“A young woman with nonhuman countenance, is carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven rejoices in her birth.”-Poliziano
Who is this young woman Poliziano is speaking of? It’s none other than Venus, the beautiful goddess of love! Venus, and other gods and goddesses, are central icons in some Renaissance works especially as scholars and artists alike looked towards the classics. Remember Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid or even Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne? Those are just a few paintings we’ve touched on that focus on the myths!
I’d like to introduce you to another great painting featuring Venus: Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus! This painting reimagines the very beginning of our favorite love goddess. For inspiration, Botticelli most likely looked towards his friend Poliziano and classical writers Homer and Virgil.
Why don’t we see what Botticelli’s painting has to say about Venus!?
In myth, Venus rose out of sea foam, fully-grown! Botticelli depicts her riding atop a giant shell. She is the beautiful pearl, a rare treasure! Aiding her arrival towards land are Zephyrus, the god of wind, and Aura, the goddess of breeze, who embrace lovingly. As their wind pushes Venus, roses drift by. Some say that the rose burst into existence alongside Venus and, like Venus, they symbolize love and beauty.
Venus, the star of this painting, is an erotic, ethereal figure. Her body and beauty are celebrated here. Botticelli even contours her body with a dark line, a bold emphasis on her figure. Her golden hair flows around her and covers her modesty. With such pale skin, Venus looks like a marble statue too! In fact, Botticelli mimicked her stance after sculptures such as the Venus de Medici or Aphrodite of Knidos.
Such a blatant depiction of female nudity was a rare occurrence during its creation since many Renaissance paintings had Christian themes and nudity was reserved to male figures or depictions of shame (like Eve’s fall into sin). Rather, Botticelli celebrates a beautiful goddess!
Waiting to greet this new love goddess is either one of the Graces or the Hora of Spring! She is preparing to drape a flower-patterned cloak over Venus. The flower and spring references align with themes of birth and fertility all of which fall under Venus’ love domain! In fact, April is often considered the month of Venus.
In all, both her beauty and modest pose emphasize love’s dual nature. It is both crude and sacred.
There are several interpretations and connections surrounding Botticelli’s work! I wonder which one you’ll like best!
The Medici Family
Although we don’t precisely know who commissioned The Birth of Venus, it is believed to have connections with the Medici family. This theory comes from the paintings orange trees which were emblems of the Medici dynasty! The family even had possession of the painting for a while. It was found around the mid-16th century at the Castello villa owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici.
As an ancient Greek philosopher, Plato had a theory about Venus! He believed Venus to have two main aspects.
- The earthly goddess that celebrated physical love.
- The celestial goddess that inspired intellectual love and spiritual beauty. By contemplating physical beauty, such as Venus, a person could resonate with God’s divine beauty.
Botticelli was influenced by humanism, an intellectual movement that celebrated classical studies, individualism, and explored human living and virtues. The Birth of Venus explores such themes through its reliance on classical myth and sculpture and its celebration of love.
Christian Themes with a Pagan Goddess!?
It may be a stretch but some see Venus’ nudity as a representation of Eve right before her Fall and exile from the Garden of Eden. The cloak would then represent the mortal sin as humans recognized their shame and developed a need to clothe themselves. Once covered, Venus would then become the Christian Church where she offers guidance to others.
What do you think about these theories?
The Birth of Venus was a large-scale canvas. It resembles a fresco with its complementary colors, freshness, and brightness. Botticelli used diluted yolk and light tempera to achieve these effects! You might also notice the gold-gilded hair, flowers, and leaves which add to the painting’s beauty!
So, this stunning masterpiece is worth seeing at the Uffizi gallery! (We might even have a THATMuse hunt coming soon there)….Meanwhile, you can see similar works and themes during our Love Hunt or Ladies at the Louvre Hunt!
Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments!