April 23, 2014 by Ray Yanek
The Triumph of Venus, Venerated by Six Legendary Lovers: Achilles, Tristan, Lancelot, Samson, Paris, and Troilus. Usually attributed to (let me take a breath here…) The Master of the Taking of Taranto.
I have to say that I didn’t pick this obscure work because I see it as one of the more beautiful pieces I had to choose from. I chose it, at first, because I thought it would be nice to wake up the memory and give myself a little refresher (and you too, I hope) concerning the six classical figures at the bottom.
I’ll do that, but the more I look at this painting, the more questions that I have and there is very little research about this painting that was done on a 15th century birth tray. No, you didn’t lay the newly born baby on the tray. According to Hektoen International, a Journal of Medical Humanities, usually, when the mother was confined to bed before giving birth the tray was presented to the mother and the mother was supposed to reflect on the scene painted on the tray. Usually, the other side of the tray would have displayed either the familial coat of arms or a game for the mother to play. After the birth, sweetmeats and other foods were presented to the mother on the tray. Later, the tray would be given to the child and the art was to be used as an educational tool. Most of the work painted on the trays were Biblical in nature or expressed other virtues such as as bravery.
That’s what makes the Triumph of Venus plate so intriguing. Jacqueline Musacchio, an expert on Italian Renaissance art, believes that this plate “was intended not for the wife/mother, but rather for the husband/father” to remind them of the power of lust (qtd. in Clark). You should be able to see that each of the character’s line of sight focuses extends toward the Venus’s sex. David Lang Clark also notes that the pose and placement of Venus mimics the typical Ascension of the Virgin. If you look at the colors behind Venus, you can see a little bit of light red and the wings appear almost blue from a distance–two colors that are often associated with Mary in religious artwork.
I didn’t notice it at first but those are, in fact, wings behind Venus–and they’re not blue. They’re black. The angels on either side of Venus also have the feet of birds, which suggest a demonic nature to these beings.
Clark posits that this mixture of the virginal and the demonic “invites the viewer into a highly imaginative reconstruction of a male fantasy involving dream-like fluid shifts from virginal to carnal to demonic females.” If men, are not careful then, the allures of female sexuality and lustfullness can hold us prisoner and lead us into sin.
I’m kind of getting the feeling then, that the artist may not have be biggest fan of women. The character’s worshiping Venus were involved in passionate, romantic love affairs that ultimately lead to the downfall of the character, if not their entire society. All the woman in the stories were basically temptresses and used their sexuality as a way to deceive the male.
Let’s take a look at these stories:
At the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles is awarded the girl Briseis as a war prize. Because of a plague sweeping over the Greek army, Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army, has to return his own concubine Chryeis to appease Apollo. In return for giving up his woman, Agamemnon demands Briseis in return.
This incenses Achilles. He gives the girl to Agamemnon, but then vows not lift a finger to help the Greek army. From this point on, Achilles sits out the battle, and stays in his tents to rage and brood about the fact that Agamemnon must be sleeping with Briseis.
Later Achilles’s cousin (whom some also believe was his lover), Patroclus, goes against Achilles’s wish and goes into battle wearing Achilles’s armor in order to rally the Greek troops. Patroclus does inspire the Greeks, but he is then killed by Hector.
The death of Patroclus enrages Achilles, which in turns leads him to kill Hector. Achilles then keeps Hector’s body and defiles it by dragging it around the walls of Troy three times everyday, angering the gods who watch from above, thus showing not only Achilles passionate anger but also his lust for revenge.
Although Briseis isn’t really a temptress and doesn’t actually betray Achilles, Achilles’s jealousy causes the problems here.
In the legend of Tristan and Isolde the triumph of lust is more readily apparent. Tristan, a knight, is to retrieve Isolde from Ireland and bring her to King Mark. On their journey home however, the pair ingest a love potion and fall madly into passionate love. Isolde must still marry the King, but eventually the love she and Tristan feel lead them back to one another and the two begin an adulterous relationship. In order to keep their adultery a secret, the pair must also lie and deceive thus compounding their sin. In some accounts of this story, it’s Isolde who convinces Tristan to drink the potion.
Another adulterous relationship here. Lancelot’s passion and love for Guinevere–the wife of Arthur–leads to the downfall of the Arthurian realm.
Here we have the Biblical hero who made a vow to God never to cut his hair, yet he reveals the secret of his strength to the ‘temptress’ Deliah. In exchange for money, Deliah informs Samson’s enemies of the his secret and they sneak in while he is sleeping and shave his head. It was his love and sexual attraction to her that lead to finally reveal the secret of his hair, which lead to his downfall.
Like Samson, Paris gives also gives in to a temptress–in this case Aphrodite, the Greek equivalent of Venus–and chooses her as a recipient of the Golden Apple, the prize that was to be given to the fairest of the goddesses. Paris awards her the apple because she promises him the love of whatever woman he desires. Paris comes to desire Helen, the most beautiful woman in the Greek world, who is also the wife of the the Greek King Menalaus. Paris and Helen escape to Troy and thus the Trojan War begins and Troy is later destroyed.
Despite his youthful aversion to love, Troilus becomes enamored by the beautiful Cressida, the daughter of a Calchas, a Trojan traitor who goes to the Greek side. Troilus and Cressida begin a secret love affai,r but the affair is soon cut short. Calchas convinces Agamemnon to arrange a trade so that his daughter Cressida can come over to the Greek side. The trade goes through and Cressida and Troilus vow to remain faithful to one another until they can figure out a way to be together.
Cressida, however, falls in love with the Greek Diomedes, thus betraying her promise to Troilus. Troilus learns of the betrayal, seeks out Diomedes in battle and is slain.
So is the birth tray misogynistic? Based on the above stories, it seems hard not to say that it isn’t. Women aren’t portrayed in the greatest light in any of these stories.
But yet the question is, why put this scene with this message that men should avoid the snares of female sexuality on a birth tray, when the birth of a child could obviously result from these passionate and lustful affairs?
I’m still not certain. Clark claims that perhaps the painting is satirical of the long tradition of misogyny in the old stories.
One other thing to consider is that birth trays came into prominence during the 15th century when plague was ravaging Europe. The population was being decimated and the importance of procreation was dramatically increased. Perhaps this was again a religious reminder to stear clear of lust and focus on using sex for the Biblical purpose of reproduction. Could it be a reminder that society should focus on repopulating the country with children born in virtuous ways, rather than through sinful lust and fiery passion that would ultimately create sinful children?
I would love to know what you think so please don’t be afraid to leave a comment!