Interpreting a Masterpiece: Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’

June 13, 2018 Updated: June 25, 2018

What relationship does a modern spectator have with a painting created over 500 years ago? It’s sometimes difficult to see meaning in art seemingly outdated in style and subject matter. But if a viewer can look at Sandro Botticelli’s “Primavera” (“Spring”), for example, as it relates to certain questions that still affect us, it can regain relevance. For example, asking “How do I feel about the ideas presented in the painting, such as love, beauty, chastity, marriage, humanism, and ethics?” can lead, possibly, to self-discovery.

Botticelli created “Primavera”in the early 1480s as a gift for the Medici family. He often painted for the Medicis, who were interested in the ideas and imagery of classical Greek texts, so this painting contains symbolism and imagery from many ancient authors, with the most influential being Ovid.

It helps to read the painting from right to left and to know the characters presented. It begins with Zephyrus, the West Wind, and the nymph Chloris, whose union causes Chloris to pull flowers from her mouth and transform into Flora, the goddess of spring and flowers. Flora scatters flowers in front of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, who serves as the protector of marriage. Cupid, the son of Venus and Mercury, floats above his mother, blindfolded, with his arrow pointing toward the Three Graces.

The Three Graces often accompany Venus. Respectively, they represent the purity of the virtues chastity, beauty, and love and are often seen in the context of marriage. Mercury, the messenger of the gods, has his back turned to the happenings to the right as if he is leaving the event to report what he has seen to the gods beyond.

The painting has been interpreted in many ways, with the most widely accepted interpretation being one of its encouraging love and procreation in marriage. All of the characters and their interactions suggest a celebration of marriage and procreation—except for the interaction between Zephyrus and Chloris, which is often seen as a forced union. Yet, this depiction is somewhat appropriate since the marriage this painting supposedly celebrates was a political one. It is not a union of love, emotion, or passion but one in which its participants are forced into a union to increase power for their families.

Zephyrus and Chloris, however, eventually have a loving union, which brings about the beauties of spring. This serves to remind the bride that her new journey, though filled with the unknown, will move toward the joys of love and harmony as represented by the center and left side of the painting.

An interesting fact that broadens the interpretation of the painting for some is that “Primavera” was accompanied by another painting, which hung next to it in the bride’s bedchamber: “Minerva and the Centaur.” The scholar Frank Zöllner believes that the second painting, in contrast to “Primavera,” presents a powerful woman subduing and taming a sensuous centaur, reminding the new bride that her role is not necessarily a submissive one. She is not merely the subject of politics in this engagement, but a partner in her and her husband’s mutual development.

“Primavera” can also be interpreted in the context of one of the most famous philosophers of the Italian Renaissance, Marsilio Ficino. According to historian E.H. Gombrich, Ficino held great influence over the Medicis and may have been the motivation for “Primavera.”

Ficino suggests that the contemplation of beauty serves as a path to the divine. According to Gombrich, Ficino takes the philosophy of Plato, in combination with others, and suggests that the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece represent the ethical principles found in Platonism, rather than the indulgent characteristics the painting is usually associated with.

Therefore, in “Primavera,” Venus is not the goddess of sensual love, nor a representation of a pagan spring, but instead represents an ethical humanism through which the young Medicis could be educated.  

For me, the creation of Flora is symbolic of the harmony that results in creation. This harmony is a characteristic of love. Here, Flora, the visual beauty of nature, is the product of love and gives birth to the beauty that is spring. Materially, this represents the actual experience of beautiful things; abstractly, it represents the shift, or spring, from the material to the divine caused by the platonic contemplation of the beautiful.

It is at this point that the goddess Venus appears with the Three Graces, but these depictions present more than mere representations of Roman gods and goddesses. They represent a love for humanity, a cultivation of the beautiful, and the restraint of indulgent desires. Mercury turns his back on earthly understandings and points through the clouds to suggest a communion with the divine.

To me, this painting attempts to depict the process by which humans become closer to the gods. Each stage is a new beginning, a spring toward the beautiful virtue that deserves to be loved as divine.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).