Interpreting the Visual Evidence

The Blending of Classical and Christian

The paintings known today as The Birth of Venus (image A) and The Madonna of the Pomegranate (image B) were both executed by Boticelli in Florence between the years 1485–87. Separately and together, they exhibit the artist's signature devotion to blending classical and Christian motifs by using ideas associated with the pagan past to illuminate sacred stories. For example, Neoplatonic philosophers like Ficino taught that all pagan myths prefigure Christian truths—including the story that Aphrodite, goddess of love, was miraculously engendered from the foam of the sea by the god of Time. This also helps to explain the visual reference to a pomegranate in the painting of the Virgin holding the infant Jesus. In Greek mythology, the pomegranate was the fruit whose seeds were eaten by Persephone, daughter of the goddess of fertility, when she was sent to the Underworld to become the bride of Hades. Because she had eaten six of these seeds, Persephone was allowed to return to her mother Demeter for only part of the year; in the winter months, consequently, the Earth becomes less fertile, because Demeter is in mourning for her child.

Images

Questions for Analysis

1. Scholars have recently argued that The Birth of Venus is an allegory of Christian love that also prefigures the Blessed Virgin’s immaculate conception and sinless nature. How would you go about proving this? What elements in this painting and in the myth of Aphrodite’s birth lend themselves to that interpretation?
2. In what ways can the cyclical story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which Christians celebrate each year, be linked to the Greek myth invoked by The Madonna of the Pomegranate?
3. Like many artists, Botticelli used the same models for an array of different pictures. Do you recognize the resemblance between the Virgin and Venus? How does the depiction of the same young woman in these two different contexts underscore the relationship between pagan mythology and Christian sacred history?

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