Author’s note: The idea of this post about Venus is to make the reader think about how Venus was seen in different media of art and through different times. Thus it will start by looking at the most recent depiction of her by Botticelli and then end with a representation of her in antiquity, the Venus de Milo!
Disclaimer: Venus was a direct copy from the Greek goddess Aphrodite, so I just want anyone reading this to keep that in mind. Romans copied all sculptures from Aphrodite and named them Venus thus both representing the same qualities.
Introduction: Who was Venus?
Venus was a roman goddess that can be linked to roman mythology. To give a time frame of Venus is more difficult since most of her sculptures are based off Aphrodite, her Greek counterpart, and that information that can be taken from things like a poem by Angelo Poliziano which indicates that she was born during Aegean time (Excerpt from Poliziano’s Giostra, n.d.). Thus the time of her birth is not completely accurate, but if it is based on Poliziano’s poem then her birth would be very broad since it cannot be pin point to a specific part of the Aegean period. Most of her depictions are from the Renaissance period, which was a period in history in which a new analysis of classical Rome happened. Venus has been represented through several periods and interpreted more or less the same. She has several representations among the literature; she can be seen as the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility; some even say that she was the goddess of fertility and victory (Garcia, 2013). She is the roman version of Aphrodite, and in the literature, there is such a connection between the two. This thus can be the most difficult part about finding primary sources and unique evidence about Venus herself; most sources will start to build up the birth and stories of Venus from her Greek counterpart Aphrodite. Such like sculptures that are based off from Aphrodite-like the Venus de Milo (Arenas, 2002, p. 45).
Even though the beginning is similar to Aphrodite, Venus still has several depictions of her birth, which will be discussed in detail further when talking about pieces of art such as The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. But a brief summary of Venus’ birth and the most common depiction is that she surfaced from the foam of the sea on one stormy Aegean night (Garcia, 2013).
The first picture is a representation of Venus, but this one on the right is Aphrodite. Here we can see the remarkable similarities between the two depictions of the goddess in their respective times. As well, keep these similarities in mind throughout the different posts.
If you want to look at a brief biography of Venus before, here is an excellent link: Venus
The picture found above is the famous Unknown – Jastrow (2007), Public Domain, Link” target=”_blank”>Venus de Milo, and the one on the right is of Bchamberlain95 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link” target=”_blank”>Aphrodite.
Venus and Botticelli
Here I will talk about three of his paintings which depict Venus in the Renaissance: The Birth of Venus, La Primavera and Venus and Mars (Ferruolo, 1955, 17).
Picture: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=148159
The Birth of Venus is a painting done on canvas with tempera which was then given to the Medici family (Italianrenaissance.org, 2015). This painting is based on two different pieces of history; the first is the writing of Homer and the other is the statue of Aphrodite of Cnidos which Botticelli based solely on the way he painted the figure of Venus (Garcia, 2013). Apart from that Botticelli based his painting on the writings of Homer. He paints Venus as though she is appearing from the sea in a shell, which she is barely touching. On her right, there is Zephyrus and Chloris, a nymph. As described in the poems by Homer, she is going to the island of Cythera and so is Zephyrus blowing her way to drive her there (Garcia, 2013). On her right, we see a figure at shore. This figure has been identified as Pomona who awaits Venus arrival with a very provocative mantle. This mantle’s color is red which could be associated with beauty, passion, love, and lust, things that normally are attributed to Venus. But the most important figure in the painting is obviously Venus who has been based on the early sculpture of Aphrodite. This is another link between the two goddesses and how Venus has been based of Aphrodite. In the Renaissance era it was weird and unpleasant to see much nudity, but in the Aphrodite of Cnidos, the goddess is nude and yet covering her most private areas (Galinsky, 1966, 233). Botticelli imitates this coverage and uses her long hair to cover her pubic hair, but uses her right hand to cover her breasts. Here there is a deviation from the original sculpture to see how Botticelli used the influence of his time in the painting. Venus in the painting has extremely long red hair, which symbolizes a higher social and economic status in society (Barolsky, 1999, 95). The fact that it was long was a normal characteristic from the Renaissance which gives a clue to the era that it was painted and the influence of the society surrounding him in his work. From that the position that the body is at is very similar to that of the Aphrodite of Cnidos, except for the face. In the Birth of Venus, Venus has given a darker shade and her face is slightly tilted and looking downward while on the sculpture is looking to her left side and up.
