History and Depictions of the Love Goddesses’ Image
Throughout antiquity, the portrayal of Venus and her Greek counterpart, Aphrodite, has changed time and time again. Even just comparing her Greek representations to her Roman representations, there is a clear difference in how she was believed to look, what she was believed to wear, and even what her facial expressions would have looked like. Just comparing Roman and Greek depictions of her birth story can give an interesting understanding of how the two empires differed in beliefs. Below is a Greek depiction of the birth of Aphrodite on a Greek mosaic from Zeugma (Theoi, n.d.), compared to a Roman mosaic from Bulla Regia (Theoi, n.d.). These two mosaics make for an interesting comparison because despite their physical distance and cultural difference, they share many similarities.
Unfortunately, Aphrodite’s head does not survive in this Roman depiction, but a lot can still be interpreted from this mosaic. First of all, she is represented as being naked in both mosaics. Aside from the red cloak that is draped over her leg and behind her back in the Roman depiction, her jewelry and her posture are basically identical. We can’t be sure of her head, but the way her body is turned, her leg is crossed, and her arms are splayed suggest an almost-identical posture in both mosaics. If we were able to see her head, it would be interesting to see if she was depicted with the halo (or aureole) in her Greek portrayal. Next, we can see that there are two winged cupids/erotes flying above her head with a wreath. We cannot see the wreath in the Greek depiction, but their postures suggest they are going to crown her with something, whether that be a wreath or not. In both depictions, she is supported by two centaurs with the tails of a fish – there is one young man and one older man. The main difference here is that the Roman mosaic shows one of the centaurs holding what appears to be an offering, and that the Roman version has more serious faces. The men are supposedly named “Aphros (Sea-Foam) and Bythos (Sea-Depths) in Greek” (Theoi, n.d.). The main difference between the two mosaics is that the goddess is depicted in a cockle shell in the Greek mosaic, but not in the Roman mosaic. Perhaps this is because the artist learned a different version of her creation myth, or perhaps they just wanted to portray her in a unique way. Regardless, both artists were probably familiar with Hesiod’s creation myth in the Theogony or were told what to do by someone who was. We’ll come back to Hesiod later.
Because Aphrodite and Venus were (was) the goddess of beauty, love and sex among other things, her image varied greatly depending on how the artist chose to receive her. If an artist read or was exposed to the Iliad, they may have read the line where Helen describes how she recognized Aphrodite with her “… round, sweet throat of a goddess and her desirable breasts and her eyes that were full of shining…” (Homer, trans. 2011, p.128.396-397). Since she is described so sexually here, the artist may be inclined to represent her as a strictly sexual being with more skin exposed, or a more vulnerable posture (or a more modest posture, depending what they found more suggestive). This could be contrasted to the Argonautika when the goddess finds her son Eros playing a game of golden knucklebones unfairly. She scolds him quite harshly by saying “What are you grinning at, you unspeakable little horror? Did you cheat him again, win unfairly, cash in on his innocence?” (Apollonios, trans. 2007, p. 116.129-144). Since she is depicted as scolding her son quite harshly, the artist may be more likely to portray her a few different ways: her with her son, with a more stern expression, or even with a more maternal look i.e. more clothing, different posture, etc. It is important to consider what the artist had in mind when comparing and contrasting different portrayals of the goddess, because some can vary quite drastically from others.
Venus and Frescoes in Pompeii
For a brief background on Pompeii: http://www.pompeionline.net/pompei-scavi/cenni-storici-sulla-citta-antica
Venus was worshipped on such a large scale throughout the classical world that it is impossible to examine and compare every depiction of her. Although Venus was a Roman version of the previously-existing Greek Aphrodite (as most of the gods were), she stood for much more than her Greek counterpart did. Venus was not only the goddess of love, beauty and sexuality, but also fertility, victory and prostitution (Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2013). What better place for the goddess of sex and prostitution to be depicted than Pompeii? Not only was Pompeii probably the most sexually explicit of Roman cities, they also actively worshipped Venus as their patron goddess. Before the eruption of AD 79, there was even a temple in her honour being built in the Sanctuary of Venus (Carroll, 2010). Although the temple was never finished, there are fortunately many depictions of Venus that do survive, mainly in the form of frescoes – click here for a quick explanation on frescoes. Before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii would have been beautifully decorated in colourful frescoes created by the best artists. Since many Pompeian frescoes are copies of Greek artwork (PompeiOnline, 2015), fragmented pieces can sometimes still be understood if their original still survives. Luckily, many frescoes are in relatively good condition and can still be seen and conserved for future study to this day. Depending what the property owner wanted, there were tons of options as to what an artist may depict and how they may look. To be really specific, you can click here to understand the four styles of fresco painting. The four styles can be differentiated by how realistic they are, what they are depicting, what kind of colours they’re using in which areas, what cultural influences they have, and more. This was an element that changed over time, and a trained eye can identify them quite easily. As for what the artists and property owner decides to have painted, this is a more of a personal decision. An example of this is a fresco in the House of Vettii in which there is a fresco of Priapus weighing his unrealistically large phallus. The Pompeians believe phallic imagery to be good luck, so this fresco is essentially symbolism for wealth and good fortune.
