The Birth of Venus, we often hear, depicts the ideal woman. Yet half a millennium after Sandro Botticelli painted it, how many of us whose tastes run to the female form really see it that way? “I’ve always been struck by how Venus is strangely asexual, and her nudity is clinical,” says gallerist James Payne, creator of the Youtube channel Great Art Explained. “Maybe that’s because she represents sex as a necessary function: sex for procreation, the ultimate goal in a dynastic marriage.” This, safe to say, isn’t the sort of thing that gets most of us going in the 21st century. But this famous painting does something more important than to show us a naked woman: it reveals, as Payne puts it in a new video essay, “a dramatic shift in western art.”
If you accept the definition of the Renaissance that has it start in the 15th century, The Birth of Venus‘ completion in the 1480s makes it quite an early Renaissance artwork indeed. In that period, “a renewed interest in ancient Greco-Roman culture led to an intellectual and artistic rebirth, a rise in humanist philosophy, and radical changes in ideas about religion, politics, and science.”
In art, Botticelli bridged “the gap between medieval Gothic art and the emerging humanism.” In the Middle Ages, Christianity’s dominance had been total, but “the Renaissance gave artists like Botticelli freedom to explore new subject matter, albeit within a Christian framework.” At the time, “the idea that art could be for pleasure, and not just to serve God, was new and radical.”
Botticelli’s “inclusion of a near-life-sized female nude was unprecedented in Western art,” and underscored her origin in not Christian scripture but Greek myth. With her “statue-like pose” and alabaster skin, Venus “is unreal, an idealized figure not bound by actual laws,” but her shy self-covering “makes voyeurs of us all.” Botticelli, in his religiousness, could have been “depicting Venus as an emblem of sacred or divine love,” but his genius lay in his ability “to take a pagan story, a nude female, and make them acceptable to contemporary Christian thinking.” Chaste and untouchable though the goddess may look in his rendering, knowledge of the painting’s daring, almost subversive conception makes it more exciting to behold. A bit of context, as Payne well knows, always gives art a charge.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.