What Made Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus a Revolutionary Painting

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Botticelli’s 92 Sur­viv­ing Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy (1481)

Ter­ry Gilliam Explains His Nev­er-End­ing Fas­ci­na­tion with Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”

Michelangelo’s David: The Fas­ci­nat­ing Sto­ry Behind the Renais­sance Mar­ble Cre­ation

What Makes Leonardo’s Mona Lisa a Great Paint­ing?: An Expla­na­tion in 15 Min­utes

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

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.

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