Botticelli's Birth of Venus - the new art history

Sunday, 5 March 2017

"The Coronation of Venus/Aphrodite" (Venus/Aphrodite crowned by Peitho) - The true meaning of the Birth of Venus.

The Birth of Venus (annotation by p. doughton 2015) 

"Venus/Aphrodite being crowned by Peitho"
 [updated 23-4-2017]

Botticelli's essential focus in the Birth of Venus is furtively presented through the clever use of an inconspicuous fold of cloth which is actually intended to (politely) represent the pudendal cleft located at the base of the mons pubis intended as a reference to the vulva. In Botticelli's pagan inauguration of Venus (and thereby all vulvae) the goddess Peitho confers an all beguiling potential to the vulva and exalts female primary sexual differentiation as the crowning glory of feminine beauty and generative power. The unifying religious ambitions of the influential Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino may be detected in the three leaves emerging from the fold of cloth (a reference to the Christian Trinity) the painting thereby possessing the signature of Ficino's religious syncretism. As a wedding commission the painting's courtly conversation revolves around sex and love and actually portrays the precise moment where Peitho (persuasion) confers the power of persuasion (hypnotic artistry) directly to the the vulva/yoni of the young Venus.

In Botticelli's well recognised painting the young goddess Venus receives the metaphoric form of her primary sexual differentiation which is presented as 'the crowning glory of the feminine' from the goddess Peitho (persuasion). The painting is generally understood to have been a wedding painting made for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463-1503) second cousin to Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492) also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent and  destined to be hung above the younger Lorenzo's marital bed.

The Birth of Venus can be correlated with a brief observation made by Pausanias (c.110 –180 AD) in his 2nd century travelogue Descriptions of Greece where many marvels of Ancient Greece are described from direct observation. The central event of the Birth of Venus can be sourced to this small section of text from the travelogue:

[Amongst the images decorating the throne of Zeus in the temple at Olympia :]
     "...Eros (Love) receiving Aphrodite as she rises from the sea, and Aphrodite is being crowned by Persuasion (Peitho)..."  Pausanias Description of Greece 5.11.8  (1.)

It is highly likely that both the narrative and the conceptual development which drives the image would have been revealed to the wedded couple to enjoy. Botticelli's visualised idea of love and desire seems eternally present because while cosmological myth appears in chronological sequence mythic time is more or less equitable with cosmologic and geologic time frames. The original myth of the Birth of Venus (sea-born from the severed testicles of Uranus) harbours a panspermic origin yet as presented by Botticelli the gravity of the cosmogonic is subordinated to a cultural conversation advancing the idea of the vulva as the dynastic source of social power. As such the Birth of Venus appears philosophical and yet is courtly and perfectly in accord with the time and place of its origin in the Renaissance. 

To those who understood the paintings meaning it must have been seen as beautifully indiscreet - perhaps even wickedly so - because this stylised presentation is suggestive of all of the qualities of the vulva/vagina in art and religion; all connotations sacred and profane, and all of the complexities of femininity which must involve every aspect of the feminine beginning with the child and concluding with the conceptualisation of the Grand Matrona

The paintings argument is fundamentally sexual and should also connote reverence, intimacy, creativity, fecundity as well as pleasure and presents the vulva as the divine crucible in which the bond of love is forged. Because the sight of primary female anatomy appears to be so visually persuasive the sight of the vulva confirms attraction, manifests desire and sets physical love aflame. For these reasons it is the goddess Peitho (persuasion) who crowns the goddess using the anatomical form of her primary sexual differentiation. Conceived in the attitude of unity this pairing of vision with persuasion is also found in John Donne's erotic poem (c.1669) Elegy XIX To his mistress going to bed:

[Women] Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see revealed. Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife, show 

As a wedding commission the painting portrays the source of the intensity and hypnotic ability of the goddess of love precisely at the moment where Peitho confers the power of persuasion directly to the the vulva/yoni of the young Venus; Peitho exalts the vulva as no less than the sum of female beauty and so this inauguration of Venus initiates the sanctification of the vulva and therefore all vulvae.   

