Botticelli's Primavera

After racking my brains for the past few weeks over some spiritual issues, as well as other things, I think I have finally come to some equilibrium on the spiritual matters. I don’t really want to get into the particulars of religion here, except to say that I do not enjoy the polemics that come about from different groups arguing over what is right, what is wrong, who is right, who is wrong. Too much of that is poison for me. The group I belong to, Catholic, has much of this within the Church. When I was younger I found the more liberal elements of the Church annoying; as I grow older I find the more traditionalist elements annoying. The holier than thou, my way or the high way group may be often right theologically, but they so often present themselves with such a lack of charity and with such spiritual hubris that they often serve as more a hindrance for non-Christians than the more theologically whishy washy liberal crowd. And this is even not to mention all the divisions between all the other Christian denominations, or between all the religions of the world. As for someone who merely believes and needs to believe in God and some system to go along with those beliefs, the cacophony of theological vituperation can be deafening. I try to avoid it as much as I can, and focus rather on simple faith. I like to focus on the things I love: faith, and spirituality and beauty; beauty and art and culture; beauty and love. I am not here to evangelize for any one faith; I consider myself a Christian and that should be enough information for anyone to surmise anything else. Rather, I am here to write about God, spirituality, and the poetical mysticism of beauty and eros, art and love.

So one of my favorite topics is beauty, especially erotic beauty. Recently on my Sex as Something Sacred post I uploaded an image of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is one of my favorite painters of all time. I find him particularly fascinating because, as a great force in the Italian Renaissance, he lived in a world drenched in religious and secular tensions. The Middle Ages were quickly coming to an end, and a new world was being born, influenced by the rediscovery of Greek and Roman art, literature and philosophy, as well as new continents overseas, among other things. All these things were cultural earthquakes that forever changed the face of Western society. Botticelli’s paintings reveal a man who loved beauty, but who was also deeply spiritual as well, and I can relate to that. It is clear from his life he never quite resolved these things, and that they were major themes for his paintings. He never married. Like many artists of his time and other times, his art was his life and love. He said the prospect of marriage gave him nightmares. Most of the great artists throughout history gave their lives to their art, usually at the expense of their wives and children, if they had any. This is often the price of greatness.

One of his most famous paintings is the Primavera, ca., 1482. There are different views and interpretations of this painting and who exactly the figures depicted are, but it is most often cited as an allegory about spring and the renewal of life. I won’t get into the details here, except to say the figure in the middle is Venus, the Roman goddess of love. As a ancient fertility goddess, her role in the rebirth that Spring harbingers is obvious. Given her overall cosmic powers of regeneration, she is the central and presiding figure in the painting. The female figure to the right in the floral robe may be either Flora or Primavera, two Roman personifications of Spring, but there are questions on exactly who each of these figures are. On the left side of the painting the three figures dancing are the three Graces, goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, creativity and fertility.

What strikes me most is how lush and sensuous the painting is. It is dark and inviting, yet warm and mysterious. There are as many as 500 different plant species represented. The graces, often depicted as nude in ancient and later art, are dressed in diaphanous robes, their feminine forms quite visible. The face of Primavera herself is most likely drawn from a woman that seems to appear in many of his other paintings, the noble woman Simonetta Vespucci, for whom Botticelli suffered an unrequited love. If you view his paintings, she definitely seems to have been his type. Without a doubt, if these paintings are true to her form, she was quite hot for her day. Clearly, from this and other paintings, he loved beautiful women. The painting is also often cited as an example of the Neoplatonic ideas of love popular in Botticelli’s day. He was probably a bit of a romantic himself. Overall the painting seems to celebrate the powers of  sensual, sexual and spiritual love and rebirth. Beauty is a force that permeates nature.

Botticelli clearly loved beauty and sensuality and was deeply spiritual, since these qualities run through his paintings. This was not without controversy though in his time, and it is later said that Botticelli burned some of his paintings in the religious backlash against the Neo-Pagansim of Renaissance. The Domincan friar and anti-Renaissance crusader Savonarola had a great influence on him in his later life, a man who later himself was burned at the stake by the people of Florence in the backlash against the backlash. So I suppose Botticelli, like myself and others, struggled between sensuality and spirituality, the erotic and the religious, and was caught up in the controversies of this time. Perhaps like me he was obsessed with sex and religion.

What is fascinating for me here, other than the obvious beauty of the painting, is how much a man like Botticelli could be in love with beauty, or even love itself. Yet he was still a believing  Catholic, as many of his later religious paintings show. It is this mixture of corporal and spiritual beauty that makes Botticelli’s works, like so many of the Renaissance, intriguing for me. I can relate to this, even though I live in a world where this mixture of spirituality and sensuality, faith and beauty, is often lacking. Usually faith is presented as something more abstract and seemingly hostile to physical or sensual beauty, or sensual beauty is devoid of and hostile to all faith. I am sure many in Botticelli’s day found his depictions of half naked women pornographic; they would never have dreamed that over 500 years later these depictions would literally be considered priceless gems of great art.

I will be writing more on Botticelli, since I have recently become interested in his works. I think he is a good example of many of my own struggles, questions, and desires when it comes to this balance of spirituality and sexuality. His paintings reveal a sensitivity to feminine beauty that is both spiritual and sensual, erotic and religious. I can understand that.

I can never get enough of feminine beauty.

But just to end things on a more modern note, I would like to add a more contemporary image of something beautiful, one of my favorite images: a woman in nothing but her bra and panties. I can’t help it.