She originally wasn’t even a goddess, just a nymph, but somehow Chloris (Greek Χλωρίς) has not only become one of the more complex of the classical deities, but the subject of at least two of the most involved paintings of mythology. She was generally known to the Romans as the goddess Flora, behind which there are two stories.
Chloris/Flora is referred to in several classical sources, but the most complete account of her origin is given not in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but in lines 194 to 220 of Book 5 of his Fasti, covering the day of 3 May. Fasti is a calendar of feasts and gods, detailed in Latin verse. These explain how Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, raped and then made a bride of the nymph Chloris, who promptly metamorphosed into Flora, shown most elaborately in Botticelli’s masterpiece Primavera, which I show below.
If her name change isn’t enough, then it has been claimed quite widely that the underlying reason for the Romans calling her Flora, hence the story of metamorphosis, is because of their inability to pronounce her Greek name of Chloris. Attractive though that might appear, it’s sadly completely false, and Latin borrowed and assimilated many other similar words without finding them tongue-twisters.
Both names make clear her association: Chloris is derived from chloros, Greek for the brilliant yellow-green of Spring vegetation. In the name Flora, the Romans associated her with the flowers of the Spring, and their blossoming. She was also associated with youth, and thought to have lived in the Elysian Fields.
She is the subject of two of the major paintings in the Western canon: Sandro Botticelli’s huge tempera masterpiece Primavera (Italian for Spring the season), and Nicolas Poussin’s fiendishly complex Empire of Flora. This article considers their reading, together with two contemporary paintings which are linked closely. Tomorrow traces subsequent depictions of Flora.
Botticelli’s painting is dominated by a series of mythological figures who tell its story. From the right, these are:
- Zephyrus, who is borne on wings and grasps the body of
- Chloris, who looks back in fright at Zephyrus, and from whose mouth a chain of plants emerges;
- Flora, who is dressed in a robe bearing images of many different flowering plants, wears a garland of flowers in her hair, and appears to be casting flowers from within her robe,
- Venus, who appears pregnant, and holds her right hand up in greeting or blessing,
- Cupid (above Venus), who is about to loose a flaming arrow from his bow, and is borne on wings,
- The Three Graces, Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia, linked by their hands, the nearest (with her back to the viewer) being the target of Cupid’s arrow, and looks at
- Mercury, who holds his caduceus up to quell a small group of dark clouds, but faces away to the left, looking up at those clouds.
The rightmost figure is Zephyrus, the west wind, famed for bringing warm, moist air to the Mediterranean in spring, thus bringing the first crops on after the winter.
He is holding Chloris, who is seen almost superimposed on Flora. This is a direct reference to what is probably the central literary source for this painting, Ovid’s lines in his Fasti, covering the day of 3 May, which may have been transmitted to Botticelli through the contemporary Ovidian poet Poliziano (Angelo Ambrogini, 1454-1494), who like the artist enjoyed the patronage of the Medicis. Ovid’s lines explain how Zephyrus raped and then made a bride of the nymph Chloris, who then metamorphosed into Flora:
(While she spoke, her lips breathed out vernal roses):
‘I, called Flora now, was Chloris: the first letter in Greek
Of my name, became corrupted in the Latin language.
I was Chloris, a nymph of those happy fields,
Where, as you’ve heard, fortunate men once lived.
It would be difficult to speak of my form, with modesty,
But it brought my mother a god as son-in-law.
It was spring, I wandered: Zephyrus saw me: I left.
He followed me: I fled: he was the stronger,
And Boreas had given his brother authority for rape
By daring to steal a prize from Erechtheus’ house.
Yet he made amends for his violence, by granting me
The name of bride, and I’ve nothing to complain of in bed.
I enjoy perpetual spring: the season’s always bright,
The trees have leaves: the ground is always green.
I’ve a fruitful garden in the fields that were my dower,
Fanned by the breeze, and watered by a flowing spring.
My husband stocked it with flowers, richly,
And said: “Goddess, be mistress of the flowers.”
I often wished to tally the colours set there,
But I couldn’t, there were too many to count.
As soon as the frosted dew is shaken from the leaves,
And the varied foliage warmed by the sun’s rays,
The Hours gather dressed in colourful clothes,
And collect my gifts in slender baskets.
The Graces, straight away, draw near, and twine
Wreaths and garlands to bind their heavenly hair.
Translated by A. S. Kline 2004 All Rights Reserved, from here.
Just over a century later, in about 1618, Jan Brueghel the Elder and the young Peter Paul Rubens joined forces to paint their Flora and Zephyr. The fruit of this collaboration has many similarities to their better-known Five Senses series from the same time. Flora sits naked, collecting flowers dropped into a red sheet by an airborne Zephyrus, with two putti assisting. In addition to the rich floral display are pairs of birds and animals, including peacock and peahen, and guinea pigs in the right foreground.
Just over a decade later, Nicolas Poussin painted his masterpiece The Empire of Flora (also known as The Realm of Flora) (1631); he had already painted The Triumph of Flora, a larger work with more figures and a very different scene, around 1627, which I won’t consider here.
Unusually for Poussin, this painting can be dated quite precisely, as it was documented in the course of a celebrated trial in 1631, to which Poussin gave evidence of having sold the accused this painting. It is thus known to have been painted for Valguarnera, a thief of uncut diamonds, in early 1631. At that time it was also known as Spring, although over the years it has been given several different titles, according to changing interpretations of its subject and meaning.
The whole painting is set in a garden, with trees in the left background, a flower-laden system of pergolas, a large water feature, and dancing putti. In this are a series of well-known characters, from the left:
- a herm representing Priapus, his phallus wreathed in the greenery of gardens and fertility;
- Ajax, falling on his sword and his spilled blood turning not into the purple hyacinth but a white carnation;
- Narcissus and Echo, the former enraptured by his own reflection, with Echo gazing longingly at him, and the narcissus flower;
- Clytie, who fell in love with Apollo and pined away into the sunflower (heliotrope);
- Apollo in his sun chariot, with a band containing the signs of the zodiac;
- Flora herself, presiding over her floral empire (detail below);
- Hyacinthus, killed by his own discus for falling in love with Apollo then turned into the flower, and Adonis, fatally wounded when hunting and turned into the anemone;
- Smilax and Crocus, unrequited homosexual lovers, who were turned into saffron and rough bindweed flowers;
- Cupid, with his quiver.
To date, all efforts to produce a coherent narrative of narratives have failed in one way or another. Although many of the individual stories are drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, not all are. Although many involve death and metamorphosis into flowers, not all do. The stories don’t chain together in any way, nor do they have any common more contemporary link with literature re-telling those stories.
If we cannot bind the stories together into a coherent whole, then we must accept that, like many of Poussin’s favourite books such as Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, we are looking at an epic compilation of stories with the common themes of death, and re-birth through metamorphosis. These could remain in their classical Roman and Greek mythical setting, or perhaps themselves metamorphosed into the death and resurrection of Christ.
In about 1685, Jerzy Siemiginowski-Eleuter painted this Allegory of Spring, which mainly refers to Poussin’s painting. Flora is now aloft, with Zephyrus behind her, and signs of the Spring zodiac emblazoned in the sky. Below them is a selection of the cast of Poussin’s Empire of Flora, including Ajax falling on a spear in the centre. Birds and ‘May’ blossom set the seasonal reference.
Tomorrow I’ll show some simpler paintings of Chloris/Flora to complete my account.