Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is a 500-year-old work of art that remains important and relevant today. The 15th century painting, which depicts the birth of the Roman goddess Venus, makes use of the technical styles of the time, but also demonstrates some important differences. Fifteenth century Italy produced a great deal of Christian art, as the Catholic church was a strong influence and even destroyed art with pagan themes. Botticelli was unique, because, while he painted several Christian pieces, he also painted pagan works like Birth of Venus, some of which were destroyed by the church. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is important not only because it survived against difficult odds, but also because it acknowledges Rome’s ancient and pagan history while also demonstrating a Catholic influence.
Birth of Venus: Specifications
Birth of Venus was painted by Sandro Botticelli in approximately 1485. The work is tempera, which uses egg yolk in the paint, on canvas. The dimensions are 67 7/8 inches-by-109 5/8-inches. The painting is currently on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, an Italian art museum that houses works by some of Europe’s most famous artists (Gombrich, No date).
Iconography and meaning
When we consider iconography in Birth of Venus, we must remember that the religion depicted is Roman mythology, and not a Judeo-Christian faith. And yet there still may be some Christian influence in the painting.
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus depicts a naked Venus, standing atop a seashell, being blown to shore by zephyrs, where a goddess of the seasons prepares to drape her in a cloak covered with flowers.
Botticelli’s depiction of the water on which Venus rides could be described as iconography. While Botticelli paints complex and accurate human figures, the water is very simple; it is a blue field with some lines representing waves, and it looks almost like a blue carpet. When we compare that to how water is often represented in other works of art as a powerful, and sometime dangerous, force, we can conclude that Botticelli made the sea simple for a reason.
In Roman mythology, the gods had the power to control nature, so it would have been inappropriate for Venus to ride to shore on large and dangerous waves. Botticelli made the water simple, calm and flat to show how it could be completely tamed by the gods. The image of the Roman gods or supernatural beings controlling nature also is shown in the zephyrs who are blowing Venus toward land. These beings were known in Roman mythology, as shown by Botticelli, to have the ability to control the wind.
Another interesting piece of iconography in Birth of Venus is the covering of Venus’ nakedness. Venus was frequently portrayed in Italian art, often in some state of undress (Art archive, No date). What is interesting about this painting is that there almost is a sense of shame about it. Venus’ long hair and hand strategically cover her genitals and a woman is reaching out to Venus with a coat to cover her. Venus’ other arm is being used to cover her breasts. These images may demonstrate Christian influence. In the bible, Adam and Eve feel shame about being naked after they eat the forbidden fruit. This shame over nakedness is part of the Christian culture, and Botticelli, was a practicing Catholic who was very influenced by Catholic culture.
The seashell Venus is emerging from could symbolize a female uterus and the coat that Venus is being given by one of the seasonal goddesses is covered with flowers (Reichold and Graf, No date). The coat and the seashell, when taken together, seem to show that Venus is a symbol of both the earth and feminine beauty. The flowers on the coat symbolize spring, perhaps conveying that Venus’ birth is a time of rebirth or joy for the world. Botticelli also seems to be showing that Venus’ birth is the gathering of earth, water, wind and fire. The painting shows the sea and land coming together at the horizon and the water and land coming together at the shore. The fire is Venus’ red hair, which has a strawberry blonde color and takes the shape of flames.
Stylistically, Birth of Venus is an interesting painting that can be intriguing for the art critic. Botticelli took great pride in his ability to use lines to create the sense of motion, and we see his skill in Birth of Venus (Botticelli, 2002). Botticelli uses his line skill to create the presence of wind in the painting. We can see from Venus’ flowing hair, the robe being draped over her, and the wrap covering the zephyrs that there is wind moving all around the figures. And Botticelli creates this wind entirely through his line work.
One of the other interesting style features of Birth of Venus is Botticelli’s choice of color for Venus’ skin. In the painting, Venus has a paler complexion than the other figures and is almost translucent. Some critics point out that this translucent coloring helps enforce the notion that Venus was born from the sea (the Birth, No date). However, the translucent complexion also may be Botticelli’s way of showing that Venus was the fairest of all the gods, which would make sense given her leadership position.
Another interesting feature of Birth of Venus is Botticelli’s use of shading and light. He uses shading to create a field of light around Venus. Beneath her, the sea is dark because of the shell’s shadow. To the right she is flanked by dark, closely grouped trees, and to the left are the zephyrs and their dark wings. But the sea and sky are lighter around Venus, even though Botticelli makes them darker in other places, which creates the perception of light around Venus. This gives her birth a very special and holy quality.
