Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Plate with Venus and Adonis
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This silver plate, representing the goddess of love and her paramour, is worked in relief and etched to highlight details including patterned designs on clothing and Venus’s elaborate jewelry. Traces of gilt remain on the figures’ heads and clothing to suggest the original impression of richness. It is dated to the sixth century CE. Venus (right) presents a flower to Adonis (left). Her hair is pinned up, and she wears a form-fitting dress that splits down the middle at her upper thigh. She holds the left side of her dress up near her head, clasped in her left hand, while the right half covers her right leg to the ground. Her left leg and foot are completely exposed. To Venus’s left is a column, and its decoration echoes that of Venus’ dress and that of Adonis’ apparel. Adonis wears decorated shoes, fabric around his neck, and fabric hanging from his right wrist, but otherwise he is nude. He holds a spear in his left hand, and a dog sits between his feet. In the center a small child, likely Cupid, gestures to Adonis while looking back toward his mother. He is nude save for a piece of fabric around his neck. In the foreground stands a chalice, on either side of which is a bird. It is likely that both are doves, long associated with the goddess of love. The scene, evidenced by the free-standing column and the grassy ground, takes place outdoors.

    This piece is owned by the Cabinet des medailles at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, as is the Missorium of Geilamir, a larger silver plate found alongside the Adonis plate in Arten in northern Italy in 1875. The Missorium is one of four missoria collected by the Bibliotheque, all dating between the fourth and sixth centuries CE and discovered between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. They reflect the continuing importance of the Greco-Roman literary culture known as paideia for the late antique elite. None of these four larger plates are very well-known among researchers, and their obscurity explains the relative lack of scholarly material on these works of art. The Adonis plate, an even smaller piece, is likewise little known.

    The Adonis plate’s subject matter is doubly appropriate for the decoration of dinnerware, since it deals in the “twin spheres of mythology and hunting”: Those subjects says Leader-Newby, “were perennially popular in the dining rooms of the late Roman house, as surviving mosaic floors and textiles, as well as other silverware, attest.” Baratte notes the popularity of hero hunters in Late Antiquity and the effort the artist made to approximate Classical models. Leader-Newby argues that in an age when social and religious contexts were changing dramatically, continuity with the past was highly valued. Two of the missoria in the Cabinet’s collection, the Hercules and Achilles plates, for instance, are the most widely-depicted heroes of Greek mythology in Roman art. The Adonis plate, meanwhile, seems to derive its scene from Ovid’s account of Venus and Adonis’ affair in his Metamorphoses. In Book 10.503-739, Orpheus relates the story of Venus, who, accidentally scratched by one of Cupid’s arrows, falls in love with Adonis, the offspring of Myrrha, a girl cursed by Venus to fall in love with her own father. While Venus and Adonis lie together outdoors, Venus warns him against hunting dangerous animals. But, at the story’s conclusion, Adonis disobeys and is gored by a wild boar. The Adonis plate combines several elements from this account into a single scene of hunting and mythology, perfectly suited to a late Roman banquet, either for pure decoration or as dinnerware. Leader-Newby argues that similarly decorated missoria were intended as luxury display items in the home.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Adonis (Mythological Figure) Classical Influences Hunting Luxury Venus (Mythological Figure)
  • Geographic Area: ?
  • Century: 6
  • Date:
  • Related Work: Three of the silver missoria:
    Achilles Plate (traditionally known as the "Shield of Scipio";
    Plate with Hercules and the Nemean lion;
    Shield of Hannibal
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, inv.56.348
  • Original Location: ?
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Metalwork
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Silver; Gold; Plates
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //29 (diam.)
  • Inscription: On the reverse there is graffiti indicating the weight: 3.24 pounds, 1 2/3 ounces, and 1 scruple or about 1 kilogram.
  • Related Resources: Baratte, François. “Coupe: Aphrodite et Adonis,” In Byzance: L’art byzantin dans les collections publiques françaises. Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1992. Pages 106-107;
    Bravi, Alessandra. “The Art of Late Antiquity: A Contextual Approach.” In A Companion to Roman Art, ed. Barbara E. Borg. Wiley Blackwell, 2015. Pages 130-149;
    Leader-Newby, Ruth. “Heroes, Lions, and Vandals: Four Late Roman Missoria,” In The Berthouville Silver Treasure and Roman Luxury, ed. Kenneth Lapatin. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014. Pages 89-106;
    Leader-Newby, Ruth. Silver and Society in Late Antiquity: Functions and Meanings of Silver Plate in the Fourth to Seventh Centuries. Ashgate, 2004;
    Maguire, Henry. "The Good Life." In Interpreting Late Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. Pages 238-257;
    Plat, "Vénus et Adonis" (inv.56.348), website of the Médailles et Antiques de la Bibliothèque nationale de France.