Throughout history, Venus has long been a source of inspiration for artists. Her representation of love and beauty has been captured in various mediums, from the visual arts of paintings and sculpture to music and drama; Venus has served as a universal symbol of beauty and has embodied the secrets of love. Central to understanding how artists have been able to use her as such a representation of love and beauty, is understanding Venus and Aphrodite's roles in history and Greek mythology.
Venus is an ancient Italian goddess closely associated with fields and gardens and later identified by the Romans with the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. Although the question as to how Venus came to be identified with so important a deity as Aphrodite remains unanswered, Venus' identification with Aphrodite is certain and because of this is often depicted in art. As a native Italian deity, Venus had no myths of her own. As a result, she took over those of Aphrodite and through her became identified with beauty and love.
The legend of Aphrodite is described in detail in Homer's "Iliad." In this epic, Aphrodite is said to be the daughter of Zeus and Dione, a Titan goddess. Other stories tell how she sprang, full-grown, from the foam of the sea near the island Cythera. From there Zephyrus, the west wind, carried her gently on a shell to Cyprus, which was always regarded as her real home. Every god, even Zeus, wanted this beautiful, golden goddess as his wife. Aphrodite was too proud and rejected them all and as a punishment, Zeus gave her to Hephaestus (Vulcan in Roman mythology), the ugly god of the forge. This good-natured craftsman built her a splendid palace on Cyprus. Aphrodite left him for Ares (Mars), the handsome god of war and one of their children was Eros (Cupid), the winged god of love.
Aphrodite was also known to quickly punish those who resisted the call of love and as the myth states, Cupid shot golden arrows into the hearts of those his mother wanted to unite in marriage. Aphrodite also had a magic girdle that made the one who wears it irresistible, and she sometimes loaned it to others. Aphrodite was worshiped chiefly as the goddess of human love. She was also widely venerated as a nature goddess. Because she came from the sea, sailors prayed to her to calm the wind and the waves.
Venus and her roles in Classical and Renaissance art:
This paper explores Venus' representation in art through the classical and Renaissance periods and into the 19th century. The art of the ancient Greeks and Romans is classified as classical art. This name is used also to describe later periods in which artists looked for their inspiration to this ancient style. The Romans learned a significant amount about sculpture and painting from the Greeks and this helped to afford the longevity of Greek art to later ages.
Classical art focuses on capturing simplicity, reasonableness, humanity, and sheer beauty of its subjects. Greek religion, love of beauty, and a growing spirit of nationalism helped shape this period of artistic expression. One famous representation of this is depicted in "Aphrodite of Melos," commonly known as the "Venus de Milo." This famous work is a beautiful marble statue now exhibited in the Louvre in Paris and although nothing is known about its sculptor, experts date it between 200 and 100 BC.
Aphrodite has consistently been a figurehead with Greek and Roman artists. A tremendous amount of poetry has been written about her and sculptors have carved countless figures of her. Because of her association with love and with feminine beauty, the goddess Venus has been a favorite subject in art since ancient times; notable representations include the statue "Venus de Milo" (c. 150 BC) and the painting "The Birth of Venus" (c. 1485).
In classical art, one of the more intriguing images of the goddess Aphrodite is a work of sculpture known as "Ludovisi Throne." It is thought that the image depicts the birth of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, from the sea and is being helped by a pair of female silhouettes. Although there have been other interpretations of this painting, the representation of the birth of Aphrodite depicts an early scene of the goddess emerging into the world.
In addition, the artist has skillfully added details to the folds of the wet garment that is draped around Aphrodite. This style of portraying sheer, wet fabric later becomes popular in ancient Greek sculpture. We see this trend particularly in statues depicting Aphrodite as a symbol of the female form and sexuality. Previous to the nude depictions popular in the 1800's, female forms were not depicted accurately and were often given little contrast. The folds in the clothes serve the purpose of adhering to female curves in an effort to outline the figures.
Although the Ludovisi Throne may be an early representation of the birth of Aphrodite, the goddess continued to be an enormously compelling subject for artists. Greek sculptors were especially interested in the images of Aphrodite. The Greeks were followed closely by Roman artisans, who also took pride in portraying her in an array of fascinating scenes.
Since Venus is a pre-eminent figure of beauty, as well as sexuality, her presence in art triggers a dominant theme of beauty. According to Arscott & Scott (2000), artistic representations of Venus cause us to see art itself as synonymous with the beauty of the goddess representation (5). Beckley (1998) argues that Aphrodite's influence on art is not just to provide visual beauty but instead serves as the notion or idea of beauty.
She [Aphrodite] was more than aesthetic joy; she was an epistemological necessity, for without her, all the other gods would remain hidden, like the abstractions of mathematics and theology, but never palpable realities. Owing to her, the divine could be seen and heard, smelled, tasted and touched. She made manifest the divine mind. And we respond to her radiant presence in things with words like divine, marvelous, gorgeous, superb, wonderful, amazing, heavenly, delightful, out-of-this-world -- words that attest to the divine enhancement of any ordinary thing, whether the feel of a fabric, the fall of a woman's hair, the taste of wine" (Beckley, 1998, p. 267).
In other words, Beckley is saying that Aphrodite defines beauty. The concept in art as we know it would not exist without her and therefore she is so often used as a subject for this purpose.
According to Lombardi (1998) in contemporary culture, Aphrodite is often presented simply as a deity of petty desires. Lombardi claims however that contrary to such belief, Aphrodite was a unique and powerful deity whose influence was recognized in many areas of life. Lombardi claims that common depictions of Aphrodite in classical art reveals her importance to the ancient Greek society and reinforces her legitimacy. As Lombardi notes, "Aphrodite is often pictured sitting or riding on a variety of animals, particularly birds such as swans or geese."
For example, a depiction in the simple drawing by an Achilles painter (ca 440 BC) portrays her riding on a swan, while in the drawing by a Pistoxenos painter, (ca 460 BC) she is seated on a goose. According to Lombardi, this association with the sky reinforces the existence of Aphrodite as the heavenly goddess who was also needed by animals. In addition, Lombardi notes that these images also support Aphrodite as the "Queen of Heaven, with an important place in the natural world."
The term Renaissance, described the period of European history from the early 14th to the late 16th century. It is derived from the French word for rebirth, and originally referred to the revival of the values and artistic styles of classical antiquity during that period. During the Renaissance, art was heavily influenced by Christianity and often displayed religious overtones. Artists of this time focused largely on the aesthetic qualities of creating such beautiful works, perhaps one reason why Venus is often the source of inspiration.
In Italy, painter Sandro Botticelli produced one of the world's most famous paintings representing not a Christian legend but a classical myth in "The Birth of Venus" (c. 1485-86). The work was produced on tempera on canvas and is now displayed in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. This painting depicts Venus rising from the sea where according to Greek mythology, she was born. An interesting aspect of this picture is the way that it depicts the action of Venus emerging from the sea on a shell, which is driven to the shore by flying wind-gods.
During the 18th century, the French painter Francois Boucher also captured the charms of Aphrodite, often depicted her in his most notable work "The Triumph of Venus." Boucher's style was considered to be in the Rococo genre. Rococo by nature is light, playful, and can sometimes be a bit frivolous but proved to be a…