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Venus Throughout the History of Art


Venus of Willendorf

One of the most represented goddesses (if not the most) in art is the goddess of Love and Beauty: Aphrodite for the Greeks, Venus for the Romans. Her image has served to represent the ideal of female beauty of each era, and by being associated with beauty, her name has been used to label certain works of non-European or prehistoric art, such as the Venus figurines from the Paleolithic or Neolithic periods.

Originally, she must have been a Mediterranean Mother Goddess, related to the goddesses of Mesopotamia and Anatolia (Inanna – Ishtar – Astarte), from where they would have passed to Cyprus and perhaps from this island to the rest of Greece. Aphrodite appears early on in relation to Cyprus, as evidenced by the epithet Cypria (and her association with copper, -cuprus), and also with the island of Cythera (Aphrodite Cytherea).

As for the etymology, there are different theories, with the most accepted one deriving her name from “born from the foam” (Aphro – foam, Dite – born), which refers to one of the myths of her birth.

Just like with the god Eros, there are two origins for Aphrodite. According to some myths, she was the daughter of Zeus and Dione, while others claim that she originated from the semen of the sky god, Uranus, who, after being dethroned and castrated by his son Cronus, fell into the sea, and the goddess emerged, already as an adult, from the resulting foam.

Aphrodite appears among the Olympian gods in Hesiod’s Theogony. The Homeric poems made her co-responsible for the Trojan War in the famous judgment of Paris, as he chose Aphrodite over Hera and Athena as the most beautiful goddess, earning him as a reward the most beautiful woman: Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta.

In Homer’s Iliad, she appears several times, including a scandalous episode where she falls into the trap set by her husband, the blacksmith god Hephaestus, to catch her with her lover, Ares, the god of War. In another passage, we see her protecting her son Aeneas, taking him away from the battle and healing him.

As the goddess of Love, she is attributed numerous lovers and spouses, with whom she will have different children: her “official” husband, as mentioned earlier, was Hephaestus, the god of blacksmithing, who was deformed and lame; she also partnered with Ares, with whom, according to some traditions, she gave birth to Young Eros, Harmony, as well as Phobos and Deimos (Fear and Hate); with the god Hermes, she had Hermaphroditus, an androgynous god with both male and female sexual characteristics. She is also related to mortals, such as Anchises, with whom she had Aeneas. Another one of her famous partners was the handsome Adonis; after his death caused by a wild boar, he would share half of the year with Aphrodite, while spending the other half in the Underworld with the goddess Persephone. Adonis is thus linked to the cycles of spring and winter, of death and the resurrection of life after the winter lull.

Plato, in his Symposium, distinguishes two types of Aphrodites: Urania Aphrodite, or celestial, related to spiritual love, and Pandemos Aphrodite, representing passionate-sexual love, the love of the common people. This distinction would be passed down to Renaissance philosophers.

After the conquest of Greece by Rome, Rome adopted Greek iconography for its own gods. Thus, Aphrodite became associated with the Roman Venus. Later, the Julio-Claudian dynasty, starting with Julius Caesar, would take Venus Genetrix as the patroness of the empire, as its members claimed to be descendants of Venus through Aeneas and his son Ascanius or Iulus, as reflected in the epic poem composed by the poet Virgil, the Aeneid.

With the advent of Christianity, all “pagan” knowledge was eradicated, and the figure of Venus was juxtaposed with the sin of lust, as opposed to the Virgin Mary, symbolizing purity.

The Renaissance would recover classical art, rescuing ancient Greco-Roman sculptures, and would use the figure of Venus to exalt female beauty. 

Venus Italica by Canova


Venus in Art

Aphrodite in Archaic and Greco-Roman Classical Art

The oldest surviving representations of Aphrodite date back to the 7th century B.C., dressed as the protector of marriage. Phidias depicts her on the pediment of the Parthenon, where she is likely the reclining goddess occupying one of the corners of the East tympanum.

Praxiteles was the first to sculpt her in the nude (Aphrodite of Cnidus); this representation became popular from the 5th century BC, especially in sculpture, and is known to us today through Roman copies.

Among these sculptures, the famous Venus de Milo stands out, missing her two arms, which we can admire in the Louvre Museum, now an iconic figure and considered the canon of female beauty.

Of the various iconographies of Venus, the Venus emerging from the bath stands out, especially in sculpture, the Venus Anadyomene (rising from the sea), and the reclining Venus, which would be most commonly used in Renaissance and Baroque painting.

As we have seen, Rome adopted her as the patron goddess of the Julio-Claudian emperors. She would be represented not only in sculpture but also in mosaics (a recurring theme) and in painting, as we can see in the frescoes of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Among these, the Venus Anadyomene, reclining on a seashell, stands out as a possible copy of a famous painting (now lost, like all Greek paintings) by the most famous Greek painter, Apelles.

There is also the one that gives its name to the House of Venus and Mars, in which the gods of Love and War appear alongside cupids playing with the weapons of Mars.

In mosaics, we can find numerous examples in all territories of the Roman Empire.

Venus de Milo


Venus in the Renaissance

Birth of Venus by Botticelli

After the hiatus of the Middle Ages, during the Renaissance, driven by philosophical currents like Neoplatonism, there was a revival of classical art and the representation of the nude, returning to the Greco-Roman iconography of “pagan” gods and heroes.

Mythological themes would sometimes serve as a pretext to represent the ideal of beauty of the time, while also serving as a support for certain ideas and symbols.

Among the works and artists of the Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli stands out, the author of one of the most famous paintings of this goddess: “The Birth of Venus.” In this painting, he takes his muse, Simonetta Vespucci, as the incarnation of the goddess who emerges from the sea on a scallop shell, covered only by her hair, pushed by the winds and welcomed by Flora, who covers her nudity with a flowery mantle.

In his work “The Primavera,” Botticelli paints Venus dressed, presiding over the entire composition from the center of the painting. Finally, we highlight the painting “Venus and Mars,” where she appears next to a sleeping Mars and small satyrs playing with the god’s weapons.

Another artist we can highlight, from the 16th century, is Titian, the author of the famous “Venus of Urbino,” a source of inspiration for later works, from Velázquez’s “Venus at Her Mirror,” Goya’s “The Maja” paintings, to Manet’s “Olympia,” and Cánova’s “Pauline Borghese.”

Venus, the goddess of Love and Beauty, representing both passionate, overwhelming love and celestial Beauty and Harmony, has been an inspiration for artists of all eras.

Here you will find some of our reproductions of Venus statues in our catalog.

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