Mythology plays an important role in art and culture as it demonstrates humanity’s deepest instinctual core. Sophisticated stories of heavenly deities fretting and mingling with earthly mortals reflect the dualistic constructs of art, and thus the inner opposing forces that have battled humanity for centuries of existence. Mythology gives substance to and defines humanity’s existence as poetry itself. Embodying mythology as art, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus uses subtle layers of intricate allegorical symbols to articulate feminine beauty and fertility.
Said to be inspired by Homer’s Hymn to Aphrodite, a mythological poem dedicated to the Goddess of Love (referred to as Venus in Roman mythology), Sandro Botticelli portrayed the tale through The Birth of Venus. As the myth goes, the semen of Uranus, God of the Sky, was cast into the sea as a gentle breeze transfigured into a serpent. Unified with the fertile waves, Aphrodite was given birth and emerged from the foam (aphros) of the sea. Winds and waves brought her to the shore of Cyprus, an island that would become her home. As she set foot upon the land, flowers sprung and blossomed under her essence. As a continuance of this story, Botticelli’s second work, La Primavera, furthers the tale to describe the fully flourished Venus in all of her sensual glory.
Characterized by depictions of gods and goddesses, Venus, The Goddess of Love, humbly stands atop the seashell as Zephyr, God of the West Wind (and God of Spring) blows her to shore. Held in the arms of Zephyr, his wife, Chloris, nymph of the spring, blows breath of fresh flowers. Horae, Goddess of the Seasons and Natural Order, awaits her arrival with a cloak in hand to clothe her body.
Linguist and anthropologist Manuela Dunn Maschetti, author of The Song of Eve explores the myths, symbols and rituals of goddess archetypes as a dominant figure in Western mythology. She explains, “Mythology is a symbolic language which can be compared with [the] intuitive, subconscious level of memory; one that reveals the contents of the collective rather than person unconsciousness.” Symbolism of deities, articulated through diverse archetypal energies, is an assimilation of the unique psychological and physiological experiences known universally by all women that fluctuate throughout the varying cycles of her life.
As the first woman born out of the Sea of Creation, The Goddess of Love reflects the Virgin archetype— an image rendered by art and woven throughout the eras of humanity’s existence. The Virgin archetype is manifested as a representation of the passage of childhood into adulthood, characterized by grace, purity and innocence. Yet with a subtle, innocent lure of seduction, “such a creature inspires the most chaste of romantic men to burst into a burning passion that has filled page upon page of poetry and romantic literature,” Mascetti illustrates. Archetypes of the goddess emerge from the deeply rooted psychological and physiological shifts that women experience in the varying stages of her menstrual cycle and in the larger cycles of her life. Such imagery expands throughout the ages of human history and in disparate cultures around the world, emerging as Aphrodite from the waters of our collective unconsciousness.
A mistress of her own sexuality, Aphrodite, or Venus, is in love with being in love, lived out through freedom of being her own self. Firstly in love with herself, she radiates beauty and renewed vitality as she cares for her body, her hair, and her attire. With healing and restoration as a gift of her innate abilities, she represents magic and mystery of transformation. Embodying the most powerful force of the universe, she satisfies the undying yearn for unity by bringing the male and female together with her golden light. Her irrational touch is sensed as an enchanting and magnetizing attraction between man and woman. (Mascetti)
The intertwined motifs of spring, renewal, and rebirth expressed in the painting suggest a larger theme that highlights a significant component to feminine nature. In old English, the word “spring” means “source” and signifies the revival of nature after the death of winter (Battistini). The cycle of life is a distinguished feature to the imagery in art and mythology as the construct of birth and death shape major psychological imprints in the mind. The womb is the source of all life and represents the ultimate passage of transformation through death and rebirth in the fluids of the menstrual cycle and pregnancy. Enclosed within the womb are the waters of life that represent both the life-giving and life-threatening quality of water. In many complex and intricate layers, Botticelli’s painting imitates the concept of source.
The shell on which Venus stands upon signifies the fertile, regenerative nature of the Virgin archetype and her everlasting ties to water and the sea. The emblematic significance behind the shell can be seen as a sensual symbol of “the allegory of plenty and the taste for pearly, polished and iridescent flesh,” as interpreted by Sunah Ahn in her thesis of The Symbolic Use of Sea Shells in Design. The goddess’s belly is the center of gravity in the painting to express a womanly eroticism and her reproductive abilities. The shell in the scenery of The Birth of Venus symbolizes the vulva in portrayal of Venus’s birth, symbolically connecting to human birth (Puchko). According to Ahn, “When shells were used in exchange for money, the rarest shells had the highest value. Some were used as a decoration while others were prized possessions of the wealthy royalty,” she explains. It could be interpreted that there is an associated social and material value towards the construct of feminine beauty as depicted in Botticelli’s masterpiece.
As a personal interpretation, Botticelli’s works could have been painted to represent humanity’s shift from Greek Mythology to the construct of western religion. As a contributor painter to the artworks in the Sistine Chapels, there is a notable religious influence to Botticelli’s pieces. Botticelli’s artwork reflects a profound admiration for the female figure. The mythological themes in both The Birth of Venus and La Primavera are expressions of feminine beauty and her life-giving qualities.
Ahn, Sunah. “The Symbolic Use of Shells in Design.” RIT Scholar Works, Rochester Institute of Technology , 1996, scholarworks.rit.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7279&context=theses.
Battistini, Matilde. “Symbols and Allegories in Art”. Getty Publications, 1 May 2005.
Eller, Cynthia. “The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2000, www.nytimes.com/books/first/e/eller-myth.html.
Maschetti, Manuela Dunn. “The Song of Eve. Labyrinth Publishing. Switzerland. 1990.
Puchko, Kristy. “15 Things You Should Know About The Birth Of Venus.”| Mental Floss, 27 May 2015, mentalfloss.com/article/64273/15-things-you-should-know-about-birth-venus.