Annotate a Mythological Painting

Choose a mythological painting to annotate. An important part of annotation is interpreting the image (what you write below the line) You’re free to choose any image you like (it doesn’t have to be a 16th century painting), but you’ll find this task easier if you choose and image that shows a story that you’re familiar with (perhaps one that you researched earlier) and/or a well-known image that has been widely written about. If you’re attracted to Titian’s work, for example, you could choose his Bacchus and Ariadne, which is in the National Gallery, or the Rape of Europa, which you’re already familiar with from your reading.

Botticelli – Venus and Mars

Annotation Botticelli

Botticelli – Venus and Mars, 1485 (69.2 x 173.4cm)

I have done my annotation on Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. I wanted to save Titian for the next analysis and since I haven’t mentioned Botticelli I thought this was a good opportunity.

It’s shape and the subject suggest that it is was intended as a backboard for a bench or chest of a Florentine town house (1). The image shows the Goddess of love, Venus watching her lover the god of war, Mars sleeps, completely abandoned. The “imps” are baby satyrs – half child and half goat and they are blowing a conch shell in Mars ear (1). Their presence may have been inspired by a description of an ancient Greek painting by the poet Lucian which depicted the wedding of Alexander and Roxane and shows cupids playing with Alexander’s weapons and armour (2). Satyrs were considered symbols of fertility (3) or uninhibited sexual activity (2). The wasps (vespe in Italian) may be an allusion to the Vespucci family that Botticelli worked for(1). However, there is no record that this painting was done for them so it may be that the wasps represent the “stings of love” (2) or symbolise conflict and war for Mars (4).

The story, although referring to Classical figures, has been given the contemporary treatment by Botticelli. The characters are dressed in contemporary fashion and he has not relied on classical proportions for the figures (1) – limbs, hands and feet are all elongated.

I noticed in the annotation that Botticelli has used fine brush strokes for the gown and skin and it is applied very thinly. These areas have been applied in tempera using fine hatching (1). Botticelli used the traditional Florentine convention of using clear precise outlining of the contours with a thin black line, even in the shadows. This effect can also be seen in The Birth of Venus completed in 1484 and in works by his former master Filippo Lippi (see below).

Detail Botticelli outlines copy

The comical message that “love exhausts men but invigorates women” would have been an appropriate message for a marriage celebration and it is probably for this reason the painting was commissioned (1). I love the comedy in this painting, it seems so unusual for works of this era. The message appeals to all everyone and from any time. The satyrs are particularly amusing especially the one blinded by Mars helmet.

What appeals most to me in this painting is the amazing expressions on the faces of Venus and Mars. Mars is utterly exhausted with his head thrown back, armour removed, the God of War is as weak as a kitten. Venus’ expression is a bit enigmatic and leaves a question over what she is actually thinking. Is she annoyed with Mars for sleeping when she is awake? The slight smile on her lips tells us she is not angry however. She appears more amused by the view of Mars quite so exhausted and vulnerable. She is aware of her power over him and seems quite pleased by it.

1. The National Gallery Companion Guide – Erika Langmuir

2. Masterpieces of The National Gallery – Erika Langmuir

3. –

4. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art – Hope B. Werness


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