Here is a very clear description of the entire painting done by Khan Academy:
Picture: Sandro Botticelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
La Primavera is another famous painting by Botticelli which represents the Roman goddess, Venus. In this painting, there is a sense of peace and tranquility that is given by her presence. Venus in this painting is again the center of the piece and so she divides it into two. On the right, there is the god of the wind Zephyrus, who was also depicted in the Birth of Venus. This time Zephyrus is taking Chloris captive. Although it seems that Flora, the goddess right next to Chloris, is trying to entangle her with her flowers to try and keep her (Ferruolo, 1955, 19). On the other side of Venus, there is the Mars, the god of war, and the three graces. By Botticelli placing the three graces, he alludes to the importance that Romans gave, by how much they used them and how they use them to represent the body in three different ways by rotating them slightly (1955, 20). They show the human body from three different sides. Mars, even the god of war, seems peaceful in this garden, he even put his weapon away. It looks like he is trying to push the winds away to keep the beautiful and peaceful scenario. And at the center, there is the slender and beautiful goddess, Venus (Blake, n.d.). There is only one character that is closer to her than any other, but it seems that Botticelli has not given him as much importance as she has, and that is her son, Cupid. Cupid in this scene is naked and blindfolded, he looks like he is going to shoot an arrow to one of the graces (1955, 18-19). In this painting, Venus is depicted with the red mantle that can be seen given to her by Pomona in the Birth of Venus. Here she is looking straight at the viewer yet still has her head tilted. She has a dress which is covering her, but she is still trying to cover more of her lower half of her body. In this version, she does have one of her hands pointing upwards which could be an intentional thing to make the viewer realize that cupid is above her head. As well, there is a halo behind her head made by nature. Overall, in La Primavera there is the representation of the characteristics of Venus of her beauty, love, fertility, how she enchants people in to have a peaceful environment and her relation to nature and spring.
As before, Khan Academy did a similar video describing this painting:
And if that is not enough information about this painting, here is another link that can give some more insight into it: La Primavera
Picture: By Sandro Botticelli – National Gallery, UK, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38139448
Venus and Mars is the third representation of Venus in Botticelli’s work. In this piece of art, Venus is represented in a scene where she is seen the most comfortable and is depicted in a different posture. In this painting, one of her love relationships is depicted. Here she is depicted relaxed, and so this is what the image of the combination of Venus and Mars makes the viewers realize, that love, Venus, conquers war, Mars (Venus and Mars by BOTTICELLI, Sandro, n.d.). This scene can be represented as though so that they just had intercourse and so Mars is sleeping and Venus is watching over him and taking care of him. As well, here not only Venus is seemed relaxed, but also Mars. The fact is that he is the god of war, and he has taken his armour off and is taking a nap in what seems a meadow, shows a clear sign that he trusts Venus to take care of him and protect him (Venus and Mars, n.d.). This entire scene is so calm and mellow, in fact, there are fauns in the background playing with Mars’ weapons and there is no indication of danger. Overall, the message that Botticelli was trying to depict with the relationship of Venus and Mars is that love conquers all, even war. The learning result of this painting is the relationship about Venus and Mars, an extramarital relationship. Here Venus is depicted as the embodiment of love, beauty, desire, and sex.
Sadly, I could not find a video by Kahn Academy describing this painting, but I found a very enthusiastic video by The National Gallery describing the meaning of this painting:
Angelo Poliziano and Venus
Angelo Poliziano’s Stanze per la Giostra del Magnifico Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici depicts the birth of Venus from excerpts 99 to 104 (Excerpt from Poliziano’s Giostra, n.d.). Even though this poem was not intended to be about Venus and her birth, she does take a big part as the representation of love in the remainder of the poem. Which illustrates one of her representations as for the goddess of love.
Through these six excerpts we learn about the birth of Venus and what it has meant for the world around her, now everyone desires her and wishes to be with her. She is a clear depiction of the goddess of beauty, love, desire, sex, and fertility. As she has stepped into the world the deities around her feel at ease and just want her by their sides.
Even though I wish not to bore you about each different excerpts and their meaning in regards to Venus, here is the poem itself (Poem), so that you can make your own interpretation of it, but if there are any questions you can always contact me.
Venus de Milo
The Venus de Milo is a sculpture that represents the goddess Venus and was found on the Aegean island of Melos (Arenas, 2002, p.37). This is considered one of the most relevant representations of the goddess Venus and when it was found it was thought to represent Aphrodite. This perfectly displays how closely similar these two goddesses were described so that historians could not clearly say which goddess this sculpture depicted. This sculpture was found in 1820 and thought to be from around 150 BCE (p.35).
As well, the link between the two goddess is so strong due to the fact that Roman sculptors based a lot of the sculpture of Venus, like this one, off Aphrodite’s sculptures. This sculpture is actually a Roman marble copy of a Greek Bronze original which represented Aphrodite (Middleton & Rilke, 1968, p. 379). Thus historians sometimes called this statue the Aphrodite of Melos (Kousser, 2005, p. 227).