It is unsurprising that the house-owners chose this fresco for their home because they were believed to be two possibly freedmen, brothers who got wealthy through trade (PompeiiSites, n.d.). The fresco indicates good fortune and wealth, so this makes perfect sense. It also makes this the ideal example of specifically picking exactly what artwork you want depicted in your home – in this case, a reference to a god that is conveniently representative of the home-owners life. When examining frescoes and trying to understand their context, knowing who owned the property doesn’t always answer all the questions, but can be very helpful.
Frescoes of Venus: Similarities and Differences
With all of the background information out of the way, frescoes of Venus can now be compared and contrasted to get a better understanding of the Pompeian understanding of Venus. Since there are so many examples, this will only cover a handful of the more easily-accessible and better-known frescoes, while keeping variety and (of course) entertainment value in mind. The frescoes that will be discusses are in the following houses: House of Venus in the Shell VII 3 3, House of Punished Love VII 2 23, House of Venus and Mars VII 9 47, and House of Gaius Rufus VII 2 16.
Some aspects to consider for each of the frescoes are the following:
- The colours that are used, and then look into accessibility of the pigments. Were more expensive/harder to access pigments used in her depictions?
- Consider the outfits, jewelry and aesthetics (hair, make up) she is depicted in – do they change? Why would she be depicted in certain things?
- Consider skin tone and body type, if they change or stay the same and what they mean
- What setting is she depicted in in the fresco? Is it symbolic of something, or a scene out of literature, for example? Could the literary example be something bigger? i.e. Theogony
- Why is the fresco painted where it is? Why is Venus in a shell painted where it is, for example. Does this add anything to the meaning? Was it a man or woman that owned the house? What room was it in? Who could see it/where did you need to be to see it?
- Was she depicted sexually, modestly, powerfully, individually? Was she with other people, or alone? If with other people, male or female, child or adult? Were they touching? What does the touch suggest, authority, love?
- What is her facial expression like? Is the expression representative of something, maybe simply the style of painting at the time, or representative of how she was portrayed to be feeling?
- What objects are in the photo? For example, a palm branch to represent victory, a dove representing Venus, etc? Consider all symbolism. Can any of this be tied back to literature?
- There are babies (some winged, some not) in many of the frescoes. Are they supposed to be her son(s), or could they be something else? Are they in every fresco of her or just some? Why are they with her opposed to another goddess such as Minerva, or are they?
- When Mars is depicted with Venus, what does he represent? Does he appear authoritative, supportive, loving?
- What do we know about the property owner? If anything, does this help explain the fresco at all?
Of course this list is a little extensive, but considering at least a few of the examples for each fresco is very beneficial for getting a better understanding of why her depictions vary or remain consistent in each house.
House of Venus in the Shell VII 3 3
The first depiction is definitely the most popular, and that is The Birth of Venus. This fresco is found in the House of Venus in the Shell VII 3 3, and was owned by part of the Satrii family which was very distinguished in Pompeii’s final years (PompeiiSites, n.d.). The house gives an impression of evident wealth with the flashy peristylium surrounding a garden. The focal point, however, is the fresco depicting the birth of Venus on the back wall of the peristyle. The fresco is the largest on the wall – on it’s left is a fresco of her lover, Mars, depicted with his armour on a pedestal, and on the right is a fresco of birds drinking from a fountain.
