Venus was her name
Burning like a silver flame
The summit of beauty and love
And Venus was her name
Yeah, baby, she’s got it …
For centuries artists have been enamoured by the mythological goddess Venus.
Sandro Botticelli’s Venus is considered to be a Renaissance masterpiece and is currently held by The Uffizi Gallery in Florence (image detail above). However, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1485) wasn’t always famous. But after largely being ignored for centuries, Botticelli and his magnificent paintings were ‘rediscovered’ in the 19th century.
In 2020, American artist Jeff Koons produced a massive and somewhat matronly Venus in mirrored steel. Koons Venus now lives at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Unsurprisingly, Jeff Koons Venus has nothing in common with Botticelli’s celestial Venus.
It’s basically a mirror-polished, stainless steel, 2.5 metre sculpture copied from an eighteenth. century figurine. The original porcelain piece would probably have been the type of small figurine purchased to decorate a family parlour.
Venus in her many forms has attracted more than her fair share of trouble and conflict. In 1914, a seventeenth century painting by Diego Velazquez, Venus at her Mirror, was viciously attacked in The National Gallery (London). The painting of a reclining nude Venus was slashed over five times with a meat cleaver.
The burning question is – Why?
It turns out that Velazquez’s painting – also known as The Rokeby Venus or Toilet of Venus – was vandalized by Mary Richardson. She was a suffragette protesting against the arrest of British activist Emmeline Pankhurst.
Pankhurst lead the suffragettes in their fight for women’s right to vote. She was mocked, physically brutalized by the police and later jailed for three years, before being released.
Richardson made several statements explaining why she’d taken a meat cleaver to Venus.
‘I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.’
Later Richardson admitted that it wasn’t just the painting’s value (£45,000 in 1906) that made it her target. She resented ‘the way men visitors gaped at it all day long’.
Known to the press as ‘Slasher Mary’ – Mary Richardson later became a devoted follower of the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. Mosley’s ugly anti-Semitism was inspired by Adolf Hitler. The Fuhrer was a guest of honour at Mosley’s Berlin wedding, held at Joseph Goebbels home.
Back to Venus. Although she’s the goddess of love and beauty, Venus’s mythological beginnings were not celestial – for she was created from conflict. There are many subtle variations on the Venus myth. But generally in Greco-Roman mythology, Venus/Aphrodite is known as a motherless goddess.
Venus/Aphrodite was created after Uranus – Father Heaven and first King of the gods – fought with his wife Gaia, the primordial Earth Mother. Uranus was filled with spite for the many children she bore him and Gaia sought revenge.
Using a large flint sickle created by his mother, Cronus ( leader of the Titans) castrated Uranus and flung his father’s testicles into the sea. The sea churned and foamed, and from the white foam rose Aphrodite/Venus, the goddess of love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity, and victory.
In some retellings of the Venus myth the naked beauty was guided safely to shore on a giant scallop shell. Botticelli captured her arrival onshore in Birth of Venus.
The wind god, Zephyr, gently blows Venus to shore. He’s assisted by a young woman with impressive wings. She and Zephyr also create the breeze which ruffles the luxurious cloak being offered by the goddess of Spring. Clearly it is provided to cover and protect Venus. She’s calm and poised, her long red hair partially shielding her nudity from our gaze.
Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ – ignored for centuries – is now acknowledged to be one of the most loved and famous paintings in the world.
Image above: detail from Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1485).
If you’d like to view a photo of Jeff Koon’s Venus – click here to see Reflection: Venus in Steel.