Of Seashells and Love

On Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus'
November 21, 2019 Updated: November 22, 2019

The Gothic era, an epoch so marvelous, magical, and perplexing that to this day it has never been fully fathomed, triggered the rebirth of yet another magnificent period. That rebirth, of course, was the Renaissance, which discovered the great cultures of our forebears, Greek and Roman alike, and polished them off with Christ’s maxims. And so, the first literary giants of Christianity stepped onto the stage and Humanism was born.

Amazing heroines such as Petrarch’s Laura and Dante’s Beatrice captivated the hearts of educated Italy and those beyond. As a result, the veneration of the weaker sex received yet another elevation of their status. The first was the highly romantic if not quasi-divine spheres the female reached by way of the troubadours. But now dukes, popes, counts, and condottieri, all with an infallible sense for beauty and elegance, had their spouses, daughters, and mistresses educated, usually by the best scholars money could buy.

Where previously the wealthy proudly exhibited their ladies’ outer splendor, they now touted with equal delight that these ladies could read Aristophanes in the original and, perhaps over a glass of sublime Montepulciano, embark on a spirited critique of his doubts and certainties.

Small wonder, therefore, that Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of Florence in those times, decided one day to bestow immortality on an exceptionally lovely maiden. He entrusted the task to a preferred protégé, the artist Sandro Botticelli, and to imbue it with a measure of subdued passion and complex intellectual depth, as was the habit in those days, he most likely invited a close friend to get some ideas.

Now my guess is, and more it can’t be, that this friend with whom he had a little chat was the venerated humanist and poet Leon Battista Alberti. It came to pass that they forged an emotionally staggering and philosophically overwhelming allegory as an underpinning for the world’s most beautiful work of art.

Leon Battista, by the way, was the first Christian lyricist to write an elegy on the death of his beloved dog, a mongrel, which is, at least in my book, one of the finest credentials a true humanist can advance if asked to declare himself.

In any case, the “Birth of Venus” was born.

‘The Birth of Venus’

The goddess of love stands in a large seashell that rests close to the shore. She is immensely beautiful, with shimmering blond hair and light-green eyes. Though naked, she radiates an impression of virginity and purity. She covers her loins with a strand of her long hair.

To the left hovers a winged couple, firmly embracing each other and loosely clad in a sky-blue cloth. They fly in a cloud of wild roses and both are blowing air, in this way producing a breeze that pushes the goddess ashore. There waits a young woman, ready to receive her. She holds a finely woven cloak, clearly intending to wrap the goddess into it.

Apart from its breathtaking beauty, what makes the painting so unique is its symbolism. Scholars often accept the secondary figures in the painting as minor Greek deities. But remembering that the painting was only discovered in 1815 without any historical documentation as to its name or its meaning, and more importantly acknowledging that the Italian Renaissance forged new philosophies, combining ideas from antiquity and the Middle Ages, I, on the contrary, see it as reasonable that the winged young couple, together on the left, represents the Lord God and Creator of the World.

Never before has the Creator been represented in European art as a deeply intertwined man and woman, sparsely veiled on top of that. The lady on the right I see as representing mankind, anxious to receive the goddess, then to cover her and thus to honor and protect her.

Why do I make this assertion? Because, indeed, Love is the greatest and most wondrous gift ever bestowed upon humanity by its Creator.

Often misunderstood only as a sensually induced emotion, Love is much more: Namely, it is a rational attitude to life, as an all-embracing sentiment, as an eternal philosophy, and as a divine principle. Love for the good and beautiful; Love for truth and justice; Love for the sad, the poor, and the downtrodden. Love for a tree, a butterfly, a sunset, a bird, a dog; Love for children; Love between a man and a woman. Love for the divine creation in general; and Love as mankind’s ultimate and highest achievement, key to a single fulfilled life and hope for a better future.

In other words, the painting is not only a grandiose example of Greek mythology but, in fact, one of the most beautiful arguments for the validity of the​​ Christian faith ever conceived.

So there she stands, the most supreme of all goddesses, and I cannot imagine a greater compliment for our womenfolk than she.

Manfred von Pentz previously worked in advertising, graphic design, and real estate development. Now a writer and painter, he is the author of novels such as “The Crimson Goddess.” His artwork can be found at ManfredVonPentz.net

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