Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, The National Gallery, London, 1485, 69.2 x 173.4 cm, Tempera and oil on poplar.
Venus and Mars is a painting by the Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. Produced in the latter half of the 1480s and around the same time as the other famous paintings by Botticelli, it has been less well-known but nonetheless captivating as it vividly depicts the theme of love conquering war. It shows us the mighty power of Venus (Aphrodite, goddess of sexuality and sensuality) over another immortal and how she reverses the gender role by employing love’s grace to dominate her lover Mars(Ares, god of war and bloodlust).
In the painting we see a spent Mars lying unconsciously on the ground; his head outstretched in deep slumber that he does not wake even when a young satyr’s blowing a shell like a horn into his ear. Uncharacteristically, Mars is unarmed and vulnerable. His militant virility has been crushed and vanished in the face of intoxicating love. On the opposite side is Venus: she’s wide awake, fully clothed, and triumphantly examining her lover with a tender smile on her face. She displays her confidence by cushioning an elbow on a red pillow. The position of the main figures matches the descriptions by Lucretius in de rerum natura ("The Nature of Things”): "though Mars the War Lord rules war’s savage works, yet often he throws himself into your arms, faint with love’s deathless wound, and there, with arching neck bent back, looks up and sighs, and feeds a lustful eye on you and, pillowed, dangles his life’s breath from your lips. Then, as he falls back on your sacred body, Lady, lean over and let sweet utterance pour from your holy lips—a plea of peace for Rome (32).” Mars’ complete defeat is also evident in his disarmament. He no longer holds on to his weapons, letting them be carried away by mischievous satyrs. The allegorical meaning is that Mars’ ferocious and aggressive nature is subdued by Love’s gracious force. Though usual, the theme is hardly surprising: in Greek literature, Harmony is sometimes the daughter of their union (La Fond 14:15-14:18).
The seashell blown by one of the young satyrs is associated with Venus as well as female sexuality since the Greek word for scallop shell can also be translated as female genitalia (Bellingham, 362). In The Birth of Venus, Venus is depicted standing on a scallop shell. In Venus and Mars the combination of the phallic lance and the shell, both turned against Mars, signifies Venus’ dominance and a reversed gender role in their relationship. This relationship emphasizes Venus’s ascendancy: She could master Mars, but Mars could never master Venus.
The floral and fauna in Botticelli’s paintings are rarely a random choice. This holds in Venus and Mars: we see behind Venus the myrtle trees, a potent aphrodisiac (Bellingham, 361, 362). Myrtle trees also appear in another artwork by Edward Burne-Jones, The Godhead Fires. In this picture Venus “clothed in a diaphanous garment and holding a sprig of myrtle, appears with her doves and roses and by her touch brings Galatea to life, with the words, ‘Come down, and learn to love and be alive (Morford et al. 198).’ ” With one touch Venus brings the inert figure to life, and our textbook compares it to the scene in which “God with a touch of his finger imbues Adam with life” (Morford et al. 198), demonstrating Aphrodite’s mightiness as a Goddess of love and her power over nearly everyone, whether immortal god or mortal human (La Fond 6:53-6:57), even inanimate objects.
Venus and Mars is an example of the Renaissance tradition of works based on ancient literature of lost classical paintings (Bellingham, 365, 366). The work has adapted the iconography of the historical Alexander The Great and his bride from the poet Lucian’s description of a once-glamorous but now lost painting, The Marriage of Roxana and Alexander. (we can see the parallel in the titles, Roxana and Alexander, and Venus and Mars). In his ekphrasis, Lucian describes a cupid holding Alexander’s cloak and pulling him towards his lovely bride with all his might, suggesting the irresistibility of love. Perhaps only in this rare loving moment with Roxana could Alexander temporarily forget about waging incessant warfare and his ambition to conquer. A few other cupids are playing with Alexander's armor during the wedding ceremony, two carrying his lance and one has crawled inside his breastplate (145, 149). Here, we see a parallel of baby satyrs playing with Mar’s armor in his sleep. However, in Botticelli’s painting, the seemingly innocent and playful assault on Mars is actually sinister. Unlike erotes, satyrs are not typical attendants of Venus, but Botticelli’s depiction of these bestial satyrs as child-like makes them directly oppositional to the erotes. According to Bellingham, the metamorphosed erotes signifies the presence of evil and the bestial nature of the love affair between Venus and Mars. The artist’s replacement of the winged “little loves” with wingless “little satyrs” warns people of the spiritually damaging effects of lust (Bellingham, 367).
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, the Uffizi Gallery, Italy, 1477, 278.5 cm x 172.5 cm
Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863, Oil on canvas, 130 cm x 225.3 cm
Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, is a well-known existence. In the era when European religious painting prevailed, Venus was a favorite of artists. Many different artists created pieces for her birth, and their works were handed down from generation to generation. However, among those paintings, I think “ The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli is the most outstanding one, and no one can reach it though for the same topic.
