The representation of women in Western art has changed throughout history, and for much of Western history this representation was oriented around the dominant female figure in contemporary society; that is, Mary, mother of Jesus. However, the gradual shift away from a dominantly monotheistic cultural hegemony seen in the Renaissance and eventually the Enlightenment brought with it new (and the case of this study, old) means of representing women beyond the confinements and discourse of the Madonna and Child. By comparing and contrasting Duccio di Buoninsegna's Virgin and Child Enthroned Amidst Angels and Saints (which is the main altarpiece of the artist's Maesta) with Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, one is able to see how the changing cultural standards which came about during the shift from the conservative, Eastern-influenced Late Gothic art of Duccio to the freer, more naturalistic art of Botticelli's Renaissance resulted in radical changes regarding the representation of women in art.
Before examining the paintings in greater detail, it will be useful to briefly consider the historical contexts of either work, as a means of informing the eventual analysis of the somewhat oppositional meanings regarding women created and reinforced by either work. Maesta was created as an altarpiece for the cathedral of Siena, Italy after being commissioned by the city circa 1308, and the particular portion under discussion here, Virgin and Child Enthroned Amidst Angels and Saints, serves as the front panels of the altarpiece (Goffen 207). Duccio's painting embodies many of the attributes of Late Gothic painting, especially of the Sienese school, not only because of its broader narratorial content but due to the details of its representation of the Madonna, including "Persian textile motifs" on the cloth as well as additional "Chinese and Persian design elements" (Prazniak 183). Furthermore, its representation of the figures is far more naturalistic than earlier works in roughly the same period and style, demonstrating the painting's transitional nature as human society moves away from the religious dogmas of the first millennia towards a more comfortable position regarding the human form. This historical context and resultant stylistics features stand in stark contrast to those of Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and examining the background of the latter painting will provide the cultural perspective necessary to successfully interpret the similarities and differences between the two paintings.
Botticelli's Birth of Venus was created nearly a century and a half after Duccio's Maesta, and it demonstrates the cultural and artistic changes which occurred over the intervening years. Finished around 1486, Birth of Venus demonstrates the simultaneous rise of humanism and return to classical ideals during the early Renaissance in Italy. Botticelli embodies "the new humanist style of art introduced in the early Renaissance" through his humanizing representation of classical myths and figures, so that the robust, flowing bodies of Birth of Venus practically move when compared to the conservative, almost wooden posture of Duccio's figures (von Rohr Scaff 109). This change in style is the result of the broader cultural changes occurring in Florence, and eventually Europe, during the Renaissance, including a larger focus on humanism and the decreased possibility of an art world dominated by a singular religiosity due to the schism of the Catholic Church. In order to truly understand how these historical contexts resulted in the stylistic differences evident between Duccio and Botticelli, one may now move on to a close analysis of both works, with an eye to how an increased focused on humanism and concurrent (relatively) decreasing influence of Christianity resulted in the differing representations of mythical women seen in Maesta and The Birth of Venus.
Having discussed the historical context of either work, it will now be possible to address the specific content and form of both works as well as the notable similarities and differences between the two. Maesta is a tempera and wood painting of Mary, cradling the baby Jesus as she is surrounded by numerous saints. Her admirers follow a symmetrical pattern with their heads, with the innermost four of the second row looking away along with the third from the end on either side of the third row, with varying meanings depending on the interpretation one prefers as to the identity of each saint and heavenly representative. For the purposes of this particular study, however, the identities of the surrounding figures are not nearly as important as the details of the central one, although the particular role of the surrounding figures will become important when considering the painting alongside Botticelli's Birth of Venus.
For now, one may note that Mary's robe is of a deep blue but the blankets draping the chair on which she sits bear the Persian floral motifs identified by Prazniak as common to Sienese art in particular (Prazniak 183). Although the representation of the human form is nonetheless more objective than other works of the same period and style, Mary's figure remains stiff and the baby Jesus, though regal, sits unnaturally tall on Mary's reclined left arm. The image represents the timeless, mythical Madonna, that is, the image of Mary with her infant Jesus existing outside of any specific historical time, as seen by the inclusion of saints who would have only been alive following the baby Jesus' eventual adulthood and death. This may appear a rather boring and overly literal interpretation of the image, but it is necessary to make because it points out the fact that both images regarded here are of mythical women in a mythical scene, and as such both women can be taken as intending to represent something essential about women and the female form and identity. Before considering what that essential claim is, however, one must take the time to discuss the details of Botticelli's Birth of Venus.
The titular character of Botticelli's tempera-on-canvas painting The Birth of Venus is at once naturalistically portrayed and unabashedly fantastic, with the details of her body and hair contrasting with the impossibility of her posture and balance atop a giant seashell. A floral motif is present here as well, but deployed for a fundamentally different purpose than in Duccio's Maesta. Whereas in the latter image the floral fabrics are meant to show Mary's royalty as she sits upon them, seemingly outshining their possible beauty, the floral fabrics worn by Venus' attendant as well as the shroud about to drape itself upon her shoulders serve to accentuate Venus' naked beauty with the integration of colorful nature into her pristinely opalescent form. Along with Venus herself, the attendants may each be interpreted as a different character from classical mythology, but once again, it is the representation of the central female characters that is of most importance here.
As mentioned already, Venus is nude except for her flowing hair, and her gaze is passive as she allows herself to be clothed and affected by her attendants. She stands on the edge of a giant seashell just as it reaches the shore near a wooded area and awaits the embrace of nature. These details alone should be enough to point out the distinct differences between the two images considered here, because in many ways Venus can be seen as a distinct reversal of the representational tendencies demonstrated in Duccio's image of Mary, with the differences in clothing, posture, and location demonstrating the changing attitudes regarding women.
To point out what is perhaps the most obvious difference, Venus and Mary represent two ends of the reproductive cycle, with Mary's importance being her role as mother while the central focus in the image of Venus is her birth and newborn nature (even though she is born fully grown). This represents a cultural shift indicative of the newfound humanism of the Renaissance, because whereas Christianity largely limits women aspirations to the role of mother (and ideally the mother of a male child), thus subjugating the woman to her children, and in the case of Mary, to the child, humanism allowed a celebration of the female form in and of itself, as a representation of the possibility of womanhood above and beyond the biological possibility of reproduction. This expansive change in the different possible representations of women can be seen as the ultimate reason behind the other visual differences between Venus and Mary (at least as it relates to women specifically; in other words, this claim should not be taken to mean that changing attitudes regarding the role of women in life and art is responsible for every stylistic change between Duccio and Botticelli.) Mary is locked in a structure both literally and figuratively, surrounded by the male representatives of Christianity entrapping her with their gaze, which focuses itself on the child and renders her nothing more than an exalted cushion, providing a human stand for the small god sitting on her arm. Furthermore, she is nearly entirely covered in a dark cloth, demonstrating her royalty but also serving as a kind of mourning shroud for the sadness of her situation. Although ostensibly meant to honor both Mary…