When opposites attract

This is another drawing sourced from the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt and the inspiration for Botticelli’s famous leaning figure of Venus in his painting titled the Birth of Venus.

Ecclesia from The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Fr 19093

The drawing represents Ecclesia, meaning “Church”, that is the Catholic Church of Botticelli’s time. Venus stands in a contrapposto pose, a sculptural scheme in which the standing human figure is poised so that the weight rests on one leg and the other is bent at the knee. Contrapposto is an Italian word meaning “opposite”. 

Villard’s Ecclesia is opposite in many ways to Botticelli’s version. She is fully dressed, and crowned. Her upper body leans to the left and from the waist down she is upright. Venus stands naked. Her stance is opposite; upright above the waist while her legs lean to the right. For sure, both representations appear to be off balance.

Venus’s attempt to cover herself is akin to the shame felt by Eve and her need for protection after succumbing to the serpent’s temptation and losing her innocence in the Garden of Eden – in biblical terms described as The Fall. So to make the connection with Ecclesia, Venus now represents the New Eve, Mary, Mother of the Church. From this it could be said that Botticelli was making a point about the failings within the Catholic Church at the time, echoing the words of spoken to Francis of Assisi in the church of San Damiano by Christ on his cross: “Francis, rebuild my Church which is danger of falling down.” 

Protection and support for the leaning Venus comes in the shape of one of the Horae or Hours, goddesses of the seasons in Greek Mythology. She approaches the shoreline (flying?) with a mantle of protection.Hher stance, with legs and feet apart, forms a buttress ready to prop up the tilting Venus.

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

The buttress symbol is mirrored opposite by the two winged and conjoined figures and is also a feature prevalent in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. The winged figures can be considered as referring to a flying buttress, a building feature of support once banned by authorities in Florence during Botticelli’s time. The “flying buttress” is another drawing (right) that appears in The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt.

The are some subtle features of Villard’s Ecclesia that offer evidence or even confirmation his drawing was a source of inspiration for Botticelli’s Venus. Compare these ‘opposites’: the blowing, trailing banner with the windswept hair of Venus (flying buttresses!); the badly drawn facial features of Ecclesia with those of Venus modelled on Simonetta Vespucci who was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Florence during Botticelli’s time. Simonetta was a young woman the artist was said to be most enamoured with and who he portrayed in several of his paintings.

Venus is also modelled on the Greco-Roman style of sculpture referred to as Venus Pudica (chaste or modest). I shall explain in a future post the reason why Botticelli also makes this connection and the source he borrowed from.