Botticelli's essential focus within the structure of the Birth of Venus is furtively presented by clever use of an inconspicuous fold of cloth which is actually intended to politely represent the pudendal cleft

Fig. 1. Birth of Venus (Detail)

When scrutinising the image it may be clearly seen that during the development of the Birth of Venus the paintings Grand Motif  -  the mons pubis metaphor - has altered and that original small fold of cloth held to Venus by her attendant has become fuller, rounded, and more symmetrical. 

Fig. 2.  Birth of Venus (Detail)

Fig. 3. Hysterical Sexual. Anish Kapoor. Fibreglass and gold - 2016

Botticelli has pursued his folded metaphoric vulva with greater confidence. That formerly simple fold has now become symmetrical, fuller and decidedly emblematic (compare Botticelli's symbolic form (fig. 2.) with Anish Kapoor's distinctive 2016 Hysterical Sexual (fig.3)

This alteration has placed a grander and more proportionate symbol in the hand of Peitho and with this alteration Botticelli has incorporated Marsilio Ficino's religious sycretism and that enthusiastic reconciliation of pagan and Christian philosophies now appears. Botticelli's original idea has become emboldened and has advanced the paintings narrative beyond the idea of merely narrating the text of Pausanias. Clearly there has been a change of direction and where the form of  the cloth has been rearranged there are three points of a leaf (fig 2.) that can be seen to emerge from within the depth of the fold. The appearance of these leveas from the fold of cloth is actually something a magician might do with a coin and a piece of silk and certainly intends to announce something rather magical. It very much seems that Ficino's influence is being exercised (directly or indirectly) and that the three points materialising from the fold actually represent the Christian trinity.  [It is imperative to this argument that a detailed full screen view of this fold be viewed here where a clear view of the alterations made by Botticelli can be clearly defined.] 

While it is possible that these alterations to the grand motif might have come from a number of Lorenzo's tutors (or perhaps even reflectively by Botticelli himself) that passionate 'spiritual guide' that the historian Ernst Gombrich locates in Ficino is still the likely candidate. One senses that Ficino's syncretizing influence has had a persuasive effect on the course of this painting just as the presence of Ficino himself might influence the court and Lorenzo.

Those alterations to the Birth of Venus indicate a dramatic change of mind occurring during the painting's development and with this slight adjustment the coronation which was creatively narrating Pausanias by Botticelli now heralds the goddesses emergence into the world and inversely the emergence of the world from the creative (sexual) nature of the goddess; now the presence of these three points very strongly infer that this is a Christian world emerging from a pagan past - and there you have Ficino!


Fig 4. The Coronation of Venus Anadyomene. Annotated detail with nimbus.

That fold is not simply a possible motif - it has become emphatically emblematic - and the cloth which is embroidered with flowers and leaves emphasises the earthly element so to say this magic has been bestowed the physical vulvae of all women as if to say to the Venusian gender 'as you are intoxicating as you are beautiful as you are powerful'. At no time should it be lost that this painting of 'desire exalted' was designed by men and the act of Peitho crowning Venus stresses the shift from a woman being a merely beautiful object to the goddess becoming obviously an exalted object of great sexual desire. This should be contextualised and considered in the same respectful manner in which the yoni is traditionally revered in Hinduism.

By placing a nimbus around the grand motif (fig 4.) the idea of sanctification becomes clearer and that Peitho is actually crowning Venus will become more readily conceivable. This crowning is the design event and the visual foundation around which the entire painting pivots structurally . The robe presented to Venus by Peitho is not the starry robe as most incorrect attributions often attest (it is clearly 'earthly'). The embroidered design of flowers set upon sumptuous fabric must also indicate the youth of the goddess - consider here Flora's dress in Botticelli's Primavera (c.1482). 


In Rudens ("The Rope") by the Roman playwright Plautus, a character remarks te ex concha natam esse autumant, cave tu harum conchas spernas (Act III, Scene iv, 704): since Venus is said to have been born from a shell, so the goddess should not neglect the "shells" of the two young women who have sought protection at her altar. James Eason: Da Costa and the Venus dione: The Obscenity of Shell Description. 

Fig 5. Mouth or opening of a conch shell.

In the Birth of Venus Botticelli has clearly re-invented that fold as a metaphoric reference to the vulva which may also invoke the mouth or opening of the conch shell. Symbolically the vulva is seen as the earthly counterpart of a divine feminine force whose physical form is to be found in phenomenological correspondences such as certain sea shells.  

