NEW YORK, NY -- In the Greco-Roman world one of the most revered of the Olympian gods was Aphrodite -- Venus, to the Romans -- the goddess of love. To the Greeks especially, the emotion that she represented was not in any sense abstract -- love of country or family or humanity. Rather, she ruled, personified and commanded the powerful forces of erotic passion.
The myth of Venus’s tragic love for the young hunter Adonis, who was killed by a wild boar, resonated deeply with ancient writers, from the Greek lyric poet Sappho, who was born in Asia Minor in the late 7th century BCE, to the Roman mythographer Ovid, who lived 600 years later at the dawn of the Christian Era. According to one version of the story, Venus had dreamt that Adonis would be killed and implored him not to go hunting that next day. The young man insisted, went fearlessly on his way, and met his death. All the powers of divinity, of love itself, could not save him, nor could they relieve the goddess’s sorrow; for even the gods suffer, as do mortals, the almost unbearable pain of grief.
Despite the considerable literary attention to Venus and Adonis in the ancient world, we rarely see these lovers depicted in Greek or Roman art. It was not until the mid-16th century CE, when the Venetian master Titian created an archetypal image of their story, that the subject became a popular subject for painting. Titian’s composition, which he and his workshop produced in a number of versions, created such a sensation that within a few years it was being imitated by artists all over Europe. One surviving example is a small version painted on copper in Central Europe later in the late 16th or perhaps early 17th century. Here Venus, as in Titian’s painting, is shown nude, seated with her back to the viewer, her body facing to the left. As Adonis is about to take his leave, she turns around toward him and reaches up to touch his shoulder, begging him to stay with her. He, with the insouciance of youth, stops only long enough to reassure her before he rushes off. It is all here: the goddess’s terrible foreknowledge, the youth’s recklessness, the hopelessness of Venus’s attempt to save him.
In the Roman world, however, Venus was not only the goddess of love; she was also the mother of the Trojan prince Aeneas, ancestor of the Roman people, and thus the mother of all Romans. In the Aeneid, the Latin poet Virgil’s epic poem that recounts the hero’s flight from Troy and his destiny as the founder of Rome, Venus plays an important role as his helper and guide. In Book VIII, just before the battle that will establish his homeland in Italy, Venus presents him with new armor forged at her request by her husband, the smith god Vulcan.
One lyrical evocation of this scene is a charming drawing en grisaille by a French artist of the 18th century, possibly, as inscribed, by Charles-Nicolas Cochin. Here we see the goddess, accompanied by a retinue of nymphs and minor love-gods, stepping out of her swan-drawn chariot to embrace her son. She gestures toward the newly made arms: helmet, and corselet on the ground, and hanging from a tree above them, a second helmet, sword, and shield. Seated among them is their maker, Vulcan himself, accompanied by his own retinue of Cyclopian workmen. At the left the artist has interjected a humorous incident: a small winged love-spirit has been teasing one of the swans that draw the goddess’s chariot. And so the bird, thoroughly exasperated, turns to give him an aggrieved bite on the arm.
These two images of Venus, one embodying deeply-felt passion and tragic loss, the other motherly love, generosity and humor, say a great deal about the cultures that produced them. 16th-century Europe, with its attitudes of high seriousness and its tendency to moralize, was a perfect intellectual setting for tragedy; while the good-natured urbanity of 18th-century Paris found a gracious expression in a mother’s loving generosity.