|"...and Aphrodite is being crowned by Persuasion (Peitho)..." |
Pausanias:- Description of Greece 5.11.8 (1.)
This essay will claim that the essential focus of the Birth of Venus is actually disclosed through an inconspicuous fold of cloth by which the artist symbolically describes the mons pubis & pudendal cleft of the goddess Venus. This vertically folded cloth visually mimics the mons & cleft in much the same way the conch shell had been used by the Italian Renaissance artist to reference the vulva (and by corollary; love, desire, beauty, etc.). Botticelli's pagan inauguration of the vulva of Venus (and thereby all vulvae) presents the goddess Peitho [persuasion] standing on the shore ready to confer an all beguiling potential to the form of the vulva. Peitho [persuasion] invests the female form with [the] power [of persuasion] and by this action Peitho sanctifies female primary sexual differentiation (the vulva) as the crowning glory of female beauty. Venus is born only at this precise moment of her sanctification. Persuasion (Peitho) is actually the generative force chained to form thereby empowering the mystical core of the female where form & force are balanced in equal proportion. Botticelli's philosophical elaboration on the brief observation of Pausanius must obviously be read through the paintings connection as a wedding gift as well as its (supposed) site-specific placement above the couples marital bed, and to recall that during the Renaissance marriages among the upper classes were most often arranged to the mutual advantages of both families and not based in love. In the bed chamber the couple might look upon this work and with abandonment yield to the designs of nature: The regenerative phenomena of forces natural are sanctified and contained in this room. Love generates love.
The unifying religious ambitions of the influential Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino may be detected in the three leaves that emerge from that fold of cloth (the metaphoric vulva held by Peitho) which appear to reference the Christian Trinity. Ficino's influential syncretism may be deciphered by carefully considering alterations made to the painting during its execution, and which noted will confirm the artists intention to physically exaggerate the paintings fundamental meaning. Through those subtle alterations the painting can be seen to gain confidence in the import of its message.
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is generally understood to have been a wedding commission made for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463-1503) second cousin to Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492) [also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent] and possibly to be hung above the younger Lorenzo's marital bed.
As a wedding commission the paintings true conversation revolves around sex and the exaltation of the feminine. By reworking this ancient creation mythology as intellectual subject matter sees the revival of cultural history - in this instance through the writings of Pausanius. The painting also reveals insight into the Florentine Renaissance and the predominant cultural and courtly influences of the period: note the subtlety of subject matter; the guardedness and discretion as well as the ingenuity when referencing primary sexual anatomy. Nevertheless it is the [metaphoric] vulva that is the paintings object matter. It is the central focus and point of departure for the paintings didactic flow, using references and imagery that would be understood as belonging to classical mythology.
In Botticelli's well recognised painting the young goddess Venus is about to receive the metaphoric form of the vulva from the goddess Peitho [aka persuasion] who forever imbues the anatomical form of the goddess with the power of persuasion and by doing so reveres the vulva as the crowning glory of the feminine. The act of conferring is portrayed by Botticelli as a theatrical event and accords with the observation made by Pausanias (c.110 –180 AD) in his 2nd century travelogue Descriptions of Greece.
|Fig 2. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c.1484-86). Tempera on canvas.|
172.5 cm × 278.9 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in). Uffizi, Florence (Authors annotation)
In his travelogue Pausanius notes many marvels of Ancient Greece and describes them all from direct observation, and from this book the central event portrayed by Botticelli in the Birth of Venus can be sourced to a small section of text:
[Amongst the images decorating the throne of Zeus in the temple at Olympia :] "...Eros (Love) receiving Aphrodite as she rises from the sea, and Aphrodite is being crowned by Persuasion (Peitho)..." Pausanias Description of Greece 5.11.8 (1.)
It is highly likely that both the narrative and the conceptual development that drives Botticelli's image would have been revealed to the wedded couple to enjoy. As the painting displays a known cosmogonic myth (aka cosmological argument) and where that myth in particular relates to fertility it was most appropriate that the Birth of Venus should be located above the bed in the marital chamber. Venus, perceived as a fecund influence both as deity and/or as planet, plays a central role in the expression of creative energy in myth. In the famous Epithalamium, Catullus speaks of the power of Venus to inspire passion and to sanctify the nuptial bed:
IV. That the species of myth are five, with examples of each.
"Of myths some are theological, some physical, some psychic, and again some material, and some mixed from these last two. The theological are those myths which use no bodily form but contemplate the very essences of the Gods: e.g. Kronos swallowing his children. Since God is intellectual, and all intellect returns into itself, this myth expresses in allegory the essence of God.
