Sunday, 7 April 2013

Venus and Mars

While browsing the Internet for exhibitions this morning, I chanced upon one of my favourite paintings: Sandro Botticelli's Venus and Mars (c. 1485). CLICK for a larger, expandable graphic on The National Gallery website. (The painting is in Room 58.) Botticelli depicts Venus, the Goddess of Love, as young, beautiful, buxom and alert, while Mars, the God of War, has crashed out in post-coital slumber. One of the things I love about this painting is its sense of humour, with mischievous "satyrs" playing with Mars' spear and helmet while he sleeps. One of them is blowing a conch-shell horn in Mars' ear. On the other side of Mars' head is a nest of wasps, which can become very agitated when their peace is disturbed. In calling the mythical creatures "satyrs", The National Gallery is losing a major part of Botticelli's symbolism. He would have known them as "panisci", associates of the woodland god Pan. The word "panic" derives from the terror inspired by Pan when he blew his conch-shell horn. It could overwhelm armies and even inspire fear in the gods themselves. Panisci or "little pans" could create minor panics by blowing their own conch horn. So, the little pests are trying to alarm not only the sleeping Mars, but also the nest of wasps near his head. This is not how any man or god wants to be woken from a post-coital snooze! Venus smirks at the practical joke being played on her lover.


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