Finally, the painting’s styles reflect some elements of Christian Neoplatonism, an art movement that sometimes caught Botticelli’s interest (Botticelli, Sandro, No date). The goal of Christian Neoplatonism was to bring together classical and Christian perspectives in art. We can definitely see that in the image of Venus. This is not the seductive Venus who we see laying with men, as she is presented in other works of art. She is ashamed of her nudity and is fair skinned with light all around her. She is young and virginal, and reminds us of Mary, the mother of Jesus. If we compare Birth of Venus and some of Botticelli’s paintings of Mary, such as Madonna of the Pomegranate and Madonna of the Magnificat, we see some similarities, such as the long necks, the color of the hair, and even the soft features of the face. Venus is the matriarch of Roman mythology and Mary is the matriarch of Christianity. By giving Venus some of Mary’s pure and virginal qualities – and even her appearance – Botticelli was merging the two religious traditions.
Historically speaking, Birth of Venus is an important work because it represented a movement in Italy in the late 15th century that was suppressed by the Catholic Church. It is a wonder that the painting survived at all, let alone became a masterpiece. During the late 15th century, the Catholic Church held a great deal of influence in Italy, and that influence extended to art and culture. Most of the art commissioned at the time depicted Catholic imagery, and Botticelli himself created a great deal of this art. The Adoration of the Magi, showing the birth of Jesus, is one of his most famous paintings. We also know that at the end of his life, Botticelli became very spiritual and his work took on very religious themes (Botticelli, Sandro, No date).
But Botticelli’s religious paintings did not necessarily win him any special considerations from the Catholic Church. Zealous priests collected and destroyed works of art across the county that they considered pagan, and many Botticelli works were lost during these purges. One of the most zealous crusaders against pagan artwork was the monk Girolamo Savonarola of Florence, who was eventually excommunicated from the church (Botticelli, Sandro, No date). Birth of Venus was probably painted on canvas, a cheaper material, because there was not a lot of money or prestige in painting non-religious images at the time, and there was always a risk that the work would be destroyed.
And still, out of this hostile environment, a movement started of Italian artists who longed for the glory days of ancient Rome. As the Catholic Church brought changes to Europe, some artists began reflecting on Italy’s past and painted images of the mythological religion that was part of Roman culture. Botticelli was part of this movement and his work, and the work of other artists was frequently destroyed as the church tried to ride Italy of its pagan roots.
Experts do not know for sure how Birth of Venus survived, as the subject matter is clearly pagan and could have been targeted by the church. It is known that Botticelli had powerful friends, as he did much work for the Medici family, which was the most powerful family in Italy, and some of Italy’s other influential families (Sandro Botticelli, 1445, No date). Some have speculated that the work may have been commissioned by one of those families, and that the work was stored in a private residence, as opposed to being on display (the Birth, No date).
In its historical context, Birth of Venus is important because it gives us a glimpse into the Italian psychology at the time. The painting shows that even as the church tried to exert total influence in Italy, the people had not completely forgotten their old traditions and still thought fondly about the days of Rome. Because so many pagan-themed paintings were destroyed by the Catholic church, Birth of Venus also allows us to consider the other great works of pagan art from the 15th century that we will never get to see.
Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is an important work in the study of art. This late-15th century painting reflects the struggle many Italian artists felt between the great history and traditions of their land, and the strong influence of the Catholic church. Both of these influences are present in Birth of Venus, even though the painting depicts a pagan theme.
Birth of Venus also shows Botticelli’s technical skill. His use of lines to create the perception of wind and his use of shading to create a sense of light around Venus help tell the story of Venus and help convince the viewer of Venus’ greatness. Finally, the work is important because there is some mystery surrounding it. At a time when many pagan works of art were destroyed, including Botticelli pieces, Birth of Venus was somehow spared. Today, it represents a work of genius that we could have just as easily never known.
Art archive: Venus (No date). Retrieved March 29, 2007, at http://www.windows.ucar.edu/tour/link=/mythology/images/venus_art_archive.html.
The Birth of Venus: Spring (No date). Retrieved March 29, 2007, at http://www.bergerfoundation.ch/Sandro/44venusprintemps_english.html.
Botticelli (2002). Retrieved March 28, 2007, at http://www.loggia.com/art/renaissance/botticelli02.htm.
Botticelli, Sandro, real name Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi (No date). Retrieved March 27, 2007, at http://www.latifm.com/artists/Botticelli_Sandro.html.
Gombrich, E.H. (No date). Botticelli, Sandro. Retrieved March 28, 2007, at http://www.artchive.com/artchive/B/botticelli/venus_text.jpg.html.
Reichold, K. And B. Graf (No date). Sandro Botticelli. Retrieved March 28, 2007, at http://www.all-art.org/early_renaissance/botticelli25.html.
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) (No date). Retrieved March 28, 2007, at http://www.mcs.csuhayward.edu/~malek/Botticelli.html.
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