As you can see, it’s a very large and beautiful depiction of the goddess. There is no doubt that when you are in the peristyle, this fresco would immediately catch your eye. The colours are true to what they would be if Venus were truly in the ocean, and would have probably been much more vibrant 2,000 years ago. The use of so much blue is interesting because attaining Egyptian Blue was a trade of it own, although there is debate that the Romans may have taught themselves to make it (LearnChemistry, 2018). The blue in this fresco is not the rich, deep blue often associated with Egyptian Blue, so it could either be an entirely different formula, or a diluted version of an extravagant Egyptian blue. In either case, it suggests a wealthy-taste on the property-owners part because the same blue flows into the two surrounding frescoes. The blue also contrasts nicely with the strikingly pale skin Venus and the cherubs share. It is unsurprising that Venus is given such a light skin-tone because wealthy women would have rarely needed to see the sun, and therefor remained very pale. Even the cherubs seem to be ever-so-slightly more sun-kissed than her. Her body is very relaxed and exposed, giving no signs of modesty but yet no signs of overt sexuality. She looks sensual and comfortable without looking like a seductress, possibly due to nudity being less taboo than in previous centuries. Her effort to cover herself is minimal with a cloth under her arm but left flapping in the wind behind her. Venus’ face is relaxed, looking off into the distance seemingly without a worry in the world. She wears jewelry on her ankles, wrists and neck, as well as a small crown-like hairpiece. The cherubs that flank her are looking at her with curiosity but maintaining a distance – cherubs seem to accompany her in many frescoes. The main symbolism in this depiction is the shell that she lays in – this is presumably a direct reference to the birth story in Hesiod’s Theogony. Hesiod’s myth goes as follows:
So he said: and vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands  a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot. And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her.1Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle  with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round  she bore the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae2all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea,  they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass  grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus,  and Philommedes3 because she sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honor she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods,—  the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness. (Theogony 173-206)
He explains that she was born from the product of her father Ouranos’ severed genitals being thrown into the sea. Since this would not be the most glamorous representation of her birth to paint into a home, the laying in the shell was likely the intended sign of a sea-born goddess. Because of the sea-born depiction, it is likely that the artist was familiar with Hesiod’s creation myth opposed to Homer’s in which she is described as the daughter of Zeus and Dione (Iliad 363-415).
So, why did the home-owner want a fresco of Venus in the peristylium? We’ll never know for sure, but there are a few reasons we could consider. Maybe they wanted a fresco of a very natural scene to compliment the garden within the peristylium, or maybe the colours in the fresco were something they enjoyed – could the use of so much blue be flaunting their wealth? It could also be a reminder that they were literate, and therefor wealthy. Or, maybe they just liked this scene and wanted to see it everyday, as well as honour the goddess.
House of Punished Love VII 2 23
The next house is special because it has not one, but two frescoes of Venus! The first is a fresco of Venus seated with Mars behind her touching her chest. Beside them is a maid and a cherub. The second fresco depicts Venus seated with a cherub beside her while she looks over at a maid who is walking her son Eros or a cherub toward her, depending on what literature the artist was familiar with – if familiar with Hesiod, this is just a cherub, not her son (Theogony 115-120). Being unable to find information on who owned this home, it is difficult to find information on why they may have wanted these frescoes, and if it was the same artist that painted both.
According to PompeiiinPictures, the fresco of Mars and Venus is on the south wall, and the fresco of Venus and the personification of Persuasion is on the north wall. Judging by the colours used and the facial structures of the figures in the frescoes, it looks as if both may have been painted by the same artist. Aside from the people, the trees and the background colour are almost identical as well. The colours used in the clothing are different, but they still compliment each other enough that they don’t clash. Something that stands out is how similar Persuasion looks to the “maid” in the fresco of Mars and Venus – they are wearing the same outfit but different colours, the same headpiece, and have very similar facial structures. The same goes for the cupids, and Venus’ face. In both examples, she has a very pronounced nose and deep, wide-set eyes. The main difference in Venus’ physical appearance is her hair-style and hair colour, which is strange if they were painted by the same artist. Mars’ skin is painted much darker than Venus’ which is characteristic of Roman men since they worked outside and wealthy women could stay indoors. In both frescoes she is dressed fairly modestly with little skin showing. In the fresco with Persuasion, she wears multiple pieces of clothing that cover all but her right arm and the top of her chest. It is modest in comparison to her nude look in the shell. With Mars, she wears a robe that covers all but her forearms, but it is pulled down because of Mars’ arm being on her chest. In both frescoes, she wears her usual jewelry: bracelets, anklets, and a hairpiece. Her skin colour is consistent with the wealthy-woman’s pale look, and her body-type is hidden. In both frescoes, her facial expression is neutral, giving no signs of any strong emotion – if anything, she seems care-free. From here, it is easiest to analyze the frescoes separately to really understand what’s going on.
Firstly, the fresco of Venus and Persuasion. PompeiiinPictures describes the scene as “Persuasion [bringing] Love (Amor) to Venus for punishment for firing his arrow at the wrong target.” (2018). This could be a reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses where in line 525, he accidentally pricks his own mother with an arrow, or it could be a reference to the story of Cupid and Psyche in Apuleius’ later version of Metamorphoses when Cupid falls in love with a woman his mother does not approve of. Either way, it is an interesting choice of fresco for this house – it could suggest that it was a family home, or perhaps this home-owner just enjoyed myths about Venus. The fresco is straight forward and gives no more detail than necessary, she is looking at the son that displeased her as he is guided to her. Venus looks modest and important in what appears to be her throne.
