Primavera, by Sandro Botticelli
Artist: Sandro Botticelli
Location: Galleria degli Uffizi
Movement: High Renaissance
Though the coupling of the pure Virgin Mary with the erotic Venus may seem bizarre, if not blasphemous, this is what Sandro Botticelli does in his painting of Primavera. By portraying Mary, embodiment of divine love for Christians, through a representation of Venus, goddess of erotic love and marriage, Botticelli sought to display the complete spectrum of love from earthly love to divine and the function of the former in directing men toward the latter.
The juxtaposition of the Virgin with Venus was not an innovation of Botticelli’s, but was quite a common theme of Neo-Platonism. This philosophy, popular during Botticelli’s time and prominent in the humanist circles of which he was a part, held that all of life is spiritually linked to God so that all revelation is one, including Plato’s philosophy and classical myths (Beckett). This made it possible for the Neo-Platonists to make the figure they termed the “Celestial Venus” interchangeable with the Virgin Mary (Beckett) and provided Botticelli with an ideology that allowed him to show religious meaning through pagan myth.
Marsilio Ficino, the most prominent proponent of Neo-Platonism during Botticelli’s time, claimed that there were two kinds of love: terrestrial and divine. Terrestrial love cements the union between mortals, and divine love cements the union between God and man, while the lower form of love induces man to seek the higher (Dizdar). This philosophy can be seen in the organisation of the painting, moving from terrestrial love on the right side to divine love on the left, with the Venus/Mary figure in the centre (Dizdar). The right side of the painting shows Zephyr, who raped the nymph Chloris, but then married her and transformed her into Flora, the goddess of flowers—here her transformation is shown. Zephyr represents lust, the most base form of love, while Flora represents marriage—Botticelli shows us that there is no spiritual fruit in lust by leaving the trees above Zephyr’s head bare, while there is fruit in the trees above Flora’s head because chaste and pure love leads to God (Dizdar). This can also be seen in the direction the figures are looking—Zephyr and Chloris are looking at each other, on an up-down angle, while Flora is looking to the left side of the painting, towards divine love.
The left-hand side of the painting represents divine love. The three graces are here, Chastity, Beauty, and Love, and Mercury on the far left brushes the clouds away. His back is turned to show that he is engaged in the highest form of love, divine contemplation (Dizdar); this interpretation may seem whimsical, but a basis for it can be found in an examination of the character of Mercury in classical Roman mythology. Among other things he represented, Mercury was the skimmer of clouds—here we could say he is pushing away the clouds that obscure our view of God and giving us spiritual clarity—and also the leader of the Graces and the mediator between the gods and mortals (Dizdar). To humanists he was above all the god of inquiry and intellect, the revealer of secret knowledge (Dizdar). According to this understanding Mercury would have been an apt figure to represent man’s communion with God.
Overlooking the whole scene is Venus, adding a vertical line to the horizontal one. Her very modest clothing, and the veil over her hair that chaste older women wore, are much more reminiscent of Mary than Venus in the way she is typically portrayed (Hagen). The halo that the trees and foliage form around her head also remind us of the religious significance of the painting (Hagen). The baby above her head, at the top centre and looking toward the left-hand side of the painting, reminds the viewer of Jesus, though he is not necessarily meant to represent him.
By fusing Venus with the Virgin Mary, Botticelli effectively links love for another human being with love for God. That the Venus/Mary figure is looking and gesturing to the left demonstrates that the purpose of human love is to lead to love for God. The painting as a whole symbolises the uplifting of the soul to God through love. The reason the painting was commissioned in the first place, to commemorate the marriage of one of the Medicis, fits the theme perfectly, and would have served to remind the newly-weds of the higher purpose of their earthly love.
Dizdar, Gorcin. “Identity, Metaphor and Symbol in Botticelli’s Primavera More.” Identity, Metaphor and Symbol in Botticelli’s Primavera (Gorcin Dizdar). Web. 08 Apr. 2012. <http://yorku.academia.edu/GorcinDizdar/Papers/414676/Identity_Metaphor_and_Symbol_in_Botticellis_Primavera>.
Beckett, Wendy. “History of Art: Renaissance – Botticelli.” History of Art. Web. 09 Apr. 2012. <http://all-art.org/early_renaissance/botticelli15.html>.
Hagen, Rose-Marie and Rainer. “History of Art:The Early Renaissance – Sandro Botticelli.” History of Art. Web. 09 Apr. 2012. <http://all-art.org/early_renaissance/botticelli13.html>.