In a previous post I pointed out that Botticelli adapted the Four Cardinal Virtues sculpted on the early 14th century pulpit in Pisa Cathedral and featured them in his Birth of Venus painting.
I explained how the central figure of Venus in Botticelli’s painting represented Ecclesia (the Church) and also both the virtues of Justice and Prudence. The figure about to cover up the naked Venus, sometimes referred to as a goddess of the seasons, represents the two other Cardinal Virtues, Fortitude and Temperance.
My previous post also demonstrated how Botticelli adapted a drawing by Villard de Honnecourt for the woman’s composition. She is shaped to represent a buttress to support the tilting Venus, or Ecclesia in a state of nakedness representing the perceived failings and faults of the Church of the time.
One of Fortitude’s symbols is a lion, as seen in Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit sculpture. In Botticelli’s painting a lion’s head is formed by the shape of the red cloak, it’s mane being the long hair of the woman. The shape is also meant to mirror the head of the horse as in Villard’s drawing, except there is a small difference. The right fetlock of Villard’s horse appears to be growing out of the animal’s forehead or forelock.
This is matched by Botticelli with a similar feature grasped by the woman’s right hand. In this instance it represents a horn attached to the head of the horse and so becomes a unicorn. Both lion and unicorn are often featured as support symbols in heraldic coats of arms.
Another symbol associated with Fortitude is a yoke. This can be recognised as the red cloak’s collar or the mouth of the lion-cum-unicorn whose head is harnessed by the woman’s arms. The harness or bridle, a form of restraint, is also a symbol associated with Temperance.
Fish is another symbol attributed to Temperance; so are water and wine jugs. The lower half of the red cloak represents a fish, it’s tail held in the grip of the woman’s left hand. Protruding from the side of the head is the shape of another fish head formed by the headland.
The jug feature is shaped as a wine sack formed by the section of the red cloak below the woman’s right arm, it’s open spout held in her right hand. A jug handle shaped from the cloak’s collar.
The Pisa connection to the Birth of Venus painting extends beyond the Four Cardinal Virtues that form part of the Cathedral’s pulpit, and the short time Botticelli spent working in the city. More on this in a future post.
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