Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Venus and Her Children
  • Creator: Master of the Housebook, artist
  • Description:

    This image represents Venus and her "children," humans representative of Venus’s astrological attributes. Venus rides a richly decorated horse across the sky with her back to the viewer. She is flanked by scales and a bull, symbols for the astrological signs ruled by Venus, Libra and Taurus. Represented as a young woman, Venus wears sumptuous clothing and bears a flag. Below, her children frolic. They are roughly arranged according to social status, denoted by their clothing, with wealthy people at the front of the scene. The image depicts the revelry and debauchery of Venus’s children, rich and poor alike. Musical instruments proliferate in the image, and couples promenade and dance, with food and drink nearby. A couple runs into the bushes, and, behind a gate, a nude couple enters a tub near the foreground of the image. The image is accompanied by a poem characterizing the children as joyful, lustful, and beautiful. The poem also describes Venus’ astrological attributes in a simplified, easily comprehensible manner, distilling the complicated details of astrological theory for a non-specialist audience.

    "Venus and her Children" are found in the astrological section of the Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg Castle. Composed in the 1480s for a knight’s household, the manuscript includes recipes, medical remedies, and diverse sections on warfare, jousting, and the art of memory alongside the astrological material presented in the section on the planets. Despite its varied subjects, the manuscript was likely compiled as a complete and comprehensive work, systematically ordered and logically organized. Throughout the manuscript, the images demonstrate consistent stylistic and thematic choices, leading some contemporary scholars to conclude the images were completed by only one artist. There is consensus that two different scribes wrote the manuscript. One, a professional scribe, is responsible for each of the astrological entries and the art of memory section, while a nonprofessional scribe’s hand can be observed throughout the rest of the Housebook.

    Although the Housebook represents the astrological Venus and her attributes, another Venus existed in the cultural imagination of the Middle Ages: Venus, the pagan deity. Venus was meaningful through the Middle Ages as a symbol of women, beauty, love, and sexuality. This ancient, pagan image of Venus persisted in Europe through the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, but its meaning was changed and reinterpreted. While older scholarship claims that the pagan Venus was discovered by Europeans in the Renaissance, contemporary analysis concludes that Venus endured. Christian authorities viewed depictions of Venus as a dangerous harbinger of idolatry and an image that could inspire lust in its viewers. The Church thus appropriated Venus as a symbol of sexual immorality and sin. Venus also served as a popular symbol to discuss erotic themes and convey sexuality and desire in a secular context, both with positive and negative messages about sexuality. The image of Venus persisted as well, in examples like the Venus pudica pose, meant to emphasize the subject’s nudity, but also as a general visual representation of ideal female beauty and sexuality. The astrological Venus also connoted sexuality and desire, a connection that the image and the poem both express.

    The poem appears on the facing page opposite the illustration:
    "Venus der funfft planet fein,
    Heyß ich vnd pin der mynne schein.
    Feucht vnd kalt pin ich mit crafft,
    Naturlich, dick mit meisterschafft.
    Zwey hewser seint mir vnttertan
    Der stir, die wage, dor inne ich han
    Frolich leben vnd lustes vil,
    So mars mit mir nit krigen wil.
    In dem visch erhohe ich mich,
    In der magt falle ich sicherlich.
    In einem iare vnd in einem tage
    Lauff ich durch die zeichen iagen.

    Was kinder vntter mir geporen werden,
    Die sint frolich hie auff erden.
    Ein zeit arm, die annder zeit reich,
    In mittelkeit ist in nymant gleich.
    Harpffen, lauten, singen, alle seytenspil,
    Horen sie gern vnd kunnen sein vil;
    Orgeln, pfeiffen vnd pusaunen,
    Tanntzen, helsen, kussen vnd rawmen.
    Ir leip ist schon, ein hubschen munt,
    Augprawen gefug, ir antlutz runt,
    Unkeusch vnd der mynne pflegenn
    Sein venus kint allwegen." (Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch, Vol. 2, p. 21)

    ("I am Venus, fifth planet above
    the world, and am the light of love.
    I'm moist and cold and in my hour
    men feel my great and awesome power.
    Two houses are mine, in which I fare:
    the Bull and Scales. And when I'm there
    I live in joy and jollity,
    and Mars can never frighten me.
    In the cold wet Fishes I'm glad to rise:
    in the Virgin's sign my power dies.
    In just one year and then one day
    through all the signs I gently play.

