Most of the primordial and other early deities of the classical Mediterranean civilisations represented the hard side of life: negative qualities, the Furies and Fates, suffering and death. One notable exception is Aphrodite (Greek Ἀφροδίτη), known even better from her Roman name of Venus. She’s also one of the goddesses whose Middle Eastern origins appear most clear, starting with the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna (Sumerian) or Ishtar (Akkadian), and coming to the ancient Greeks through the Phoenician goddess Astarte. With such a heritage, there’s no shortage of images and sculptures of her, going back to the dawn of civilisations in the Fertile Crescent. This article looks at her birth, one of the most popular myths in painting, and one of the strangest stories in mythology.
The older accounts of the birth of Aphrodite link her to the myth of the Titan Cronos/Saturn castrating his father Uranus, whose severed genitals are thrown into the sea. There, they float past the islands of Cythera and Cyprus, giving rise to alternative epithets for Aphrodite of Cytherea and Cypris. On the shore of Cyprus, Aphrodite is then born from them, with allusions to semen as foam of the waves.
A later origin is given by Homer in his Iliad, in which Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus by Dione, a Titaness and Oceanid who was one of Zeus’s early wives. Subsequent accounts of the origins of Aphrodite are attempts to reconcile these two conflicting stories.
Depictions of the birth of Aphrodite are among the oldest European mythological paintings of which we have records. Apelles of Kos, one of the most renowned of the great painters of ancient Greece, is claimed to have been active around 330 BCE. Among the eight or more major works attributed to him is Aphrodite Anadyomene, in which the goddess Aphrodite rises from the sea. This achieved fame in part because his model for Aphrodite was a former mistress of Alexander the Great, Campaspe, according to the writings of Pliny the Elder.
Although several of Apelles’ paintings were taken to Rome, and it’s claimed that at least one version of his Aphrodite survived as a copy in the ruins of Pompeii (above), all that remains of Apelles’ works are textual descriptions in classical writings.
It’s also claimed that a description of Apelles’ Aphrodite Anadyomene was inspiration for its most famous depiction, The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. This is the foundation of the modern canon: standing in an over-sized clamshell, Aphrodite has been born as a fully-grown adult. She stands naked and beautiful, her long tresses blowing in the breeze.
Blowing Aphrodite to the shore are Zephyros (Latin Favonius), the west wind, harbinger of Spring, and Aura the personification of lighter breeze. At the right, welcoming Aphrodite to land with clothing is one of the Horai (Latin Horae) representing the season Spring, and there are Spring flowers blowing across the painting. That might make her Thallo or Thalatte (Latin Flora), who is featured in Botticelli’s Primavera.
They are on the shore of what is almost certainly the island of Cyprus, with a wood inland. That and the supporting cast form strong visual links with its sister painting Primavera (Spring), although they don’t seem to have been made as a formal pair.
Titian’s Venus Anadyomene from 1520 is different in that it excludes other distractions and just shows the goddess rearranging her hair after she has emerged from the sea, and in the background a clamshell making the narrative link.
Nicolas Poussin’s elaborate The Birth of Venus (1635-36) isn’t well-known, and perhaps suffers from its complexity. Aphrodite’s clamshell is almost lost in the many extras surrounding her. On the left is Neptune, in the foreground Aphrodite’s son Eros (Latin Cupido, English Cupid) who would be an anachronism, and there’s even an allusion to river gods in the large jar pouring forth water. In the sky at the left, Apollo is in his chariot which is drawn by white swans.
François Boucher went one step further in The Triumph of Venus from 1740, in which the mythological elements have been stretched to the point where classical associations are being lost. Gone is the clamshell in favour of a school of large fish and a conch.
One of James Barry’s few surviving accessible works is his Venus Anadyomene (c 1772), which follows the trend established by Titian rather than that of Botticelli.
JAD Ingres’ Venus Anadyomene (1808-48) likewise, and despite having ample opportunity to establish a link using a clamshell, none is shown. One of the cupids at her feet is holding a mirror up, presumably a reference not to the mirror normally held by the personification of Truth, but to the famous paintings of Venus seen in a mirror.
The slow decline of narrative and mythological painting in the late nineteenth century seems to have had the opposite effect on paintings of the birth of Aphrodite.
It was Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus which brought him greatest success, at the Salon of 1863. An unashamedly romantic-academic interpretation, this painting stole the Salon of 1863 with its socially-presentable eroticism, and was bought by Napoleon III for his personal collection. While it shows no signs of returning to Botticelli’s classical references, the foam on the broken wave under Aphrodite’s body is a significant link to the myth.
Gustave Moreau painted two little-known works featuring Venus. The Birth of Venus, Venus Appearing to the Fishermen (c 1866) is a promising oil study, in which Venus is seen just after she has emerged from the sea, in front of a group of rather rugged fisherfolk. In the background, only sketched in, is an old sailing vessel, its sails reefed, with a distinctive appearance which was to be found in his later paintings.
Venus Rising from the Sea (1866) looks to have been intended for exhibition, and is much richer in its imagery. Venus has just arrived from the sea, and is sitting on a coastal rock, her arms outstretched in an almost messianic pose. Her very long, thick hair cascades down the rock behind her, through her right hand, and over her left arm, glistening in the light. She has a spiculate diadem/halo around her head, and behind her, a voluminous robe billows up in the breeze, reminiscent of Poussin’s painting above.
On the left, a mermaid attendant holds up half an oyster shell with a single large pearl glinting in it. On the right, a merman proffers her bright pink coral, and cradles a large conch shell. Behind them is another rugged rocky coastline of Renaissance appearance, and in the immediate foreground is a fragment of pink coral and a small collection of shells on a sandy islet.
Arnold Böcklin also broke from convention in his Venus Anadyomene from 1872. Here she stands on the back of a mythological whale far from the coast. Sundry cupids hold a seaweed-green diaphanous gown from above her, and one is just about to place a wreath on her head.
Walter Crane based his rebirth of Venus on Botticelli’s, linking it back to the Renaissance. She is stood at the edge of a placid sea, the water just above her ankles, in a pose which is not dissimilar to that used by Botticelli. Three attendant graces are also getting out of the water in the middle distance, but appear to have been bathing. A train of white doves flies down and behind Venus, to start landing on the shore at the right. In the distance are the remains of a classical building at the water’s edge, and what appears to be a section of Mediterranean coastline. Further out at sea, a sailing boat passes by. Crane painted this in tempera, as Botticelli did his original.
I don’t have a date for Adolph Hirémy-Hirschl’s Birth of Venus but it must have been painted in the final decade or so of the nineteenth century, or in the early twentieth. The artist has opted to follow Cabanel’s approach, with plentiful foam and breaking waves.
In the early 1920s, Joseph Stella painted several mythical narratives, including The Birth of Venus in 1922. As might be expected, his treatment is completely novel and seems to have benefited from visits to an aquarium. Aphrodite is shown at sea, in the upper part of the painting her upper body above the waterline, and below morphing into an aquatic plant below that waterline, where it finally merges into a helical shell.
There are many other paintings of the birth of Aphrodite, or Venus Anadyomene, which strictly refers to her getting out of the sea and onto dry land. Its strange narrative doesn’t appear to have put anyone off, apart from her father Uranus, of course.