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Beauty Born in Art - The Birth of Venus


Depicting Venus in a different form, The Birth of Venus was completed four years after another of Botticelli's masterpieces, Primavera. Venus, or Aphrodite in ancient Greek mythology, was the legendary goddess of love and beauty who, according to Roman mythology, was born from the foam of the sea and was born in perfection, without having to go through a childhood of ignorance or face imminent death.

The Birth of Venus

Tempera on canvas
172.5 x 278.5cm
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

The goddess in the painting is so delicate and exquisite that only the long golden hair is blown by the sea wind slightly covers her white body. Such a titillating image was rarely seen in the past 1000 years. Although the ancient myths were not lost in the Middle Ages, strict Christian control prohibited their expression as "paganism". Even if the myths were sometimes used, they rarely carried the original color of the myth. In the Christian tradition, the naked body was avoided as a form of blasphemy and temptation, and painters were required to cover the figure's body with clothing or costume as much as possible.

It was only during the Renaissance that the Italians recovered their former pride and glory. Ancient knowledge began to permeate all areas of this period. Ancient human body sculptures were collected from all over the world as models of art, and ancient myths and legends were passed down among the intellectual and educated classes as beliefs containing profound truths.

The Birth of Venus-detail

Botticelli painted the Birth of Venus for a member of the Medici family, the de facto rulers of the city of Florence.

This member was presumably Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, an active patron and protector of the arts. He was surrounded by a stable cultural circle, which also included poets and painters.

They gathered to write poetry, talked about the philosophical ideas embedded in mythology, and would even ask painters to depict the contents of those fascinating myths and hang them in their homes to enjoy them. All these people inevitably influenced each other. For example, one of the poets described the birth of Venus in lines that resemble Botticelli's paintings.

The Birth of Venus-detail

In his poem, he described the birth of Venus from the Aegean Sea, the God of wind blowing her to the quiet and elegant shore, where she was greeted by the Goddess of spring, Flora, in a garment made of stars, with the infinite blue sea and sky behind her. Venus was standing melancholy and despondent on the shell that symbolized the source of her birth, too delicate to care for the goddess of time and the whole world that greeted her. 

The Birth of Venus-detail

As could be seen from the painting, Botticelli was basically following the verse. The God of the west wind and the God of flowers, Chloris, fly through the air and blow the air currents, pushing Venus, who is carried by a shell, to the seashore of Cyprus, where roses with golden stamens, which are said to have fallen to earth at the birth of Venus, float in the air. On the left, the goddesses of the seasons are dressed in full regalia, ready to drape their magnificent tapestry over Venus.

Their tapestry is embroidered with red and white daisies, yellow primroses, and blue cornflowers, all of which bloom in spring in the Florentine region, which are appropriate for the theme of the Nativity. Perhaps we could say that this work is not entirely Botticelli's own creation. In those days, artists had the opportunity to receive more orders outside of the church, and the commissioners who sponsored the work were actively involved in its creation.

Many of the painter's major works were developed in the process of negotiation with the commissioners. Often, the sponsor would draw up a detailed plan with the painter in advance, either by himself or by hiring a special consultant, for what to paint and how to paint.

What to be depicted? What to paint? How will the painting be done? How to set up the details? All these were clearly written down, and the painter must express the client's intentions as satisfactorily as possible according to these written descriptions. Thus, Botticelli must have been asked to create this work by his client, perhaps with the help of Medici scholars around him who were well versed in ancient knowledge.

Nevertheless, the work is elegant and unique under Botticelli's brush. Venus in the painting is so beautiful that the viewers are so intent on admiring her graceful physique and gentle rhythm that they overlook the fact that her neck seems a little too long and her left shoulder too low. Botticelli sacrificed part of her natural form for the sake of beauty, thus enhancing the artistic impact.

Her slender body, soft hands, soft face, and dreamy eyes, slightly confused and worried, are the characteristics of Botticelli's depiction of women. Despite their delicacy, they take the viewer's breath away in a gaze of beauty, as if a light from heaven were bathing them in an aura of divine light. The eyes of the figures do not fall on any object in the picture, nor do they communicate directly with the viewer. Rather, they gaze without any point of contact between the viewer and the painting.

The painting introduces a third space. Where is Venus? Who is she looking at? The viewer is naturally led from vision to contemplation. What distinguishes Botticelli's depiction of figures is not in specific principles of beauty such as proportionality, but in the contemplation of beauty that he offers us. Unfortunately, this was still not tolerated or accepted by the traditional Christian Church.

After the fall of the Medici family and their expulsion from Florence, Botticelli lost his patron and was soon forgotten. He spent his later years in poverty and eventually died in loneliness and isolation. It was not until the end of the 19th century that Botticelli came back to people's attention. Botticelli’s works make our nerves, perhaps a little numb, feel again: beauty is an experience, never something else.

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