One particular description of this sculpture is the fact that even though it was reconstructed standing up, it was not found this way (p. 232-46). As well, its arms were never found and so there is only an assumption that one can make about this, which is that the right arm was pointing downwards due to the position
of the shoulder, but nothing can be certain about her left arm. This sculpture follows the classical depiction of Aphrodite who is normally covering her pubic area, but she was barely covering her breasts; in this version, she is actually not covering her breasts at all and only covering her pubic area (Staples, 2013). She is doing so by using what can be thought of as a cloth to cover herself up, instead of her hair, which is what it is said later Renaissance forms of art. Also, we can only assume that she was not covering her breasts at all in this representation because we do not know how her arms were placed (Scott & Arscott, 2000, p. 2).
The Venus de Milo is another representation of this goddess that represents this mysterious, charming, and coy woman that seems untouchable by humans. This might be the best description of her seduction of the viewer, “her head turns slightly away. Her gaze never meets our eyes.” (Arenas, 2002, p.36) By her never making eye contact she keeps this mysterious persona that intrigues and brings the viewer in. What is difficult to figure out is what she was supposed to be doing while being sculpted or what she was supposed to represent. A theory could be that the sculptor might have tried to recreate the scene of her birth, and thus tried to depict a woman coming out of the foam of the sea. Another could be that the sculptor was trying to depict a coy woman that brings you in with her seductive mystery.
Ara Pacis Augustae
The Ara Pacis Augustae is a Roman altar which was dedicated to the Roman Emperor Augustus due to his return from war (Galinsky, 1966, p. 235). Thus then is associated with the goddess of Peace, Pax (1966, 241). In the surface of this altar, there are several scenes of mythology and dedications to different Roman deities. One of the scenes that is depicted on the altar is a dedication to Venus, to be more specific, is a dedication to one of Venus’ cult, Venus Genetrix (1966, 229). In fact, this is not the only dedication to Venus Genetrix, others are like the Temple of Venus in the Forum of Caesar in Rome or the Statue of Venus Genetrix.
Picture: By Amphipolis – Ara Pacis — Tellus (?), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52683619
The Ara Pacis Augustae has a specific scene where there is a goddess, Venus Genetrix, with two infants and two nymphs, one on each side. There are several factors in this scene that make it specifically easy to identify this cult of Venus as the one being depicted. This cult of Venus is represented as the mother aspect of her and is associated with spring, “blossoming nature, of fertility, and of exuberant vegetation” (1966, 232). Firstly, Venus is associated with spring and this specific cult is associated with her motherly side, thus having her with infants would make her seem to fit these criteria. On her feet, she has a lot of vegetation and on her left side, there are some types of flower that surround her, as well some type of wheat is at her right. Actually one of the children that she has on her lap is offering her an apple, which happens to be another symbol associated with Venus (1966, 233). Venus was seen by the Romans to be always accompanied by three different goddesses, which can be seen in this scene. The first one will be the central figure which is a representation of fertility, which she is said to be. The other would be the figure on the left which is the goddess of the air and the fresh water, Acraia (1966, 233). Acraia is seen to be sitting on a swan thus connects the fact that this goddess symbolizes air. And finally, the figure on the right which represents the goddess of the sea. Euploia, the goddess of the sea, can be identified by her sitting on what could be identified as a sea creature. This combination of a goddess was so well known and associated with Venus that Roman poets “used it as an almost stereotyped formula to characterize the goddess” (1966, 233).
Why does it matter? Why combine all these media?
Even as an imitation from Aphrodite, Venus has a lot of representations of her in art, in which there is a lot of to learn about her. Through the sculpture of the Venus de Milo, how she is depicted and then found in other pieces of art becomes clear. In La Giostra, there is a very detailed narration of her birth which makes it easier to set a timeframe for Venus and give her a story line. Thanks to Aras Pacis Augustae, there is another version that historians know about, her cult of Venus Genetrix. Finally, in Botticelli’s work, there are illustrations of her physique and how she is portrayed around others. In Birth of Venus, there is a matching connection between the painting and the poem La Giostra. In La Primavera, there is a motherly and yet scene where she is portrayed around other heavenly figures. And finally in Venus and Mars, there is a peaceful relationship between two odds, that talks about her character as a caring and peaceful persona. After all, Venus is portrayed through art as a representation of love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility, and lust. Even though some pieces depict different parts of her, they all still depict Venus and all her characteristics through different media.
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Middleton, Christopher, and Rainer Maria Rilke. “Rilke’s Birth of Venus.” Trustees of Boston University through its publication Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 7.3 (1968): 372-91. Web.
Scott, K., & Arscott, C. (2000). Manifestations of Venus: art and sexuality. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
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Staples, Ariadne. From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins Sex and Category in Roman Religion. London: Taylor and Francis, 2013. Print.
“The Birth of Venus by BOTTICELLI, Sandro.” N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Aphrodite.” N.p., 11 Oct. 2006. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.
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Need extra information…
- Primavera: More information about the painting
- Birth of Venus: More information about the painting
- Venus: Generic information about the Roman Goddess
- Venus (Biography): More information about Venus by Ancient History Encyclopedia