Myths may be regarded physically when they express the activities of the Gods in the world: e.g. people before now have regarded Kronos as Time, and calling the divisions of Time his sons say that the sons are swallowed by the father.
The psychic way is to regard the activities of the Soul itself: the Soul's acts of thought, though they pass on to other objects, nevertheless remain inside their begetters.
The material and last is that which the Egyptians have mostly used, owing to their ignorance, believing material objects actually to be Gods, and so calling them: e.g. they call the Earth Isis, moisture Osiris, heat Typhon, or again, water Kronos, the fruits of the earth Adonis, and wine Dionysus. (MacQueen. Allegory, The Critical Idiom.p.15)
Sallust's text continues but we truncate for brevity:
"Theological myths suit philosophers, physical and psychic suit poets, mixed suit religious initiations, since every initiation aims at uniting us with the World and the Gods." (Ibid, p.16)
But of these things let none make any mistake. Sallust states:
"Now these things never happened, but always are. And mind sees all things at once, but Reason (or Speech) expresses some first and other after. Thus, as the myth is in accord with the Cosmos, we for that reason keep a festival imitating the Cosmos, for how could we attain higher order?" (Ibid. pp 16, 17.)
Botticelli's particular allegory for the Birth of Venus was likely to have been somewhat influenced by Ficino and may suggest that the myth surrounding the Birth of Venus harbours a cosmogenical intuition which may infer that life on earth is of panspermic origin. This is to say that Venus - sea-born from the severed testicles of Uranus - can be allegorically interpreted as describing a heavenly body (comet or the like) falling to the Earth and mingling with the waters of the Earth thus fertilising a first cause. Nurturing, invoking, and associating the creation myth with sacralised action (deep memory) perpetuates the myth of Venus as a description of first cause; teleologically self evident because she was considered eternally present in that every cosmological event participates in first causality, essentiality, and becoming. If the universe and Venus are co-expressions of eternity it may be concluded that desire, beauty and love are equally co-existent as ineradicable, essential, universal conditions which (as a corollary) must also be considered eternal. All of this is to say the allegoric story of the Birth of Venus (when considered as an aeonic myth) describes the universe from an energistic viewpoint; an interpretation of life as a fundamentally sexualised force - which is a way of understanding and interpreting the universe as both vivifying and fertile. Such a point of view is shared by the writer Deepak Chopra:
"Sexual energy is the primal and creative energy of the universe. All things that are alive come from sexual energy. In animals and other life forms, sexual energy expresses itself as biological creativity.." (3.)Merely by participation in this myth, the Birth of Venus as presented by Botticelli maintains the conceptual gravity of the cosmic myth though it has been subordinated to the historical and cultural aspects of its expression; the reference to Pausanius + the influence of Ficino. Still, as presented by Botticelli the vulva remains the divine crucible in which the bond of love is forged as well as being the macrocosmic font (the waters) from which all life emerges. The Birth of Venus cannot help but expound that cultural conversation which hallows the concept of the vulva as the source of social, temporal and religious power. Here, the firm belief in this knowledge as knowledge (between men) now participates in this same knowledge as art and as an expression of power. Still, the Birth of Venus is delicately sensual and (upon scrutiny) erudite and (anciently) philosophical and yet Botticelli's clandestine argument remains courtly. It is therefore confined to the time and place of its origin at the court of the Medici under the likely guidance of Ficino.
To those who knew the paintings meaning it must have been seen as beautifully considered. Botticelli's stylised presentation justifies the meaning of the myth of the birth of Venus and expounds upon the sanctification of the vulva/vagina in mythology, art, and religion. The unveiling of the vagina between lovers is the augur to intimacy, pleasure, as well as the generation of the species, and the sight of the vulva is believed to confirm attraction, to award and express desire (or sight of the vagina would not be permitted) and to set physical love aflame. So it is Peitho [persuasion] who divinely empowers the vulva and for these reasons it is the embodiment of the goddess of persuasion who greets Venus at the shore to ordain the vulva's form as the earthly crown of femininity; to henceforth imbue and sanctify with the irresistible power of persuasion. Again (refer to figs.1, 2, & 4.) Botticelli refers to this symbolic form via the folded cloth near to the head of Venus which symbolically represents the exoteric form of the mons/cleft and so, vulva.
As a wedding commission the painting narrates the story found on the statue of Zeus in Greece by Pausanias at Olympia. Botticelli's has interpreted this brief description as the paintings 'moment' i.e., the moment when Peitho confers the persuasive force directly to the vulva/yoni of the goddess of love. By this action the power of Venus is located around the vulva which is now ordained as the sacred vessel of the feminine now sanctified by the will of the gods. The earthly fabric held by Peitho represents the anatomical form which from this point always remains directly linked to the cosmic (therefore sacred, holy etc.) and so Botticelli is narrating a precise (though imagined chronology) of that moment in myth. Peitho's action exalts the vulva as no less than the completion of female beauty and so this inauguration of Venus initiates the sanctification of the vulva and therefore all vulvae through all time.
