Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Triumph of Venus, with six legendary lovers
  • Creator: Francesco di Michele, painter. Previously identified as the Master of Charles of Durazzo
  • Description:

    In Triumph of Venus, the eponymous goddess of love, beauty, and fertility floats above her six lovers in a garden. She hovers just above the center of the composition, looking out towards the viewer. She is nude, save for a golden crown and dark blue wings; a golden-orange mandorla surrounds her, and rays of light emit from her body. This imagery is highly reminiscent of depictions of Christ Triumphant and the assumption of the Virgin, in which a mandorla and golden rays similarly encircle the Virgin Mary. In Triumph of Venus, the longest, most prominent of these rays emit from her genitalia (emphasizing her fertility) and reach the heads of her lovers. From left to right, her lovers are Achilles, Tristan, Lancelot, Samson, Paris, and Troilus. These men come from different literary canons: Samson is biblical, Achilles, Paris, and Troilus are classical, and Tristan and Lancelot are medieval. However, they all wear medieval garb, with their names inscribed in gold on their tunics. The lovers kneel in a semicircle, worshipping Venus, in a verdant garden. Fruit trees, symbolizing fertility, stand directly below Venus and again at the edges of the scene. Angel-like orange cupids fly on either side of Venus. The one on the left holds a bow and arrows, while the other holds a single arrow. Panofsky argued that their distinctly taloned, bird-like feet were meant to symbolize the ferocity of love.

    Such forms of art as the birth tray or desco da parto were commonly given as gifts to pregnant women and new mothers. While the piece is very decorative, its primary purpose is utilitarian. The trays carried gifts of food and other items that would be kept beside the mother during her lying in period following childbirth. Generally, the artwork on these gifts was tied to mythology, marriage and young children. There was much for family and friends to celebrate following births. Thus, many of these trays present the mother in bed while well-wishers visit and nurses care for the baby. Birth trays were displayed in homes as treasured items and often bequeathed to adult children. Francesco di Michele created the Triumph of Venus in Florence where he painted both altarpieces and panels as well as birth trays. The painting on this tray is done with tempera and gold.

    The Triumph of Venus speaks to the historical and social meanings of marriage and family. Notably, the men’s worship of Venus contrasts with widespread medieval ideas about marriage and female sexuality. In reality, there were instances of love, lust, and romance, yet the traditional role of the woman in a relationship with a man was one of subservience. Religion and cultural norms dictated how the "ideal woman" should behave. Particularly for those of higher status, the bride's family typically provided a dowry to the husband, indicating both the need for her support should the husband become ill or die and the joining of the two families in a direct and material way. Female sexuality, in particular, was viewed as a biological means for reproduction. Women had specific roles as daughters, wives and mothers. In contrast, this image depicts men adoring Venus in a way that emphasizes her power and diminishes their agency.

    As the leading figure of this image, Venus, generally depicted as semi- or, as here, fully nude, persisted as a symbol of eroticism throughout the Middle Ages. At times, her nudity and sexuality were condemned as sinful by the clergy, and the goddess's ancient statues were destroyed. However, not all medieval Christians saw sexuality as sin or took issue with the image of Venus. Sexual acts and desires were often seen positively within the context of marriage. Venus was not only an erotic object herself but perceived as having an aphrodisiac effect on others. Her image was used to encourage desire and mutual sexual pleasure between married couples. Thus, nudity, sexuality, and Venus herself were not always condemned. This representation of Venus aligns with the beauty ideals of the time. She has flowing blonde hair, pale skin, and red lips. Female beauty was sometimes condemned for enticing men to sinful behavior. However, other authors praised physical beauty as a reflection of good moral character.

    While such an art form was commonly used in Italy beginning in the late 14th century, this desco da parto cleverly combines elements of the sacred and the secular to reach its audience effectively. Even though the central figure, Venus, is a non-Christian goddess, many Christianizing elements are used: the mandorla behind the figure, the rays emanating from her, and the angels flanking her. These symbols are often used to convey sacredness or divinity, so, interestingly, it is here used for a "pagan" goddess. Though the symbols are used to tie the figure to the Virgin Mary specifically, they are also slightly altered to reflect the nature of the goddess. The golden rays passing from the figure to the kneeling men below her shine out of her genitals precisely, thereby reflecting her reproductive qualities. The wings behind her are dark representing a perversion of the angelic association they provide. The figures to either side of the goddess take the form of cherubs while incorporating demonic aspects such as their red coloring and clawed feet. Therefore, two different assumptions can be made about the message of the tray--the first that it is meant as a warning against the freer sexuality the classical goddess represented, or the second that it stands as a triumph of sexuality within marriage. The tray's role in childbirth rituals suggests the latter: a child is considered the ultimate goal of married sexuality. The Triumph of Venus birth tray combines the goddess Venus's secular elements with popular Christian motifs to convey a message of sexuality that is both pleasurable and purposeful.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Birth Trays Classical Influences Eroticism Gothic Style Lancelot (Literary Figure) Love Paris (Literary Figure) Sexuality in Art Tristan (Literary Figure) Troilus (Literary Figure) Venus (Mythological Figure)
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 14- 15
  • Date: 1390- 1420
  • Related Work: Master of Charles of Durazzo (Francesco di Michele?), A Birth Scene, c. 1410, Harvard Art Museums, Tempera on panel, diameter 53.4 cm.
    Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi (Lo Scheggia), The Triumph of Fame, c. 1449, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tempera, silver and gold on panel, diameter 75.2 cm. Celebrates the birth of Lorenzo de Medici.
    The Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, c. 1470, Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Tempera and gold on panel, diameter 92.6 cm.
    Venus, 1st-4th century, Museum of London, Roman pipeclay figurine.
    Venus with her devotees, c. 1460, Christine de Pizan, Epître d’Othea, Cologne, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 49, fol. 20v.
    Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1483-1485, Florence: Uffizi Gallery, Tempera on panel, width 278.5 x height 172.5 cm.
  • Current Location: Paris, Musée du Louvre, RF 2089
  • Original Location: Florence, Italy
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Tempera; Gold; Oil on wood; Wooden tray.
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //51 (diameter)
  • Inscription: ACHIL, TRISTAN, LANCIELOT, SANSON, PA[RIS], TRIOLOL[US][Achilles, Tristan, Lancelot, Samson, Paris, Troilus]
  • Related Resources:

    Bayer, Andrea. Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. Metropolitan Museum of Art and Kimbell Art Museum, 2008. Pages 165-166.

    Cantelupe, Eugene B. “The Anonymous Triumph of Venus in the Louvre: An Early Italian Renaissance Example of Mythological Disguise.” Art Bulletin 44, 3 (1962): 238-242.

    Compton, Rebekah. Venus and the Arts of Love in Renaissance Florence. Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pages 31-37.

    D'Elia, Anthony F. “Marriage, Sexual Pleasure, and Learned Brides in the Wedding Orations of Fifteenth-Century Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly 55, 2 (2002): 379-433.

    Long, Jane C. “The Survival and Reception of the Classical Nude: Venus in the Middle Ages.” The Meanings of Nudity in Medieval Art. Edited by Sherry C.M. Lindquist. Ashgate, 2012. Pages 47-64.

    Musacchio, Jacqueline Marie. The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy Yale University Press, 1999.

    Newman, Barbara. Medieval Crossover: Reading the Secular against the Sacred. University of Notre Dame Press, 2013. Pages 8-10 and 170.

    Randolph, Adrian W. B. “Gendering the Period Eye: Deschi da Parto and Renaissance Visual Culture.” Art History 27, 4 (2004): 538 - 562.