Last week, I showed a small selection of the many paintings of the birth of Aphrodite (Venus), one of the strangest of the classical Greek myths, which has roots going back to the dawn of Western civilisation. This article concludes my account of her.
As with her birth, Aphrodite has proved hugely popular in Western art, all too often as an excuse for painting a classical nude without incurring censure or censorship. This tradition of depicting Aphrodite largely or completely unclothed dates from classical times and is demonstrated in some of the wall paintings found in the ruins of Pompeii and elsewhere.
One of the earliest well-known paintings of Aphrodite from the Renaissance is a notable exception. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars from about 1485 may refer to one of her extra-marital affairs, which I illustrate later, but casts her in a more Platonic role, and may even use symbolic association with the Virgin Mary. This mixing of pre-Christian and Christian traditions is consistent with interpretations of Botticelli’s other great mythological paintings such as Primavera.
Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (c 1508-10) is generally accepted as having been left unfinished when the artist died, so was completed by Titian, who later went on to paint the remarkably similar Venus of Urbino (1538).
This woman has her eyes closed in sleep, and the sheet next to her is screwed up, as if someone else has just got up from it. Behind her is an Italianate landscape with features common to other paintings attributed to Giorgione, rather than the indoor scene in Titian’s later work. According to Michiel’s notes from 1525, the landscape was finished by Titian, who is also recorded there as having completed cherubs. It is not clear why there are no cherubs to be found in the painting now.
One of the first of a long series of similar paintings of reclining nudes, there is nothing here to establish that the figure is intended to represent the goddess Aphrodite.
We’re on much firmer ground with Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid, or Allegory of Lust, from about 1545. This shows Aphrodite’s most famous son Eros (Cupid) kissing his mother in a worryingly erotic way, with a putto watching, and Father Time behind. Two of the goddess’s attributes are shown in the foreground: a white dove at the left, and in her left hand the golden apple from the garden of the Hesperides which she was awarded in the Judgement of Paris.
Aphrodite was notoriously free with her love. Her husband Hephaistos (Vulcan) was frequently cuckolded as she had children by Ares (Mars), the probable father of Eros (Cupid), with Hermes, who fathered Hermaphroditus, with Poseidon who was responsible for two more children, with Dionysus, who was father to the Graces and Priapus, and finally with the mortal Anchises, resulting in Aeneas. The last brought Aphrodite to watch over the safety of the lead character in Virgil’s Aeneid in his flight from Troy to be the founding father of Rome.
Aphrodite’s affair with Ares is another popular theme for paintings. My favourite of these is Lovis Corinth’s Homeric Laughter from 1909.
This refers to a section in Homer’s Odyssey in which its hero is being entertained by King Alcinous, after meeting Nausicaä on the island of the Phaeacians. To cheer Odysseus up, the bard Demodocus tells a tale of the illicit love affair between Ares and Aphrodite. One day Hephaistos catches the couple making love in his marriage bed, and throws a very fine but unbreakable net over them. Hephaistos summons the other gods, who come and roar with laughter at the ensnared couple.
This story made its way into the elaborate allegories of Peter Paul Rubens. The Consequences of War (1637-38) shows Ares advancing forcefully having just rushed from the temple of Janus, moving from left to right, with his sword bloodied and held low. His head is turned back to look at Aphrodite, whose left arm is caught around his right, and who is clearly trying unsuccessfully to restrain him. Standing against the goddess’s right thigh is a winged Eros, the child of Ares and Aphrodite.
Drawing Ares forward is Alecto, her hair looking like that of a Fury but with few snakes visible, who bears a torch in her right hand. Monsters near her personify Pestilence and Famine, the inseparable partners of war at that time. On the ground below Alecto is a woman with her back towards the viewer: she is Harmony, whose lute has been broken in the discord brought by war.
Nearby, also on the ground, is a mother with her child in her arms, symbolising the effect of war on families and their rearing. At the lower right corner is an architect clutching his instruments, indicating how fine buildings are thrown into ruin by war. Under the right foot of Ares is a book, showing how war tramples over the arts.
On the ground to the left of Eros is a bundle of arrows or darts: these aren’t his arrows of desire, but when bundled up would form the symbol of Concord; thus war breaks Concord. To their left is the caduceus and an olive branch, attributes of Peace, also cast aside.
The woman at the left in a black gown is the personification of Europe, whose globe (symbolising the Christian world) is carried by a putto behind her. Having endured the ravages of war for so long, her clothing is torn and she has been robbed of her jewels.
Aphrodite and Ares are, in myth, well-known lovers. She is failing to restrain him from charging off to war, and in doing so, he is breaking their bond of love. This element of the composition had evolved over a long period, coming originally from Titian, and referring to another of Aphrodite’s lovers, Adonis.
Titian’s Venus and Adonis from 1554 shows Aphrodite trying in vain to prevent Adonis from going off to hunt, where he was to be killed by a wild boar. This was a favourite motif of Titian’s: no less than seven versions have been attributed to him from the period between 1553 and about 1560.
Charles Le Brun painted The Deification of Aeneas in about 1642-44, and shows the moment that Aeneas is turned into a god. This is a faithful account taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with the river god Numicus sat in the front, and Aphrodite anointing Aeneas with ambrosia and nectar to make him immortal as the god Jupiter Indiges. At the right is her mischievous son Eros, trying on Aeneas’s armour, and the goddess’s chariot towed by white doves is ready to take the hero up to join the gods.
After Botticelli’s painting of Aphrodite wearing clothes, I know of no similarly modest image of her until Briton Rivière’s unusual work from 1902. Rivière had a sheltered training and seems never to have attended ‘life’ classes. His thoroughly proper goddess reaches up towards a white dove, and leads a group of pairs of animals, almost like Noah. His allusion to physical love is thus indirect and procreative rather than sensual.
Finally, the popularity of Aphrodite in the other arts can sometimes result in paintings of her which appear puzzling unless you fully understand their references.
Henri Fantin-Latour’s painting of Tannhäuser, which he exhibited at the Salon in 1886, is based on the first act of Wagner’s opera of that name from 1845. It shows the profoundly religious minstrel Tannhäuser wrestling with his morals among the pleasures of the court of Aphrodite, after his seduction by the goddess.
This opera has won over many fans to Wagner through its sensuous music, which is reflected in Fantin’s painterly brushwork, particularly in the loose and revealing robes (partly) worn by the women.
Even Fantin-Latour felt he had to paint Aphrodite and her acolytes unclothed.