Fig 6. Orpheus. (Formerly attributed to Giorgione)Venetian,  c.1515.

Turning to the Widener Orpheus Pan employs the conch to instruct the seated Venus of the sacredness of her form and educate her to the grand correspondences found in nature. The Romans saw this correspondence in the mouth of the conch (figs 5-6.) however the Greeks made supreme the almost perfect form of the cockle/scallop shell which in no way bears any resemblance  to the form of the vulva and this is because the Greeks saw the similitude of the vulva in the flesh of the creature residing inside the cockle shell. These distinctions are actually the fundamental distinctions between the two cultures at core and if we were to press further one might find that the Greeks held no shame in the open graphic understanding the explicit anatomy of the vagina whereas the Romans seemed to have reservations of going beyond the threshold of the mons pubis. The hand that was placed over the pudenda became the hand of shame where for the Greeks this was modesty or embarrassment but there was not the assumed cultural imprint of shame.


The Alterations to the Fold.

In fig. 5 the first joint of the forefinger can be discerned through the overpainting, and the shadow of the gap between forefinger and middle finger can also be detected. Peitho's thumb has been clearly shortened to accommodate the idea of 'grip' and 'pressure' to the added cloth nearest the web of the thumb.

Fig 7. Birth of Venus (detail with annotations).

Referring to fig 7, the straight line markers radiating from positions a & mark the three areas of overpainting which have been added to the original design. Rather than an asymmetric piece of cloth which this section portrayed originally, a large area to the right side has been added - as has a smaller area to the lower left of the fold, giving the form more symmetry and which is far less likely to be misinterpreted as a simple, random fold. Botticelli's addition to the original form expounds upon the importance of the pudenda/shell motif. One can conclude that the annotations made to the cloth were an afterthought because clearly that fold has been developed to present a grander, symmetrical shape; it has become larger, rounded, and more full in appearance, and what this alteration to this small piece of cloth now achieves, is an effect of emblematic significance. 

[A detailed full screen view of this fold can again be viewed here .] 

It appears to my eye that there may have been a petaled flower form - perhaps one of Botticelli's roses - originally emerging from the folded cloth and that faint petals may still be residual (faintly) but which was reinvented in favour of the tri-leaved greenery over the pink of a rose. 

Fig 8. Flora's hand clasping roses. Primavera (detail)

It appears that Botticelli may have been intending to make an association with the roses clasped under the hand of Flora (fig 8.) in the Primavera (c. 1482) for is . If there were originally one of Botticelli's stylised roses (overpainted) from where the tri-leaved plant now emerges the argument for Ficino's influence increases and that plant emerging from the fold also revisits another idea used in the Primavera where plants emerge from the mouth of Chloris. It is common to find elements from an artist's oeuvre to reappear in later works. If so, the grand act - that of Peitho crowning Venus - would remain intact but the painting would have portrayed a beautifully simple visualisation of a pagan narrative but which has now been altered by the emergence of those three leaves which represent the Christian trinity. 

Two contemporary examples of comparably emblematic vulva motifs occur in the recent work of Anish Kapoor. These glossy and distinctly glabrous vulva forms find resonance with Botticelli's vulva abstraction and comparably each Kapoor clearly references the mons pubis, vulva and the pudendal cleft - (a feature which rarely occurs in European classical art). 

Just as there are metaphoric correspondence between Botticelli's fold and Kapoor's Hysterical Sexual the mouth of the conch shell reveals this metaphoric correspondence in nature. And if one might be uncertain of correctly identifying the abstract form of a vulva Kapoor's titled work  Gold Pussy reinforces the forms intention as a grand motif (fig 9.).

Fig 9. Gold Pussy. Anish Kapoor. Stainless steel and gold, 2015

Fig 10 Three comparable forms reminiscent of the Vesica Piscis (Vesica Pisces).

Botticelli's fold intends to replicate the form of the pudendum femininum. In a sacred form the vulva is often geometrically designed by the interlocked circles which form the Vesica Piscis (see fig. 10) and this notion could also be considered present in  Gold Pussy by Anish Kapoor (fig 9). 

Fig. 11. The approximate proportions of a vesica piscus.