The second fresco of Mars and Venus is quite interesting because there’s a confusing power-play happening. The myth of Mars and Venus’ affair is in Homer’s Odyssey Book 8, where her husband catches her in the act and humiliates the pair. This fresco, however, shows a powerful couple, with no signs of shame or embarrassment. It is interesting because Venus seems to be in a position of power by being seated in the throne, but Mars has his hand on her chest as if to signify authority or ownership. Having her hand on his arm adds another component of confusion because it could either be interpreted as her removing his hand, or embracing it. It seems as if the fresco is supposed to be interpreted as an important couple due to Mars’ armour and the throne, so the romantic interpretation seems more accurate with this considered. It is hard to say how the artist was trying to portray her because of the hand-gesture, but she appears to be important, powerful, but not necessarily independent. It is perhaps the most personal of her depictions so far.
House of Venus and Mars VII 9 47
The owners of the House of Venus and Mars are unknown, but the house seems quite wealthy with a wide variety of rooms and frescoes. This fresco in particular depicts Venus laying back into Mars’ arms, beside them are two cupids playing with Mars’ armour. This depiction of the lovers is much different than in the House of Punished Love in many ways – the colours used are mainly warm tones, the facial expressions and physical characteristics differ, as well as their postures and their clothing. The use of warm tones is not surprising because Pompeians probably sourced their red and yellow ochres for pigments locally through volcanic rock (Aliatis et al. 2010). The cooler tones would have been more difficult and again, like the Birth of Venus fresco, may have indicated wealth to be able to afford them.
Venus is once again painted in her typical pale skin, which contrasts against Mars’ deep tanned skin. She wears her typical jewelry with the addition of body jewelry across her core. The only clothing she has is a small cloth draped over one leg, whereas Mars wears pants and an open-chested shirt. Mars doesn’t wear his armour, and it lays around the couple for the cupids to play with. The way Venus is splayed onto Mars as he supports her and her lack of clothing suggests vulnerability as well as power. Her expression looks very stern, but her body and posture is relaxed. It is interesting that the home-owner would want this fresco because there is no apparent literary connection, but it very well may simply be a fresco to honour the god and goddess. Alternatively, it could have been the home of a wealthy husband and wife that wanted a depiction of the famous couple to represent them in a way.
House of Gaius Rufus VII 2 16
The name of this house is debatable because of the two inscriptions with different names being so close to one another on the outside of the entrance, but the commonly referred to owner is Gaius Rufus. The owner was evidently wealthy by looking at what remains of his house, as it is massive with many rooms and tons of artwork. One of the frescoes that survives depicts a beauty contest between Venus and Hesperus, being judged by Apollo.
The story behind Hesperus and Venus is quite interesting. The ancient Greeks once called the morning star “Phosphorous” in its personified form and the evening star “Hesperus” in its personified form. Once they learned about and accepted the Babylonian theory that both stars were the same, and were not stars but actually a planet, they renamed it “Aphrodite”. The Romans learned all of this through the Greeks, so once they heard about the change in name, they, too, renamed the planet, this time to “Venus” (GreekMythology, 2018). It’s very captivating to see a fresco depicting a beauty contest between the old version of a planet versus the new accepted version of a planet – but personified. Hesperus is depicted as being male, whereas the new version of the planet, Venus, is female. In the fresco, Apollo sits on a fancy throne with an aureole above his head, probably to highlight his importance as a god. He wears a flashy red robe that barely even covers his leg, and holds a hook while he looks up as Hesperus. Hesperus stands on the stairs showcasing his beauty and holding a sword. He, too, only has a robe that barely covers a leg. On the sidelines is Venus awaiting her turn to present herself. She wears a sort of crown, as well as a bracelet and necklace, and has a black robe that only covers her thighs – it looks like she’s taking it off. Unlike Apollo, Venus does not have an aureole. The most vibrant colours in this fresco seem to be used on Venus and Apollo with the bright red and deep black. In this case, all three figures are depicted with light skin, contrasting the frescoes that depict Mars with deeper, tanned skin. Behind the three main figures are on-lookers, who appear to be fascinated by what they are seeing – they, too, have pale skin indicating they are people of the upper-class. A literary source that this fresco may be modelled after is Hyginus’ Astronomica, where Hyginus explains that the male personifications were so beautiful that they rivalled with Venus (Theoi, 2017). This is the first fresco of Venus that does not have any cherubs surrounding her or nearby, and she is not the centre of attention. The attention is pretty evenly divided between the deities, but since Hesperus is on the stairs, he is the main focal point. The home-owner may have chosen this fresco as an honour to the deities, or perhaps he was interested in astronomy. Regardless, it is a very unique fresco with a very interesting back story.
More of Venus
Since Venus is so iconic and has been depicted so many different ways, here are a few sources to check out if you’d like to see more…
- The British Museum’s Online Collection containing Venus
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Online Collection containing Venus
- The J. Paul Getty Museum’s Online Collection containing Venus
- The Royal Ontario Museum’s Online Collection containing Venus
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