Botticelli's essential focus within the structure of the Birth of Venus is furtively presented by clever use of an inconspicuous fold of cloth which is actually intended to politely represent the pudendal cleft.
|Fig 3. Birth of Venus (Detail)|
When scrutinising the image (Fig 3) it can be seen that alterations were made during the development of the paintings Grand Motif which is actually the mons pubis metaphor which emphasises the form of the pudendal cleft (aka cleft of Venus). Under scrutiny the right side and lower left of this folded motif has been clearly altered during the paintings development, and there was originally a much smaller fold of cloth being held to Venus by her attendant (fig 4). On alteration this discreet emblem has become fuller, more rounded, and more symmetrical, therefore one can say - it has become a far more confident idea.
|Fig. 4. Birth of Venus (Detail)|
|Fig. 5. Hysterical Sexual. Anish Kapoor. Fibreglass and gold - 2016|
Botticelli has pursued his folded metaphoric vulva and developed the form with a far greater confidence. That formerly simple fold has now become symmetrical, fuller and decidedly emblematic. Compare Botticelli's symbolic form (fig 4) with the similar and distinctly vulvic form of Anish Kapoor's 2016 Hysterical Sexual (fig 5).
Botticelli's alteration has placed a grander and more proportionate symbol in the hand of Peitho and with this alteration Botticelli has further incorporated Marsilio Ficino's religious sycretism because it appears that Ficino's enthusiastic reconciliation of pagan and Christian philosophies has been introduced into this cosmogonic myth. Not only can it be seen that Botticelli's original idea has clearly become a symmetrically emblematic but now also includes the emerging three leaves and become further emboldened by advancing the influential Florentine's narrative (the three leaves representing the Christian Trinity) and this goes well beyond simply narrating the text of Pausanias.
Clearly there has been a change of philosophical direction in this pagan narrative and where the form of the cloth has been clearly rearranged there are those three points of a leaf (fig 4.) that can be seen to emerge from within the depth of the fold (the appearance of these leaves from the fold of cloth is actually something a magician might do with a coin and a piece of silk and certainly intends to announce something rather magical). It very much seems that Ficino's influence is being exercised either directly or indirectly and that the three points materialising from the fold actually do indeed represent the Christian trinity. [But it is imperative to this argument that a detailed full screen view of this fold be viewed here where a clear view of the alterations made by Botticelli can be clearly defined.]
While it is possible that these alterations to the grand motif might have come from a number of Lorenzo's tutors (or perhaps even reflectively by Botticelli himself) that passionate 'spiritual guide' that the historian Ernst Gombrich locates in Ficino is still the likely candidate. One senses that Ficino's syncretizing influence has had a persuasive effect on the course of this painting just as the presence of Ficino himself might influence the court and Lorenzo.
Those alterations to the Birth of Venus indicate a dramatic change of mind occurring during the painting's development and with this slight adjustment the coronation which was creatively narrating Pausanias by Botticelli now heralds the goddesses emergence into the world and inversely the emergence of the world from the creative (sexual) nature of the goddess; now the presence of these three points very strongly infer that this is a Christian world emerging from a pagan past - and there you have Ficino!
|Fig 6. The Coronation of Venus Anadyomene. Annotated detail with nimbus.|
That fold is not simply a felicitous motif - here it has become emphatically emblematic! The cloth which is embroidered with flowers and leaves emphasises the earthly element so to say this magic has been bestowed the physical vulvae of all women as if to say to the Venusian gender 'as you are intoxicating as you are beautiful as you are powerful as you are sacred'. The act of Peitho crowning Venus stresses the shift from a woman being a merely beautiful object to the goddess becoming an exalted being of great power (sexual - power over men) and this should be contextualised and considered in the same respectful manner in which the yoni is traditionally revered in Hinduism.
Placing a nimbus around the grand motif (fig 4.) the idea of sanctification becomes clearer and that Peitho is actually crowning Venus will become more readily conceivable. This crowning is the 'design event' and the 'visual foundation' around which the entire painting pivots structurally and conceptually. The robe presented to Venus by Peitho is not the starry robe as so many interpretations often attribute; it is clearly 'earthly' and so speaks of earthly form (the pudendal fissure) and the floaral embroidered design set upon sumptuous fabric must also indicate the youth of the goddess - consider here Flora's dress in Botticelli's Primavera (c.1482).
