My students and I have been working through the Italian Renaissance over the last couple of weeks. Like most people when asked what they think of when they think of the Renaissance, my students initially thought of the great artists. They thought of the Renaissance as this period of time when geniuses walked the earth and made marvelous paintings and sculptures and buildings. And that’s certainly true. That certainly happened. But the more important point, the point I have been insisting that my students understand, is that the Renaissance was not a revolutionary movement primarily (though, of course, there was some of that). The Renaissance is inherently conservative. At its best, it was a desire to delve deep into the minds and art of the Classical masters and to recreate their glory once again in the world.
One element of the Renaissance that I have been hitting over and over again with my students is the renewed attention that the art and literature and study of culture paid to human experience. The Humanities–the focus on human cultural achievement and the human experience–was born in the Renaissance. This had troubling implications down the line, of course, but it also served as a much needed breath of fresh air in an intellectual and cultural and artistic world that had largely lost the human in its account of the world. The best example of this in intellectual history is the war between Erasmus and the various Scholastics. But, it happened in art as well. In class this past Friday, I walked my students through some of the major artists of the early Renaissance as well as some of the major artists from the high Renaissance. We got to examine the way the re-focusing on human experience, through the reclamation of classical mythology and the reinterpretation of biblical themes, appeared in Renaissance art.
As I prepared to teach on Friday, I had to do a crash course on Renaissance art. I really know almost nothing about art or artists. Intellectual history has always been more my wheel-house. But, in doing some research, I got the opportunity to sit with some art pieces and to meditate on them. My favorite pieces from the Renaissance invariably involved the re-birth of classical mythology. The reason for this was not so much because I am steeped in mythology (I’m really not) but because the Renaissance artists were able to, like Petrarch and Dante and Chaucer and many others did for literature, synthesize the ancient/classical witness with their changing Medieval world. In particular, I was drawn to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (actually, I really liked Botticelli’s work in general; The Madonna of the Book was also a favorite of mine). Birth of Venus (which you can see at the top of this post) is a painting that draws from Homer’s account of Aphrodite’s birth (Venus is the Latin name for Aphrodite). In Hesiod, after Uranus is castrated, his genitals thrown into the ocean. It is from this that Venus (goddess of love and sexuality) is born. Homer, on the other hand, has Venus born of Zeus and Dione. He has it like this:
Of august gold-wreathed and beautiful
Aphrodite I shall sing to whose domain
belong the battlements of all sea-loved
Cyprus where, blown by the moist breath
of Zephyros, she was carried over the
waves of the resounding sea on soft foam.
The gold-filleted Horae happily welcomed
her and clothed her with heavenly raiment
The painting shows Venus, beautiful and innocent and clothed only with her hair, emerging from the sea in majesty to be dressed in her divine raiment. The model for Venus, Simonetta Vespucci, was considered the most beautiful woman of her day. In my reading, this painting showcases the best that the Renaissance had to offer in a few ways: First, Venus is portrayed as the ideal female body. She is naked but not overtly sexual (I think our culture has largely lost the ability to tell the difference). There is objective beauty in the ideal femininity that she portrays. This painting, among other things, is a conscious glorification of the human body (like Michelangelo’s David), the body that is “fearfully and wonderfully made” Second, this painting was an attempt by Botticelli to rival and emulate the glory of ancient Rome. Apelles, and ancient Grecian, had painted the birth of Venus, but his painting, which was displayed by the Roman emperors, was eventually damaged beyond repair. Botticelli, like other Florentines, viewed Florence as the rightful heir to ancient Rome and viewed this painting as the restoration of Apelles’s original. Third, this painting’s use of the classical pantheon (the gods) is obviously an attempt to tap into the tremendous resources available when the gods are both a reflection and a projection of humanity. Venus’s beauty is not other-worldly. It is very much this worldly. Her beauty, and the beauty of the ocean and power of her majesty, is the best that natural humanity has to offer; it is our highest ideal.
There is, of course, a supernatural beauty that moves beyond Venus and the majesty of the human-like gods. This beauty is found primarily in the Incarnation, that Christ would become like us. But (and this is a very Lewis and Chestertonian thing to say), we would not have been able to understand the Incarnation if it hadn’t been for the gods, those human beings projected onto the divine. We would never have understood Beauty or Truth that moves beyond humanity if we had not been permitted, in our infancy, to imagine beauty beyond us. Paul in Galatians insists on the kairos of Jesus’s coming, that he came in the fullness of time when the world had been prepared.
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is a reminder of the tremendous power and goodness and beauty naturally available to fallen humanity; his painting served to affirm our innate goodness as bearers of the imago dei. And, as we reach out beyond ourselves, we are met on the other side by he who has come to meet us on our terms.