Left: Henri Matisse, ‘Seated Woman’ (1935), Private collection
The planet Venus hangs low in early spring air, gently pulsating in a jewel-toned, cobalt evening sky. A narrow band of deep orange and crimson still grips the horizon behind the distant tree line, reluctant to forfeit another day’s warming trend—harbinger of more sultry days to come. Almost too brilliant to be taken for a celestial form, this spherical object tricks the eye into believing it is an aircraft’s light, suspended in a holding pattern awaiting further instructions. Each night, Venus is joined on a near-collision course by the waxing or waning moon. Yet, the Old Man passes harmlessly and without fail on its course to the other side of the world. All this, in spite of the dim red glow of nearby planet Mars, a playful traffic light in the vastness of galactic space, appearing to signal “Stop!” This spectacle is not only beautiful, but awe-inspiring. One can easily imagine the ancients observing similar events high overhead, as they imparted meaning and message to these mystical planetary migrations. xxxxxx
The ‘Venus’ appellation for this not-so-distant planet is well-deserved. It luminous celestial charms far exceed its neighbors, with the possible exception of the our neighbor, the moon; and like the moon, it has excited the imaginations and carnal passions of earth-bound scholars, painters and poets for millennia. Known as Aphrodite in Greek mythology, this planet’s namesake was born as an adult woman from the sea, which perpetually renewed her purity (not her virginity). A motif of the goddess wringing out her hair, an act of cleansing and renewal, is often repeated in ancient representations.
The idea of Aphrodite rising from the sea was inspired by the courtesan Phryne, who, during the time of the festivals of the Eleusinia and Poseidonia, often swam nude in the sea. A scallop shell, often found in Venus Anadyomenes images, is a symbol of the female vulva. A well-preserved representation of Venus Anadyomene (gr: ‘rising from the sea’), based on a painting by Pliny the Elder (no longer in existence), has be unearthed in Pompeii, where these traditional symbols of femininity are clearly evident.
The Aphrodite of Knidos (aka: Cnidos) was one of the most famous works of the ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles of Athens (4th century BC), left, as restored facsimile. It and its copies are often referred to as the Venus Pudica (“modest Venus”) type, on account of her covering her naked vulva with her right hand. The statue, placed in an open-air temple in Knidos, became famous for its beauty, meant to be appreciated from every angle, and for being the first life-size representation of the nude female form. It depicted the goddess Aphrodite as she prepared for the ritual bath that restored her purity, discarding her drapery in her left hand, while modestly shielding herself with her right hand. Her hands are placed in a motion that simultaneously shields her womanhood and draws attention to her nudity. Aphrodite’s body bends in a contrapposto position, an artistic innovation which realistically portrays normal human stance.
The original Praxitalian sculpture is thought to no longer exist, but it became one of the most widely copied statues in the ancient world; so a general idea of the appearance of the statue can be gleaned from the descriptions and replicas that have survived to the modern day. No fewer than fifteen variations on the original can be found in museums around the world, today—in varying states of immodesty.
The Romans renamed her Venus, the goddess of inspirational beauty. For Plato – and so for the members of the Florentine Platonic Academy – Venus had two aspects: she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love or she was a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love in them. Plato further argued that contemplation of physical beauty allowed the mind to better understand spiritual beauty. So, looking at Venus, the most beautiful of goddesses, might at first raise a physical response in viewers which then lifted their minds towards the godly. The power of this mythic figure, realistically rendered over the centuries, and with attributes believed to entrance and seduce the viewer helps to explain its appeal as a motif through the ages.
The best known of the Venuses is Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1483-85), right, detail, below, left. Over the years many interpretations have been brought forth to explain the painting and its significance in 15th century Florence. Home of the powerful Medici family, the work was commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici. Among the many views opinions expressed regarding the central figure, one is that the face is that of the lovely Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, with whom it is suspected both Lorenzo and his younger brother, Giuliano, were much enamored. Simonetta was, not coincidentally, born in the Ligurian seaside town of Portovenere (‘the port of Venus’). Arising from this ancient symbol of her sexuality, she is surrounded by the allegorical figures of the four seasons.
According to one historian’s reading of the painting, the scene was inspired by the text in a Homeric hymn published in Florence in 1488 by the Greek refugee Demetrios Chalkokond:
Of august gold-wreathed and beautiful
Aphrodite I shall sing to whose domain
belong the battlements of all sea-loved
Cyprus where, blown by the moist breath
of Zephyros, she was carried over the
waves of the resounding sea on soft foam. T
he gold-filleted Horae happily welcomed her and clothed
her with heavenly raiment.
Another interpretation, viewed from a religious standpoint, has the nudity of Venus suggesting Eve before the Fall, as well as the pure love of Paradise. Once landed, the goddess of love will don the earthly garb of mortal sin, an act that will lead to the New Eve – the Madonna whose purity is represented by the nude Venus. Once draped in earthly garments she becomes a personification of the Christian Church which offers a spiritual transport back to the pure love of eternal salvation. In this case the scallop shell upon which this image of Venus/Eve/Madonna/Church stands may be seen in its traditionally symbolic pilgrimage context. Furthermore, the broad expanse of sea serves as a reminder of the Virgin Mary’s title stella maris, alluding both to the Madonna’s name (Maria/maris) and to the heavenly body (Venus/stella). The sea brings forth Venus just as the Virgin gives birth to the ultimate symbol of love, Christ.
Left: Antonio Lombardo, Venus Anadyomene (1516)
This layered approach—mythological, political, religious—was, in all likelihood, intended and it is one of the many elements that makes this painting endlessly fascinating, as well as stunningly beautiful (Note: this writer had an Uffizi, ‘Stendhal’ syndrome moment while in the gallery with this—and other—Botticelli paintings).
‘Stendhal’ explained at: http://www.artesmagazine.com/2014/01/editors-letter-december-2013/
Over the centuries that followed, many artists have dealt with the ‘Venus’ theme, each in keeping with the tastes of the time. Titian portrayed the lovely Venus wringing out her hair in a gesture of purification; William-Adolphe Bouguereau pictures Venus rising from the sea amidst a flight of cherubim, sea creatures and centaurs (right). Pablo Picasso recast the image of Venus Anadyomene in the central figure of his seminal painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), a modernist deconstruction of the icon—and one of the foundational features of Cubism (below, left).
The god-like Venus of ancient times was associated with the divine power of love, its ordering force, and its earthly characteristics. As she transects the heavens in planetary form each night, she can be imagined to be the unifying energy of sun, planets and stars. She has been chosen to preside over poetry as a force capable of uniting all things—body and soul, sensuality and intellect. Emerging perpetually from the sea, she reminds us of the natural order of the world and its inexorable relationship to human society.
As I drive westward on the coastal interstate on a warm spring night, Venus sits low on the horizon, about to enter her pelagic realm. Her renewing presence among us would be most welcome, I believe, as we search for common bonds of love and fealty in a world that sometimes appears to have lost its way. Faith is knowing that, in the morning, she will once again rise from the sea, traversing the skies to reign over a civilization seeking a common language of reconciliation, and inspiring those who chose to gaze toward the western horizon each evening, embracing this extraordinary spectacle.
Thank you for reading ARTES magazine.
My best to you,
Richard J. Friswell, Publisher & Managing Editor