    Lightly loving, full of mirth,
    my children are happy here on earth.
    Merry when rich and merry poor,
    none can compare, you may be sure.
    Pipe and tabor, harps and lutes,
    they play organs, horns and flutes.
    With singing, and with dancing too,
    embrace their lovers, kiss and woo.
    They rejoice to hear fair music's sound.
    Their mouths are darling, faces round.
    Beautiful bodies, parched by lust's heat,
    my children find love's duties sweet.")
    (Venus and Mars: The World of the Medieval Housebook, p. 36)

    An example of overt sexuality is the nude couple in the Venus scene, which presents nudity from a Northern European perspective. Female nudes were widespread in the fifteenth century, when the Housebook was compiled. They could be used to different ends, especially for erotic purposes, in both public and private contexts. The social situation of Northern Europe, where women were both visible, and sometimes, visibly nude, in public, facilitated the production and acceptance of images of female nudity. In Northern Europe, women worked beyond their homes and could be seen in the marketplace and in public more broadly. Public female nudity in the North, likewise, naturalized nudity in Northern European culture. Public nudity took many forms: nude women could be observed at baths, or in festivals and ceremonies like royal entrances that used women and their nude bodies to create displays mimicking classical art. This visibility of women, both clothed and nude, contributed to a visual culture in Northern Europe more willing to accept nude women compared to cultural norms around the Mediterranean, particularly in Italy, where Renaissance depictions of nude women would later become ubiquitous.

    Private collections of nude images, in manuscripts like the Housebook, were common in the North. Some images communicated moralizing messages on sexuality and lust, while others used the nude to depict love through allegorized figures. Other private collections were kept for erotic purposes. Manuscript illumination, for example, could feature nude women in erotic scenes. A notable example of private nude pictures comes from Charles VIII, King of France, who collected images of nude women as documentation of sexual encounters while on a military campaign in Italy. Nudes could also be used, both publicly and privately, to communicate the dangers of women and female sexuality. From the fifteenth century, when the Housebook was produced, nude images proliferated, appearing in manuscripts on topics as diverse as religious texts, romances, and scientific and philosophical writings.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Astrology Classical Influences Master of the Housebook, Artist Nude in Art Venus (Mythological Figure)
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1480s
  • Related Work: Master of the Housebook, Saturn and his children, Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg Castle, fol. 11r. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
    Master of the Housebook, Jupiter and his children, Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg Castlefol. 12r. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
    Master of the Housebook, Mars and his children, Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg Castle, fol. 13r. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
    Master of the Housebook, Sol and his children, Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg Castle, fol. 14r. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
    Master of the Housebook, Mercury and his children, Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg Castle, fol. 16r. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
    Master of the Housebook, Luna and her children, Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg Castle, fol. 17r. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
    Master of the Housebook, Garden of Love, Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg Castle, fol. 24v and 25r. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
    Young man marrying a nude statue of Venus, Vincent de Beauvais, Miroir historial, traduit en français par Jean du Vignay, 1400-1455, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Français 311, fol. 20v. (Source: Manuscript Art)
    Vulcan discovers his wife, Venus, making love with Mars, c. 1380, French, Roman de la Rose, British Library, Egerton Ms 881, fol. 126r. (Source: British Library blog). Madonna del Soccorso, 1485, oil on canvas, altarpiece. Church S. Agostino, Gubbio.
  • Current Location: Sold by the Waldburg-Wolfegg family to an unnamed collector in 2008
  • Original Location: Middle Rhine region around Mainz
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Ink
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 29/19.5/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Blazekovic, Zdravko. "Variations on the Theme of the Planets' Children, or Medieval Musical Life According to the Housebook's Astrological Imagery." Art and Music in the Early Modern Period: Essays in Honor of Franca Trinchieri Camiz. Edited by Katherine A. McIver. Ashgate, 2003. Pages 241-286. Available on Academia.edu.

    Blume, Dieter. "Children of the Planets: The Popularization of Astrology in the 15th Century>" Micrologus: Natura, scienze e società medievali / Nature, Sciences and Medieval Societies 12 (2004): 549-563.

    Filedt Kok, J. The Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet, or, The Housebook Master, ca. 1470-1500. Rijksmuseum/Rijksprentenkabinet in association with Princeton University Press, 1985.

    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, 2011. Pages 47-64. Available on Academia.edu.

    Master of the Housebook and Christoph Graf zu Waldburg Wolfegg. Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch = The Medieval Housebook. Prestel, 1997. Two volumes, facsimile and essays.

    Nuttall, Paula. "Reconsidering the Nude: Northern Tradition and Venetian Innovation." The Meanings of Nudity in Medieval Art. Edited by Sherry C. M. Lindquist. Ashgate, 2011. Pages 299-318. Available on Academia.edu.

    Shamos, Geoffrey. "Astrology as a Social Framework: The 'Children of Planets', 14001600." Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 7, 4 (2013): 434-460.

    Waldburg Wolfegg, Christoph, Graf zu. Venus and Mars: The World of the Medieval Housebook. Prestel, 1998.