Artist profile: Botticelli – Pagan stuff

Every month, I profile an artist who inspires my own art, in several segments.

Botticelli’s works tend to fall into three categories: Christian, Pagan, and portraiture. Of these, a relatively small number deal with Pagan figures of the Roman kind.

Botticelli's Primavera
Fun in an orange grove.

Primavera (c. 1482)
One of Botticelli’s most famous works, Primavera demonstrates the common convention of crowding in figures to represent several events or ideas. Against a backdrop of lush vegetation (of which over 100 plant species have been identified), we have what is most likely Zephyrus (God of the West Wind) kidnapping the nymph Chloris, who turns into Flora (Spring) and finally gets to wear some actual clothes. (These two show up in The Birth of Venus, which I discuss below.) Almost-in-the-center is Venus, looking far more like the Virgin Mary than usual, with Cupid floating above her. Next we have the Three Graces, companions of Venus, and the other male figure, who is usually identified as Mercury. It’s pretty obvious that he’s Mercury because he holds his caduceus (staff with two winged serpents). I can see how someone might say he is Mars, because he’s wearing red, but… he’s got a caduceus. CADUCEUS.
Botticelli's Pallas and the Centaur
Totally p0wned.

Pallas and the Centaur (c. 1482)
This is said to be the companion painting to Primavera, but I honestly don’t see it. They pretty much have nothing to do with each other, visually or thematically. Anyway, Pallas is another name for the goddess Minerva/Athena, who embodies rational thought. She’s obviously gotten the upper hand on the centaur – p0wned him, if you will – who represents uncontrolled animal desires. All centaurs do in Greek myth is shoot arrows at men and rape women, so good for her. Pallas Athena is portrayed differently than usual, though – she doesn’t wear any armor, and she holds a decorative axe instead of a spear. Her dress is covered with a ring motif and a plant winds around her upper body and arms, surreal-ly interacting with the patterns on her dress.
Botticelli's Venus and Mars
What’s going on here?

Venus and Mars (c. 1483)
If there is a deeper meaning to Venus and Mars, I’m not sure what it would be. Mars, the god of war, just ends up looking like a doofus. Is the message “War is stupid”? I dunno. This painting, however, is one that demonstrates very well Botticelli’s emphasis on modeling – making sure you know that there is depth to something. Look at Venus’s hand – is that not amazing?
Venus's hand

Botticelli's Birth of Venus
Oh, I know what’s going on.

The Birth of Venus (c. 1486)*
This is Botticelli’s most recognizable painting, and my favorite. I don’t know why, since it’s really messed up from an anatomical and laws-of-physics perspective; but I just adore it. Our old friends Zephyrus and his hostage wife Chloris are back, with a naked Venus in the center, having just been born from the sea. Pomona, goddess of fruit tress, stands ready to welcome her onto land. This motif is called Venus Anadyomene: “Venus rising from the sea”. It’s been suggested that Botticelli based Venus off of the renowned beauty of Florence, Simonetta Vespucci, who had died ten years earlier. (When Botticelli died, his wish to be buried near her was granted.)

As with many artworks, there are several interpretations for this one. The general understanding is that the beauty of Venus is supposed to inspire the (straight male) viewer to reflect on the beauty of divine love… somehow. I’m not sure how a naked lady would automatically lead one to think of sacred love – it could happen, but I don’t think it’s a guaranteed thing. Another view is that Botticelli was inspired by classic Greek writings to reproduce a painting by the ancient Greek artist Apelles, which I think is a great hypothesis, since Botticelli did this for sure in the painting The Calumny of Apelles.** A Christian interpretation posits Venus as Eve, sailing along to don the garment of mortal sin. However, I don’t see why Botticelli just wouldn’t paint an actual Eve, – it’s not hard.

My personal interpretation is super fun, I promise. I noticed the presence of the four classical elements in the painting, and the fact that the naked body was often used as a symbol for the soul. So, I think it’s reasonable to assume the following: Venus, the soul, has already emerged from water (emotion, the primal mother) to be moved by air (the intellect, rationality) to land on earth (abundance, strength) and to be clothed in fire (passion, energy, divine gift from the gods) – that is, the soul moving through various stages to reach enlightenment. It’s a stretch, I know, but I think it’s exciting.

Thanks for sticking with me on our visit to Pagan Town! Next week, we’ll be viewing some lovely and not-so-lovely portraits.

*This is the best quality image I found.
**Totally worth checking out in high-res – the detail is amazing.

Other parts in the Botticelli artist profile series



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