It quite possible that the Vesica Piscis is present in Botticelli's painting in terms of the paintings proportion because according to the calculations of Mr Gary Meisner the Birth of Venus also meets the mathematical requirements of an artwork steeped in the proportions of the Golden Mean. Meisner observes:   

"If the thickness of the canvas were o.5 centimeters, the dimensions of the frame wrapped underneath the four sides of the canvas would have been 171.5 x 277.5, the ratio of which is … 1.618, the golden ratio.  Whether exact or not, the dimensions are so close that one might rather easily conclude from this that Botticelli’s intent here was to begin this great work of art with the perfection of a Golden Ratio"

This being so a secondary 
proposition involving the geometry of the Vesica Piscis might also be suggested. However as there is no clear proof of the intention (beyond the measurable existence of pi itself). Acceptance of the Vesica Piscis as an integral part of the paintings plan is not critical to the elucidation of the paintings meaning but the possibility that it may exist must at least be considered as this concept can be geometrically aligned (see fig. 11) with Botticelli's design. 


Gustave Courbet's The Origin of the World (c. 1886) exhibits the vulva as a benign anatomical fact in the paintings immediate foreground and the bottom, thighs, stomach, breasts & nipples appear in foreshortened concentration. It could be suggested of this rendering that one may not isolate the vulva from any element of female anatomy.

Gustave Courbet's 'L'Origine du monde 1866 (The Origin of the World).
This is presented rather confrontationally and further pronounced by Courbet's realistic rendering however the anonymity of the subject impersonalises the intent and so makes a generalisation of the vulva's form. Through the title of Courbet's painting's (and of course visually) one might also read that Botticelli and Courbet are somewhat united philosophically. Courbet's realism thrusts the vulva to the foreground without adherence to any particular form of religiosity whereas Botticelli's fold forms an undeniable reference to an event in pagan mythology (and then Botticelli further incorporates a fusion of the Christian Trinity into this solemn theme). Still, the three aspects of the Trinity itself references the foundations of the expression of the three dimensional world and therefore the vulva is presented in both paintings as the unchallenged entrance of the spirit into matter. 
As to the isolating of the vulva it should be realised that the very beauty of Botticelli's Aphrodite/Venus must stress the notion that 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' and the same must be said of Courbet where the vulva is portrayed with thighs, breasts and stomach even though it is clear that the centre foreground occupies the conversation.


Botticelli's Venus is actually invisible, as the goddess is in the process of being crowned by the physical archetypal form offered her by Peitho (persuasion) and what is more persuasive and appropriate to be sited above the marital bed (the paintings intended site) than an image dedicated to goddess of love and of lovers. Venus/Aphrodite is shown in Botticelli's painting as a divine emanation in the process of her mythical manifestation which is actually narrated as her coronation. 

Fig 10. Birth of Venus (detail) with annotation by the author.
That small fold next to the beautiful face of Venus has been obfuscated and overwhelmed by variations on the same interpretation for five hundred years. The immediacy of the Birth of Venus always intended to parallel the sum of her beauty in unabashed physical totality and the vulva is the gateway to paradise both temporally and spiritually and Botticelli indicates the crowning glory of the goddess.

Even without the annotation, the metaphor is as emblematic as before because we now know the intention.

Fig 11. Birth of Venus with annotation by the author.

By altering the fold in the hand of Peitho the painting is no longer a homage to the Greek myth but embraces the pudenda metaphor with an emblematic power. The earthly form of Venus is associated with and so defined by the vulva which is the physical form of her primary sexual differentiation and in Botticelli's painting the mysteries pertaining to the vulva as the matrix of creation crowns her glory. This is to say that creation and all apparent regeneration of the phenomenological world emerge through the generative force of the feminine and this also alludes on a cosmic scale to the origin of the world (this will be addressed in the next post). 

The painting is specifically feminine and intimately linked with water, salinity, and of course that anatomical key to to a fulfilled experience of human love and the potential doorway to divine/cosmic love (conceptual love) - the vulva/yoni. This is a conversation of sexual attraction, generative power and human anatomy and these conversations pursue the crowning beauty of the feminine whose harmonious form belies the entrance to this dimension through that irresistible and most genial human act. As is historically recognised the most fitting site for such a wedding gift was above the marriage bed of the newlyweds.

1. Pausanias "Description of Greece" 5. 11. 8 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue c. 2nd A.D.)

2. Meisner, G. "Botticelli, The Birth of Venus and the Golden Ratio in Art Composition."

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