Some days I just wish I could turn up to work riding a giant clam. I think it would start the day off with some form of excitement, rather than sitting in traffic waiting to drive over a fly over which appears to have been built out of mechano. Although turning up naked to the office is very often frowned upon and usually requires a visit to HR which should really be avoided at all costs.
If we put aside my day dreams of turning up to work in anything other than the usual way of travel, today I am looking at the “Birth of Venus” by Botticelli. This is deemed as possibly one of the most famous paintings, simply because if you mention Venus/Aphrodite, they will probably immediately think of this picture.
Painted around 1480, the painting is 6 foot by 9 foot, and has been created on two canvases stitched together. This is a piece of Italian Renaissance work, and beautifully represents this style and the subject. The word renaissance meaning “rebirth”, the style was showing a renewed interest in culture, but even more meaningfully for this particular piece, the nudity shown was quite controversial for the time as up to this point, artwork had been mostly religious based and Botticelli’s depiction of the blonde bombshell was a little too out of the box for some.
The colour pallet of this painting has been impacted as originally the work was covered in a thick lacquer to try and protect the paints, but this ultimately damaged the colours. Regardless we can see the the brightly coloured hues which bring to mind springtime and new life.
To understand why Venus… or Aphrodite, if you prefer (as I do) is riding a giant clam to shore, we need to go back a little bit… To Uranus and Gaia, who were the original gods of sky and earth. Together they had 12 beautiful children (the titans) and 6 very ugly children (the Cyclops and the Hecatoncheires). The Cyclops entertained Uranus for a while, because they brought thunder, lighting and light to the sky, but their looks with their monstrous bodies and 1 central eye was a little disturbing. When the Hecatoncheires arrived, they had 50 heads and 100 hands, and were terrifying and vengeful, Uranus was so disturbed by them that he pushed all 6 of these freakish children back in to Gaia’s womb. Gaia, oddly, didn’t take too kindly to this, and turned to her other Titanus children to help her out. All but one declined assisting her, it was only Kronos agreed to assist.
Gaia, had crafted a sickle, which she gifted to Kronos and told him “when Uranus comes to me at night, as he is in the throws of passion, kill him with the sickle”. Kronos hid, lay in wait for his father to arrive. Rather than killing his father, Kronos actually castrated him, flinging his penis far across the land and in to the ocean. The blood that fell from the act created the furies, vengeful goddesses, along with the giants and the Meliae. All bore from the anger and pain. Kronos then sliced his mother’s side to release the children that had been pushed back in to her. Now as you can imagine, Uranus was not very happy about this and put a curse on Kronos that one of his children would go on to kill him, but that is another story that you can read here.
But what became of the flung penis? You would probably be thinking that nothing good came out of that as it bobbed in the sea near what we now know as Cyprus, but what actually happened, was from the midst of the sea foam, Aphrodite rose on her clam shell, fully grown and beautiful. She was then guided to land by by the god of wind Zephyr, you can see him on the left hand side of the picture and he is carrying what is thought to be Aura, who was the personification of a light breeze. The figure he is carrying can also be attributed to being Chloris, a flower nymph that Zephyr married. It’s difficult to really tell what Botticelli was going for in this figure as she blows a lighter breeze, but also flower blooms fill the air. You can see the movement of the wind in this painting from the way Aphrodite hair moves to the right and how the clothe and clothes of the female to the right of her is billowing. This figure is Hours, a minor goddess who represents the embodiment of spring. This is shown through her floral dress.
The picture really shows that something good could come out of the hatred between the hateful parents and troubled son, and Botticelli captures the goddess of love with grace and poise.
Botticelli rarely took naturalism in to his art, and it is often discussed about the stance of Aphrodite as anatomically in this picture she is impossible. Her weight is too far over her right leg for her to possibly stay stood up. Her neck is also too long and her torso elongated, to present an elegant image of beauty, no matter how improbable.
What Botticelli lacked in anatomical correctness for the human form, he made up for in the nature, the clam shell although over sized, is correct, the flora and fauna beautifully represented.
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