‘Pallas and the Centaur’: A painting of strength and beauty
When it comes to the theme “soft triumphing over strong,” this is maybe one of the most remarkable examples.
Botticelli painted it for the Medici family. It was part of the inventory of their city palace in Florence, where it hung together in one room with the famous “La Primavera, Allegory of Spring.”
Some say both painting were commissioned together as a wedding gift for a young couple. Historians suspect the Lady is either the Goddess Pallas Athena or the virtuous Amazon Camilla invented by Virgil, but undoubtedly she is an idyllic symbol of female virtue. She is armed with a halberd which is used as a representation for being able to discern right from wrong. The centaur is a half human, half animal, he represents the passionate and uncontrolled side of human nature.
He quite possibly stepped into forbidden territory, as the fence in the background suggests. The centaur holds a bow and a quiver of arrows, seemingly ready for the hunt. But the heroine holds him back, much to his dislike.
The lady wears a laurel-wreath crown. Her arms, breasts, and chest are adorned with the green leaves that symbolize victory. The breasts are decorated with gold and diamonds.
The mysterious mix of sharp and hard forms like they are shown in the lance, the diamond rings and laurel leaves combined with the soft feminine face and body of the Amazon makes the whole picture so special. She is a very tender and soft person, an angel-like, adorable woman. Botticelli does his best to bring this out: She wears a white blouse dress, transparent and gentle and is further wrapped in a majestic dark green coat.
The fabric of the dress is so thin that it is more a delicate veil. You see this on her legs that shine through while the rest of the garment is floating in airy pleats behind her.
How the composition works
She is the dominating person that drives the composition dynamically from right to left. The poor centaur looks sullen and intimidated by her. He is forced onto the defensive, in a way that he stands so far away from the middle of the picture that his right arm is almost outside the picture. He also stands in front of the wall of stone structure, so there is no way out for him.
The rocks are not really rough in the painting, but show the Renaissance´s striving for harmony of composition, as they remind you more of architecture than a natural landscape. Botticelli puts the very subject of the painting in the first place and treats the rest of the picture as an artificial yet eloquent setting for his two characters.
The woman’s floating hair is golden and contrasts in form with the equally golden vertical shaft of the halberd. The rings on the dress are shining in gold as well. Cooling dark green is on the coat and in the leaves, as well as in the blade of her halberd. The diamonds are painted in blueish grey tones.
The clear colors of hers contrast with the reddish skin tone and browns of the centaur. There’s no doubt that he is a creature of earth, while she is surrounded by the blue sky that gives her a lofty background that makes her shine even more. The horizon behind the woman is so bright, it outlines her silhouette and draws the viewer onto her as the visually dominating subject of the painting.
The centaur with his horse-body should be a big and bulky object by itself, but Botticelli used a very dark brown tone to render him. The horse part of the centaur is embedded in the earth tones of the landscape. Where he is standing, he isn’t very visible. The white dress of the lady simply steals the show from him.
Botticelli’s appreciation of female beauty
The fascination of Botticelli is that he brought out like no one else female beauty and fragility. Yet there’s an irresistible strength in the elasticity and virtuosity of her contours.
He is absolutely clear on the body shape, and brings out all the details, but from a perspective of respect and protection rather than voyeurism. He wants to show how charming and precious women are. That it is the man’s duty to protect and shelter them. This idea is very strong expressed in “La Primavera.”
The diamond rings on the dress of the Amazon are a symbol of the Medici family. You can read the painting in the political context of Renaissance Florence: Then you can state that the lady represents the Medici family, which claims to promote high moral values in triumphing over the uncivilized side of human nature. The halberd she holds would also outline this claim for dominance and leadership.
Interesting to note is that the setting of the painting is an open landscape with rocks, fields, fences, a river and a ship, while the partner painting “La Primavera” features a classical “Hortus Conclusus” situation. So if you put both paintings together as they were meant to be, you see this message: “La Primavera” stands for the garden of love and expresses the wish for a happy marriage life, while the “Pallas and the Centaur” gives a woman this advice: When you’re out in the wild (or dealing with the tough men of Renaissance society), be aware of who you are and act as the untouchable, self-restrained beauty.
Additional information: The painting is currently displayed together with 40 original Botticelli’s and 40 related works of his era in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main in Germany as part of the great Botticelli Exhibit. For more information, visit www.staedelmuseum.de