Interestingly, Venus is a goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, which is significant, since she was literally created from the male genitalia, and males were more strongly linked to sexuality than females, even at that point in Roman history. In the rest of Roman and Greek mythology, Venus/Aphrodite generally plays a benevolent role, though she does use influence women to use their sexuality in inappropriate ways, such as the willful seduction of one's own father.
Botticelli's painting captures all of the prettier elements of the birth of Venus without referencing the uglier parts of the myth. There are no castrated gods or vengeful sons in the painting, merely a beautiful, naked woman emerging from the sea, standing grown in a sea shell. The sea shell symbolized the vulva in art of that time period. Moreover, Venus was a frequent non-religious subject of paintings, because it was considered acceptable to depict her nude and sensuous, which was not possible in many other types of painting. What is unclear is who the three other figures in the painting are. To Venus' right is an angel, holding a woman. They are clearly not people in the myth, and one is not certain who they are. To Venus' left is a woman ready to drape her in modest attire. That woman is interesting because she is clothed as women were in Botticelli's time, and may symbolize...
It seems that Botticelli is attempting to showcase the natural and beautiful sexuality of the feminine, and demonstrate how society has reacted to that sexuality as a threatening force. He accomplishes this goal, because his Venus is so beautiful that few people notice the artistic quirks that mar her appearance, such as her unnatural-looking left arm or her oddly-long neck.
Sexuality has played an important role in art, since its very beginning. Mythology has played a similarly important role in human culture.
It is not surprising, then, that mythology, culture, art, and sexuality have a unique relationship. Botticelli's portrayal of Venus' birth brings together those elements to reveal how female sexuality has been portrayed as threatening and healing at the same time. In this way, Botticelli uses an existing myth to contrast with modern attitudes about sexuality, making the viewer question their own moral standards.
Botticelli, S. (1485). The birth of Venus. Retrieved March 19, 2009 from Artchive. Web site: http://artchive.com/artchive/B/botticelli/venus.jpg.html
Cavendish, R. Ed. (1980). An illustrated encyclopedia of mythology. New York: Crescent
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