What’s the Big Deal with Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’?

The Birth of Venus is a painting by Sandro Botticelli, an Italian painter from the Early Renaissance. Although not as well-known as the Mona Lisa or other paintings that’ve found their way into pop culture, The Birth of Venus is still one of the most admired and famous paintings in the world.

As the name implies, the painting is of the goddess Venus after her birth. In Roman mythology Venus is the goddess of love, fertility, prosperity, beauty and desire. You might also know her as Aphrodite in Greek mythology.

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Let’s look at some of the interesting details about the painting:

  • The painting is 6 feet by 9 feet, and painted on canvas. It is the “first large-scale canvas created in Renaissance Florence”.
  • In the centre of the piece, Venus is seen arriving to shore on a scallop shell.
  • According to mythology, Venus was born out of sea foam when Cronus castrated his father God Uranus, and threw his genitals into the sea.
  • Venus’ stance is unrealistic, and her anatomical proportions are incorrect. Botticelli was too skilled a painter to not realise this, which indicates he wasn’t concerned with a realistic depiction.
  • Venus’ complexion is pale, making her look like a marble statue. This is probably intentional since Botticelli borrowed her pose from ancient sculptures of Venus in which she can be seen standing in the same manner.

  • At the time in which this painting was made (mid 1480s), nude women were not often depicted in paintings. According to John B. Nici:

“[it is the] first monumental female nude of a pagan goddess since the ancient world, and for that reason alone it must have raised eyebrows.”

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  • The two figures on the left are blowing Venus to shore.
  • The male is the Wind God Zephyr.
  • The female figure is believed to be Aura– “a personification of a lighter breeze”.
  • The flowers in the air around these two figures have led some to believe that the woman could also be Chloris, the flower nymph married to Zephyr.
  • On the right is a woman holding a dress out for Venus.
  • She is believed to be one of the three Horae or Hours– the minor Greek Goddesses of the seasons.
  • The Horae are Venus’ attendants.
  • The floral pattern on her clothes, as well on the cloak she holds out could mean that she is the Hora of Spring.

  • Even though Venus and the Hora are both standing, Botticelli has painted both of them to have the same weightlessness as the winged figures.
  • Though it is not definite who Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus for, some believe it was for his cousin Lorenzo de’Medici, ruler of Florence.
  • The laurel wreath worn by the Hora, and the laurel trees reaffirm this theory (the name Lorenzo is derived from the Latin “laurus” meaning “laurel”)
  • There have been many interpretations of The Birth of Venus, with the Neoplatonic interpretation being the most widely accepted. It is as follows:

“According to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, Venus had two aspects: she was an earthly goddess who inspired humans to physical love, but on the other hand she was a celestial goddess who inspired humans to intellectual love. Plato also argued that contemplation of physical beauty enabled the human mind to comprehend spiritual beauty. This means that when 15th-century Neo-Platonic viewers looked at The Birth of Venus they would have felt themselves being inspired to contemplate spiritual (that is, divine) love.”

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However you may choose to interpret this renowned painting, you cannot deny that it is stirringly beautiful. Perhaps, like the people who viewed it in its time, you too can look upon this masterpiece and think about love, divine or otherwise.

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