Sandro Botticelli’s Iconic Painting The Birth of Venus
"THE BIRTH OF BEAUTY"
The Birth of Venus gave the Italian Renaissance one of its most important treasures. Painted sometime around 1485, the idyllic vision of Venus arriving from the ocean on a seashell grips us even today.
Sandro Botticelli - The Birth of Venus (1886)
The details of the painting are unforgettable — the blonde hair of Venus blowing in the wind, the god Zephyr and his lover Aura ensuring her gentle landing on the shore, the Hora of Spring waiting to greet her. This is the scene of beauty’s birth, and it is worthy of that noble subject.
To understand this grand but sometimes cryptic masterpiece, we need to ask why the artist chose to paint it this way and what it all means.
What is the story behind The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli?
To have a full Birth of Venus analysis, we need to know the original myth and why setting the scene this way was an inventive move for the artist.
In classical mythology, it’s said that Venus was born when the Titan Cronus castrated his father Uranus. The body part dropped into the ocean where it fertilized the waters, producing the fully grown goddess Venus.
While a poem by Demetrios Chalkokondyles comes close to describing the scene, this appears to be the first painting to depict the birth of Venus this way with the goddess arriving on a seashell blown gently by the god of wind.
Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) chose this pagan subject for a massive, fully life-sized work that would scandalize people of his time, be largely ignored for centuries, and finally become a beloved work of art known around the world.
What is the meaning of The Birth of Venus?
The heavily Christian art world of 15th century Italy was only just beginning to reappraise classical sculpture and incorporate those images into its paintings. Even then, these Roman and Greek poses would be recast as Biblical characters.
But Botticelli chose to paint Venus as the pagan goddess of love, rather than changing her to fit into the Bible. He also chose to paint her with great modesty. Though she is naked, she hides her body, and she stands in the contrapposto pose — with one foot raised and the knee bent. Audiences at the time would have read this body language as demure though not necessarily ashamed.
With this painting Botticelli expresses his belief in the Neoplatonic ideas becoming popular in his time. Here, the physical beauty of Venus gives the viewer something to see and understand, potentially creating feelings of love. This love can then act as a doorway to understand a still higher form of love, one born of the spirit and that connects us to all other things.
Any The Birth of Venus analysis, then, is meant to move the viewer to higher realms of contemplation. Rather than focus on a single painting, one begins to think of how they relate to the essence of being itself.
That vaulting ambition combines with its large size, technical mastery, and stunning end result to produce one of the most moving paintings of the Italian Renaissance. Despite this impressive achievement, Botticelli was mostly forgotten after his death until painters in the 19th century began to celebrate him.
Now, The Birth of Venus by Botticelli is known internationally as a tremendous feat, one that still has so much spiritual power more than 500 years since it was completed.