Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Venus and Mars
  • Creator: Botticelli, Sandro, painter
  • Description:

    After their lovemaking, Mars has literally let down his guard; he sleeps soundly while small satyrs play with his armor and lance. Venus remains awake and contemplates his sleeping figure. The wasps (vespe in Italian) that swarm around Mars’ head might be a pun on the name of the powerful Vespucci family, or symbolize the pain that often accompanies love, or possibly represent both. Art critics have seen a variety of allusions in the figures of the lovers. Venus is dressed in the contemporary fashions of Florence and may represent Simonetta Vespucci, a famous beauty whose romance with Giuliano de’ Medici was well known. The portrayal of Mars is also individualized, and his features bear a resemblance to Botticelli’s portrait of Giuliano, now at the National Gallery. Other interpretations see the lovers as Alexander the Great and Roxana or Mary Magdalene and Christ at the Deposition.

    The young satyrs at play in the background of the painting are also open to interpretation. Satyrs are not generally associated with Venus, and some scholars see them as part of a dark atmosphere in which they are devils attacking Adam and Eve in an evocation of the Fall of humankind. The art historian Ernst Gombrich has demonstrated that the painter intended to convey an astrological meaning. The artist employed a Classical device in the tripartite composition of the scene both horizontally and vertically. Botticelli and his Neoplatonic patrons wanted to convey a multiplicity of meanings and values within the painting. One interpretation of the figures does not need to displace others. The Florentine lovers may harken back to Alexander the Great’s splendor and at the same time evoke the temptation in the Garden of Eden. This work was likely part of the bedroom décor for a wealthy couple, serving as a spalliera (a wall panel), a cassone (a painted wedding chest), or a headboard for a bed. In this situation, Venus’ beauty and fertility, along with the couple’s intimacy, may have taken precedence in the viewers’ minds.
  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Mars (Mythological Figure) Satyrs (Mythological Figures) Sexuality Spalliere, Painted Panels Venus (Mythological Figure)
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca. 1475-1486
  • Related Work:
  • Current Location: London, National Gallery, NG915
  • Original Location:
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Poplar wood; Tempera
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 69/173/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Bellingham, David. “Deconstructing Aphrodite: Botticelli’s Venus and Mars in the National Gallery, London.” Brill’s Companion to Aphrodite. Edited by Amy C. Smith and Sadie Pickup. Brill, 2010. Pp. 347-374;
    Gombrich, E. H. “Botticelli’s Mythologies: A Study in the Neoplatonic Symbolism of his Circle,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 8 (1945): 7–60;
    Welliver, Warman. “The Meaning and Purpose of Botticelli’s Court of Venus and Mars and Venus,” Art Quarterly 33 (1970): 347-355;