The Romans regarded Venus as a god of love and called it the mother of the nation, because the Romans believed that the majestic city of Rome was founded by the descendants of Aphrodite(Venus). She was born from the sea “the Olympian gods accompanied the miraculous birth of Aphrodite from the sea” ( Morford et al. P120) and she’s also open to the diversity of love. “In the mythology, as one would expect, homosexuality may be found as an important theme. Aphrodite and Eros in particular play significant roles as deities particularly concerned about homosexual love.” ( Morford et al. P22) Shell is always Aphrodite’s symbol because she was born with a shell from the sea in the painting “ The Birth of Venus”. “Many have seen in her a symbol of love itself; it is worth noting that she rides on a shell, a symbol that is often associated with Aphrodite (Venus).” ( Morford et al. P171)
The group choice for Aphrodite is “ The Birth of Venus” which is a painting by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli in about the mid 1480s, and it is stored in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. It was the first work since the Renaissance to take directly from classical mythology and first depict the female nude figure--Venus, the newly born beauty god from the foam of the ocean, stood on a clam shell, and the two wind gods gently blew her to the shore. The hour goddess on the right bank with the beautiful flower cloak to meet the arrival of the beautiful god, the sky under the rose rain, the sea plays a slight wave. I think the whole painting is full of lyrical charm and shows us a complex, contradictory and poetic image through the depiction of Venus' sad look and beautiful posture at the same time. The shell in the painting corresponds to what is learned in lectures and textbooks. I notice that Botticelli used hair and hands as cover to cover the private parts of Venus, so that I can perceive the respect she has received as a God, and kept a certain sense of mystery. Venus in Botticelli’s painting is very elegant and charming and I feel that she matches my imagination of reading textbooks.
On the contrary, other artists’ pieces for Venus, such as The Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel, did not give any shelter to Venus, leaving her naked to the audience. I think this painting lost a part of the holy thing, making the god of love into a simple woman. The art historian Robert Rosenblum commented that "This Venus hovers somewhere between an ancient deity and a modern dream, the ambiguity of her eyes, that seem to be closed but that a close look reveals that she is awake ... A nude who could be asleep or awake is especially formidable for a male viewer". I agree with this point of view, but the brightness of the color and the flying of the little love god still give a person a somewhat happy feeling.
In Theogony, Aphrodite is produced by Uranus’s genitals that is interestingly cut off by his son Cronus. This essay will center on the Greek goddess Aphrodite and its Roman counterpart Venus. It is also safe to say that Venus is simply the Roman version of Aphrodite given the cultural relation between the Ancient Greek and Ancient Rome. I believe that the character of Aphrodite’s and the artistic impressions on her provide crucial insights into the relation between our lusts and our love.
Aphrodite is the goddess of sexual love and beauty in Ancient Greece, which was also identified as Venus in Ancient Rome. While Aphrodite is a more unfamiliar name to the most, Venus is a renowned cultural symbol. As noted in the Classical Mythology by Mark Morford, “Venus was an Italian fertility goddess whose original functions are not known.” Though it is clear to most of us that Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, desire, sex and prosperity, her functions wasn’t clarified until “the fourth century, contact with the Greek world led to identification of Venus with the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite.”
“According to Hesiod, Aphrodite was born of the foam around the severed genitals of Uranus, a fitting beginning for a divinity whose concern is sexual.” In the painting The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, which is also the piece selection of my group’s, Venus appears in the center of the painting with an appearance that is naked with hands covering the sexual parts of her body while standing on a giant shell. And it is a common theme of goddess of love in artworks, Aphrodite often appears to be naked or draped, which also indicate strong implications of sex. It may be the reason why Venus appears to be naked in many of the renowned artworks that have her appearances. After all, considering the relation between Ancient Rome and Ancient Greek, Aphrodite can be said to be the origin of Venus.
The identity of a goddess of love and sex implies something about her character. Greek Mythology often personates the gods, the same feature also works on Aphrodite. In the mythology, Aphrodite is the wife of the god of fire Hephaestus. And as a wife she had many lovers, which makes her unfaithful to her husband. It is utterly interesting since the creators of such mythologies realized even at that time that love can simply be repeating sexual arousals. Such features are also demonstrated in the painting The Birth of Venus, the gesture and nudity of Venus’, which is also Aphrodite’s, sends a message that she intends to draw attention. The yearning for attention can always be interpreted as a seeking for love, the many lovers Aphrodite have do send the message that Aphrodite’s love is not love that is concentrated on any specific person, but one that perpetuates through changing the objects which her love is based on.
It is safe to say that the inspirations between the creation of Aphrodite are ones that are based on understandings of humanity. We are not faithful creatures by default, desires and lusts occupy the majority of the feelings that we interpret as love. There is no judgment involved, I simply believe that Aphrodite’s representation of love is one that is most closely related to the true nature of humans’ among all the mythologies. The purity of love is a romantic expression toward that which we long for, while lusts and desires are urges that truly drive us.
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, the Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy, 1484-1486, 278.5cm x 172.5cm, tempera on canvas
In Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Venus is depicted nude, standing on a large white shell as the Horae of the seasons surround her in white flowing garments. The painting is the first non-religious nude since classical antiquity and is one of three paintings commissioned by Sandro Botticelli after his return from Rome having completed three paintings in the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV. Painted during the Florentine Renaissance, The Birth of Venus marks the revival of ancient myths in humanistic Renaissance art.
