One of the world’s most famous paintings, “The Birth of Venus” (1485-1486) by Sandro Botticelli is perhaps the purest reflection of “beauty” to be found in Renaissance art. By the time of the Renaissance, the mythical world of the gods and goddesses had made a comfortable alliance with Christianity. Venus’s physical beauty was considered an appreciation of God’s creation, and her nakedness represents innocence, not sensuality.
Housed in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, the Nascita di Venere (Birth of Venus) tells a story about Venus’s birth, illustrating parts of both the poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and of poet Agnolo Poliziano’s work, “Stanzas.” (Poliziano was a contemporary of Botticelli and considered one of the greatest of the Neo-Platonist poets of the Medici court.)
Mythical themes and Neo-Platonism
In addition to religious art, this time period in Italy saw a rising popularity of paintings giving life to mythological themes. This was due in no small part to the rise in popularity of the philosophy of Neo-Platonism, in which the ideas of the Ancient Greeks (Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras) were seen as harmonious with Christian beliefs. Under this philosophy, ideas were considered more valuable than objects, and the human soul as being innately endowed with virtue, making it capable of reaching God.
This outstanding work of the painter Botticelli (nee Alessandro di Moriano Filipepi) captures one of the greatest stories, that of the birth of the goddess of love, Venus, and forever shares it with the world.
Images in the painting and their symbolism
In the “Birth of Venus,” the goddess is seen on a shell approaching shore. She is blown by the winds (Zephyr and Chloris), which lead her toward her maid, a Nymph (one of three Horae), who holds out a cloak of flowers to her. On the shore, one sees a dark forest with trees bearing golden fruit.
According to mythology, Venus was born from the foam of a wave. Another god, Uranus, was castrated, and his genitals fell into the sea, fertilizing it and creating Venus as a result. Venus also makes reference to Spring, and her cloak is covered with flowers commonly associated with Spring and birth, such as daisies, cornflowers, and primroses. The Nymph wears a garland of myrtle (considered the tree of Venus).
The theme of the work is associated with love and beauty, and the humbleness of humans in the face of such pure virtues. Michelangelo once wrote of men’s souls, that they required the “sight of beauty” to lift them to heaven. It seems that humans are not worthy to see the beauty of love unclad, being too weak and unclean as a result of life itself.
One of the things that makes “The Birth of Venus” so unusual is that most paintings from this time period were done on wooden panels. This was the first in Tuscany to be painted instead on canvas. Still, the rich colors within the painting indicate that it was commissioned by a wealthy Florentine patron. Gold is used not only in the dark forest, but throughout the painting to indicate the divine status of the goddess Venus.
The pale colors symbolize birth, just as do the flowers contained within its imagery. The roses blown by the two winds, legend has it, came into being when Venus arrived. The intricate fine points of the imagery throughout the painting seem to echo the sentiment that “God is in the details.”
Within the famous storehouse of Renaissance art, the Uffizi, there are many great masterpieces of Botticelli and other artists. Yet, despite the artistic riches found at hand, there are few rivals for the beauty of Botticelli’s work, “The Birth of Venus.”