the world. They were made by Titian, the greatest Venetian painter who’s ever lived. Titian is somebody who I think really understood women and the human condition in a way that few male artists have and I find that, as a woman, really extraordinary.

They’re both stories of deep tragedy, Acteon was a hunter, and one day when he was hunting, he came across a grotto filled with beautiful women who were bathing. One of them was Diana who was the queen of hunting, the goddess of chastity, and she was incredibly angry to have been discovered. She condemned him to being turned into a stag and he was chased and killed by his own hounds. The other painting represents Diana and Callisto. Like Acteon, Callisto’s fate is not her own. She is one of Diana’s nymphs and she’s got to be sworn to chastity as she follows her through the forest hunting, but one day she is raped by Jupiter, the king of the Gods. She’s horrified by her body changes in the next nine months. Callisto is thrown out of her group of companions, Diana casts her off, she wonders in the forest, she gives birth to a child and then she is turned into a bear.

[Voiceover: excerpt from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book II, as translated by A. S. Kline]

Nine crescent moons had since grown full

When the goddess faint from the chase in her brother’s hot sunlight found a cool grove 

Out of which a murmuring stream ran, winding over fine sand….

And there her shame was revealed with her naked body.

Terrified, she tried to conceal her swollen belly.

Diana cried ‘Go, far away from here: do not pollute the sacred fountain!’

and the Moon-goddess commanded her to leave her band of followers

The text behind them is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Now today that may seem sometimes a rather erudite source, but in the 16th century it’s often called the painter’s bible.

[Voiceover: excerpt from Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (London: Faber & Faber, 1997)]

… He peered

Into the gloom to see the waterfall –

But what he saw were nymphs, their wild faces


Screaming at him in a commotion of water.

And as his eyes adjusted, he saw they were naked,

Beating their breasts as they screamed at him.

The goddess

Poured a shocking stream of panic terror

Through his heart like blood…

No words came. No sound came but a groan.

It wasn’t just that the inspiration was Ovid’s poetry but that he, through his brush, through his extraordinary use of colour, was painting something that was equivalent to a poem. He’s doing that by thinking about what you can do in paint that you can’t do with words. Titian tells that story in one moment, by showing the minute of Acteon’s discovery and he does it by concentrating attention on the gazes of people in the picture. We see Acteon putting up his hand, saying ‘Oh, I’m not quite sure about this’, we see Diana looking very cross and very imperious, we see her nymphs in all sorts of stages of undress and then when we look very carefully, we see the skeleton of a stag, and we know, if we know the story, that that’s what Acteon is going to become. You might be able to see there are two dogs in the painting, Diana has a little lap dog, and Acteon has a hunting dog and the lap dog is barking really, really vigorously at Acteon’s hunting dog. So almost in the picture you see what’s going to happen between the interaction of the two animals. Titian often uses animals to tell things more explicitly than the humans do.

There are two factors that made Titian’s paintings so remarkable, and they’re his use of colour and his use of light. Colour is the way in which Titian tells stories. He makes us understand what is going on. Titian spent most of his life in Venice, and Venice was the place where you got better colours than anywhere else in the world. In the 16th century, Venice is the biggest port in Europe, and it’s where all sorts of extraordinary pigments arrive, from Afghanistan, from the New World, from all over Europe. Titian could take his pick, making his pictures look as full of colour as possible.

Titian really thinks about light more than any other painter I can think of. Now, if you’ve ever been to Venice you’ll know how wonderful it is when you see the light glittering off the canals, and how everything responds to this combination of sun and water, its creates all sorts of strange optical effects, and he so responds to that in his work.

I think this is a painting that has meant more to me as I’ve got older, and also as I’ve had children because looking at Callisto’s body, she’s totally vulnerable and I feel there’s something so unbelievably tragic about her face. She’s in darkness unlike everybody else and you might also see that she’s wearing some really wonderful red shoes and they then draw you when you look at this picture closely to her eyes which are also red because she’s just red with crying. It’s the sense of not being in control, these things happened to these people, and they just have to get on with it. And I think that’s something which can resonate with us all very strongly today.

Nobody needs anything to look at these paintings except themselves because they’re paintings about what makes us human. I’d encourage people to look at the human figures, to look at the agonised face of Callisto, to look at her pregnant belly and to look at the indecision on Acteon’s face and even more his body as he tries to stop himself from turning to see the goddess Diana. And I’d encourage people to just enjoy the pictures for what they are, not to try and necessarily find an explanation for them but make that up in their own minds as they look and as they think.

With thanks to

The National Gallery



Alamy Stock Photo

Museo Nacional del Prado



The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Museum of the Fine Arts, Houston

The National Gallery of Scotland



Garry Cooper



9 Lives

Audio Network


Full list of images shown: 

Diana and Actaeon

Titian, 1556-1559

The National Gallery


Diana and Callisto

Titian, 1556-1559

The National Gallery


Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Translated by A.S. Kline

© Copyright 2000 A.S. Kline, All Rights Reserved


Tales from Ovid

Ted Hughes, 1997

© 2012 Estate of Ted Hughes reproduced by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.


Title-page to Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Antonio Tempesta, 1606

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)


Assumption of the Virgin

Titian, 1515-1518

Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari


The Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist and an unidentified Saint

Titian, 1515-1520

The National Gallery of Scotland


Danae Receiving the Golden Rain

Titian, 1560-1565

© Museo Nacional del Prado


The Pesaro Madonna

Titian, 1519-1526

Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

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