In Rudens ("The Rope") by the Roman playwright Plautus, a character remarks te ex concha natam esse autumant, cave tu harum conchas spernas (Act III, Scene iv, 704): since Venus is said to have been born from a shell, so the goddess should not neglect the "shells" of the two young women who have sought protection at her altar.
|Fig 7. Mouth or opening of a conch shell.|
Turning to the Widener Orpheus Pan employs the conch to instruct the seated Venus of the sacredness of her form and educate her to the grand correspondences found in nature. The Romans saw this correspondence in the mouth of the conch (figs 5-6.) however the Greeks made supreme the almost perfect form of the cockle/scallop shell which in no way bears any resemblance to the form of the vulva and this is because the Greeks saw the similitude of the vulva in the flesh of the creature residing inside the cockle shell. These distinctions are actually the fundamental distinctions between the two cultures at core and if we were to press further one might find that the Greeks held no shame in the open graphic understanding the explicit anatomy of the vagina whereas the Romans seemed to have reservations of going beyond the threshold of the mons pubis. The hand that was placed over the pudenda became the hand of shame where for the Greeks this was modesty or embarrassment but there does not appear to assume the cultural imprint of shame.
The Alterations to the Fold.
|Fig 9. Birth of Venus (detail with annotations).|
Referring to fig 9, the straight line markers radiating from positions a & b mark the three areas of overpainting which have been added to the original design. Rather than an asymmetric piece of cloth which this section portrayed originally, a large area to the right side has been added - as has a smaller area to the lower left of the fold, giving the form more symmetry and which is far less likely to be misinterpreted as a simple, random fold. Botticelli's addition to the original form expounds upon the importance of the pudenda/shell motif. One can conclude that the annotations made to the cloth were an afterthought because clearly that fold has been developed to present a grander, symmetrical shape; it has become larger, rounded, and more full in appearance, and what this alteration to this small piece of cloth now achieves, is an effect of emblematic significance.
Two contemporary examples of comparably emblematic vulva motifs occur in the recent work of Anish Kapoor. If one might still be uncertain of equating Botticelli's fold of cloth with the abstract form of a vulva, Anish Kapoor's 2015 work titled Gold Pussy must surely reinforce the ovoid cleft form as a grand motif to intentionally signify the vulva (fig 11.).
Fig 11. Gold Pussy. Anish Kapoor. Stainless steel and gold, 2015
|Fig 12 Three comparable forms reminiscent of the Vesica Piscis (Vesica Pisces).|
|Fig. 13. The approximate proportions of a vesica piscis.|
It quite possible that the siting of Venus within the form of the Vesica Piscis is deliberate in Botticelli's painting because according to the calculations of Mr Gary Meisner the Birth of Venus also meets the mathematical requirements of an artwork steeped in the proportions of the Golden Mean. Meisner observes:
"If the thickness of the canvas were o.5 centimeters, the dimensions of the frame wrapped underneath the four sides of the canvas would have been 171.5 x 277.5, the ratio of which is … 1.618, the golden ratio. Whether exact or not, the dimensions are so close that one might rather easily conclude from this that Botticelli’s intent here was to begin this great work of art with the perfection of a Golden Ratio" (4)This being so a secondary proposition involving the geometry of the Vesica Piscis might also be suggested. However as there is no clear proof of the intention (beyond the measurable existence of pi itself) the acceptance of the Vesica Piscis as an integral part of the paintings plan is not critical to the elucidation of the paintings meaning; but the possibility that it may exist must at least be considered as this concept can be geometrically aligned (see fig. 13) with Botticelli's design.
This is to say that creation and all apparent regeneration of the phenomenological world are emergent through the feminine and this must allude to the vivifying force behind the origin of life even on a cosmic scale. If one were to place the triple -leaved foliage at the opening of Courbet's vulva the meaning of both paintings would remain intact: The vulva is the matrix of and entrance to this three dimensional world.
|Fig 15. Birth of Venus (detail) with annotation by the author.|
Botticelli's Venus is actually invisible, as the goddess is in the process of being crowned by the physical archetypal form offered her by Peitho (persuasion) and what is more persuasive and appropriate to be sited above the marital bed (the paintings intended site) than an image dedicated to goddess of love and of lovers. Venus/Aphrodite is shown in Botticelli's painting as a divine emanation in the process of her mythical manifestation which is actually narrated by Botticelli as her coronation according to the observation of Pausanias.
|Fig 16. Birth of Venus with annotation by the author.|
1. Pausanias "Description of Greece" 5. 11. 8 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue c. 2nd A.D.) http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Paus.+5.11.8&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0160
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