Venus on the half-shell

Sandro Boticelli, “The Birth of Venus” c. 1485-86, 9 ft 2 in by 5 ft 9 in. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

     You may already be somewhat familiar with Boticelli’s painting “The Birth of Venus.”  The image of Venus in this painting has been used in so many ways, from advertising to satire, that it has almost become a joke.  But this is a serious work of art, with a serious message.

     Alessandro di Moriano Flipepi (1444-1510), known as Sandro Boticelli (or just “Boticelli”) painted this picture as one of a series based on masterpieces of Ancient Greece which had long since disappeared.  For inspiration, Botticelli used written descriptions by Pliny the Elder and several others.  The picture was likely painted for Lorenzo de’ Medici’s villa around 1482.  Some experts think it may refer to the love of Giuliano de’ Medici for Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, who lived in a town by the sea that had a local tradition of being the birthplace of Venus.  Botticelli himself privately loved the beautiful Simonetta, who may have been the model for Venus in this painting.

     “The Birth of Venus” is painted on canvas, which is much less expensive than the wooden panels used in pictures made for the church and the court.  Considering that the painting is over nine feet by five feet, a wooden surface would have been impractical. 

     In legend, Venus rose full-grown from the sea.  What Botticelli shows in his painting is not actually her birth from the waves, but the moment when the giant shell that conveyed her landward touches the shore. 

     It is a fresh, early spring morning with the sunlight just touching the tops of the trees on the wooded shore to the right.  These trees are part of a flowering orange grove (in Greek myth, the sacred garden of the Hesperides).  Each small white blossom is tipped with gold; each dark green leaf has a gold spine and outline.  In fact, gold is used throughout the painting, emphasizing that this is a picture of the birth of a goddess. 

     The Zephyrs, symbols of spiritual passion, are flying into the painting from the left.  Zephyr (his name means West Wind in Greek) is puffing vigorously, while Chloris gently sighs the warm breeze that brings Venus’s shell boat to shore.  According to legend, roses came into being when Venus was born, and roses with golden hearts fall all around the two Zephyrs, whose limbs are entwined to make them one entity that is at once strong and gentle.

      To the right, one of the three Horae (“The Hours,” Greek goddesses of the seasons and attendants to Venus) holds out a flowered cloak to the goddess.  Both the Horae’s dress and the gorgeous robe she hands to Venus are embroidered with spring flowers appropriate to the theme of birth – yellow primroses, blue cornflowers and red and white daisies.  The Horae also wears a garland of myrtle (the tree of Venus) and a sash of pink roses. 

     Venus is about to step off her giant gilded scallop shell onto the shore.  Her pose is a complex and beautiful arrangement of twists and turns.    She modestly covers herself with her hands and her long, flowing golden hair.  Her expression is remote and somewhat sad, as if she knows that mortals cannot look upon love unclothed; we are too weak to survive its beauty.  The message in this painting may be that we may often feel deeply in tune with love, but we can never fully understand its true perfection.

Published by on July 2011. Filed under Archives, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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