According to the myth of Venus, as told by the classical poet Hessiod, Venus was born when Uranus was castrated by his son Chronus, his severed organs falling into the ocean and fertilizing the sea. However, Botticelli received additional inspiration from the poet and scholar Angelo Poliziano who wrote about this scene is his poem “Stanze per la Giostra” where he describes Venus as being “driven towards the shore on a shell by Zephyrus, god of the wind, while the Horae of the seasons stood on the shore in white, flowing garments.” There is no doubt that Botticelli borrowed from both accounts and likely others as well. Ultimately, the painting depicts the moment Venus arrives at the shore of Paphos in Cyprus, fully grown after her birth. She is depicted with a hand loosely covering her breasts, and her hair blowing in the breeze, covering her pubis. These actions both conceal and accentuate her sexuality by directing our attention to her pubis and breasts in a method that can be related to “the hand that points also covers and that which covers also points”. Through her posing, Venus is reduced to her sexuality which is seemingly fitting for the goddess of love, beauty, and desire.
In ancient times, the male form was revered as seen in a large number of ancient Greek/Roman sculptures and paintings depicting men in the nude. Women however are shown clothed in modest attire and almost never portrayed in a nude fashion. This portrayal shows the differences in social standing of women and men in ancient society. In Greek times, women were closer to slaves in social rank than they were to men and thus were portrayed as an external surface of decoration through their attire. Clothing is offered to Venus in the painting, and yet Botticelli does not paint her clothed and leaves her nude in a way that can be interpreted as a rejection of the modesty usually applied to the female form. However, some modesty is maintained in the form of her hand, covering her pubis from the eyes of strangers. This however, only accentuates the erotic possibilities and stimulating desire by drawing their attention to the one thing that cannot be seen, her pubis. While we as modern day viewers have seen many pieces of artwork featuring Venus in the nude, during the time, this would not be the norm for art of women, even goddesses, and serves to accentuate her sexuality as the goddess of desire.
August 2, 2021
The Birth of Venus
Sandro Botticelli's painting depicts the goddess Venus arriving at the shore after her birth, when she had emerged from the sea fully-grown. The painting is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy
According to myth, the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) was born as the Titan Cronus castrated his father and threw the dismembered genital into the ocean, fertilizing the waters, thus from the seafoam, rose Aphrodite, however despite the popularity of the story Aphrodite is much more than a symbol for love, sex and beauty, she is also a goddess of purity, rebirth, and spring.
Immediately from her birth from the waters she was conceptualized to be the ideal figure of femininity, Botocelli’s interpretation depicts her as a young, beautiful, perfect woman. Although the likelihood of Venus being inspired by a real woman, it is said that his paintings and art work were largely inspired by the classical statues of Aphrodite in her modest pose, however the contour of his Venus was modeled by Simonetta Vespucci, a blonde woman living in florence at the time.
Sandro Botticelli’s rendition of the birth of Venus depicts a beautiful young woman emerging from her clam shell on the new shores of Cyprus as an interpretation of her birth as well as the rebirth of civilization. She emerges from the water in absolute perfection, her blond hair, covering her in a form of modesty, refracting light in a sense that she appears to have golden strands for hair. The shell on which she stands is Botticelli’s interpretation of her divinity and purity, comparable to that of a pearl. To her left are seen the deities Zephyr and Aura, in a loving embrace, another indication of Aphrodite’s power of love. These two are the winds responsible for blowing the winds to shore; Zephyr was known as the west wind responsible for bringing spring to the Greeks, which we will further analyze in Botticelli’s Primavera (spring time). According to the Greek poet Hesiod, Aura was a minor deity known for the breeze and early morning, potentially omplaying Venus was born in the morning. To her right a Horae is ashore to greet her with a cloak made of Springtime flowers, further solidifying that Aphrodite’s debut was in the beginning of spring, also symbolic of new birth and life among animals as many associate spring with mating season in nature. What really is unusual about her stance is that she is not standing rather floating. Her weight is not distributed in an anatomically correct fashion, further adding to her ethereal presence.
Comparable to Aphrodite’s second appearance in Botticelli’s other legendary piece, Primavera, where the goddess is depicted in a much more modest fashion with a white dress, likely symbolic of her purity, and a red cloak likely indicative of her affliction with love. In Primavera she is surrounded by laurel leaves behind her likely being her symbol of godliness, with cupid above her ready to fire an arrow. To her right Zephyr is seen yet again, however this time is transforming Chloris into Flora, the goddess of spring.
My personal interpretation of this is that Aphrodite is also heavily associated with new beginnings, rebirth, and springtime, and not just the misconstrued “love, beauty and fertility”.
Despite much of Botticelli’s privacy in his artwork, his pieces have granted him a long lasting legacy within the arts and communities of culture.
In essence, Aphrodite is significantly more than how she is portrayed, she embodies the qualities she is commonly associated with such as love, beauty and fertility, we see all these traits in Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, however, what many fail to notice in these works of art as well, is that she is also an idol for new beginnings and the beauty and wonderment that come with spring time.
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